Signal To Noise - Harold Budd "Avalon Sutra"


Harold Budd ~ And Then He Stepped Aside

Published by Signal To Noise magazine

How Dark The Response To Our Slipping Away

The press release for Harold Budd’s latest cd, Avalon Sutra, states that it is to be his last recorded work. Asked for his reasons, Budd says only that “he feels that he has said what he has to say.” However, Richard Henderson’s review in the Wire of Budd’s recent concert at California Institute Of The Arts affirms that although he has ceased performing, he will continue to compose. Harold Budd proves reluctant to resolve the contradiction. When asked by email whether he intends to continue to be musically active, he fails to answer. Upon further prompting he playfully declares that “yes (but not tomorrow)”. If, as it appears, he has decided to cease performing his own music, the 68 year old Californian will be lapsing into a personal silence that his music has frequently implied in a musical career spanning more than four decades. Those years have seen periods of jazz drumming, rigorous Minimalism and, latterly, the development of a signature style that at its best is lambent, meditative and haiku-like.

You And Me Against The Sky

Many of those previously unfamiliar with Harold Budd may have encountered his resonant, rich and strange piano music through one of a host of collaborations and working associations. The past two and a half decades have seen partnerships with The Cocteau Twins’ Robin Guthrie, XTC’s Andy Partridge and Hector Zazou amongst many others. Although Budd’s solo work far outnumbers these recordings, he may still be best known for the two recordings he made with Brian Eno, 1980’s The Plateaux Of Mirror and 1984’s The Pearl in which Eno trailed and teased lustrous penumbra around Budd’s impressionistic compositions. The Plateaux Of Mirror was the second release on Eno’s short-lived Ambient series and probably as a result of this association, Budd is frequently referred to as an ambient pianist. When asked whether he’s happy with the designation, he doesn’t mince words: “I think it's a preposterous and juvenile term.” Such frustration, although unusual in light of the relaxed character revealed in interviews, can be attributed both to an unwillingness to be so lazily categorised and for the term’s pejorative undertones. Although his music is most likely to be found in the Ambient, Electronic or New Age sections of record stores, it is more accurately located at the nexus of a number of musical paths that includes minimalism, improvisation, sonic portraiture and an exploration of the studio as creative tool. Whatever the setting however, Budd’s oeuvre is remarkable for its consistent willingness to engage both with beauty and with the shadows that edge it.

Their Memories

Born in Los Angeles, Harold Budd began playing jazz drums in his teens and dreamed of playing with John Coltrane. At 21, while working for Douglas Aircraft, he enrolled in architectural drawing and basic harmony classes. In the latter, despite ignorance of musical theory before that point, he discovered a natural aptitude which his teachers advised him not to ignore. This gift, although requiring a significant amount of concentration because of its abstraction, would later become the architecture of Budd’s music. Without it, he has said, “the building would fall down”. Allied to a natural enthusiasm that developed into a love of Renaissance music, he saw this as an escape route from the mundanity of office life and took his teachers’ advice. Although his ambition to play with Coltrane wasn’t to materialise, he did by chance play with Albert Ayler while drafted in the army. By this time, however, Budd was pursuing a different trajectory initiated by a love of abstract expressionist painting and the music of John Cage and Morton Feldman. This resulted in a period of minimalist composition that lasted for much of the ‘60s. The only extant work from this period is gathered on The Oak Of The Golden Dreams (New World Records). Alongside pieces by the late Richard Maxfield, the disc features two Budd compositions Coeur D'Orr and the title piece, from 1969 and 1970 respectively. Against a synthetic drone, Budd traces a series of squiggles using the Buchla Electronic Music System that are cumulatively somewhat reminiscent of Terry Riley’s music of the time. Of greater interest is Coeur D’Orr which features long drawn out notes played on the saxophone which weave and mingle against a single, ululating organ chord. These pieces, representative of the tail end of Budd’s minimalism, provide fascinating insights into a substantially different music than that by which he would later come to be known. He ascribes his ultimate dissatisfaction with Minimalism to a realisation that he was painting himself into a corner: the conceptual score for his 1970 composition ‘The Candy Apple Revision’ consisted only of the instruction “D-flat major”. Before he reached this compositional ground zero, he had also begun to grow frustrated at the inability of performers to play what he wanted. With characteristic humility, he ascribes this to his own lack of notational skill, but the experience also prompted him to learn to play the piano, in order to better control his music. Budd has noted that he lacks the skill necessary to be a great player, calling himself “a keyboard player by default”, but he also quotes Ralph Waldo Emerson to great effect: “If you can’t be free, be as free as you can”. His limited technique has undoubtedly prompted much experimentation in other areas, most notably in terms of settings and a willingness to collaborate with others.

First Light

In 1972, after an 18 month silence Budd produced ‘Madrigals Of The Rose Angel’, a key work that acted as a healing balm for those pained by the asceticism of a stringently reductive Minimalism. Of this time he has said “I wanted to revive an attitude to art which had disappeared and been compromised by not really terribly interesting artists who were making hay from the revolutionary ideas of John Cage and Morton Feldman... including myself... [it was] important to me to break that bond and I found another world that had been mislaid.” “I liken it to an architect who is so swept up in the glass boxes of Mies Van Der Rohe that he forgets how beautiful a space can be and he discovers it in Brunelleschi and Alberti and things that had fallen by the wayside.”

‘Madrigals Of The Rose Angel’ and three further works were gathered together by Brian Eno on ‘The Pavilion Of Dreams’. This was released on the short-lived Obscure label which was also responsible for issuing Gavin Bryars’ The Sinking Of The Titanic and Eno’s own Discreet Music. Budd’s measured music is arranged for a rich, predominantly acoustic palette that includes choir, harp, celeste, glockenspiel and marimbas. The limpid beauty of the result sounds gently heretical even today. Lynda Richardson’s soaring mezzo soprano, accompanied by Maggie Thomas’s harp, candidly declares that here is a composer utterly unafraid of, in fact fascinated by, sheer loveliness. Significant traces of Budd’s love of jazz can also be heard on ‘Butterfly Sunday’ and ‘Let Us Go Into The House Of The Lord’ which are reworkings of compositions by John Coltrane and Pharaoh Sanders, whilst Bismillahi ‘Rrahmani ‘Rrahim’ was composed for and features the saxophonist Marion Brown. However, rather than providing any sort of platform for improvisation, Budd locates and explores the beatific element of Coltrane’s late music, isolated from its tempestuous struggle. The liner notes explain that Bismillahi ‘Rrahmani ‘Rrahim is Arabic for ‘In the Name of God, The Beneficent, The Merciful’, a phrase which precedes each chapter of the Holy Koran and Budd’s music convincingly evokes the Koranic vision of a blissful heaven. At the same time, the temporary envisioning of a paradisiacal idyll that ceases as the music itself inevitably ends communicates a powerful sense of pathos. The Pavilion Of Dreams closes with Juno, which while continuing to evince its neighbours’ musical pulchritude and almost motionless core, is alone in betraying traces of a darkness that would haunt much of Budd’s subsequent work.

Algebra Of Darkness

In the twenty nine years since then, Harold Budd has produced a remarkable variety of work. Apart from the two collaborations with Brian Eno, Budd continued in the ‘80s to compose predominantly solo works such as Abandoned Cities, Lovely Thunder and The White Arcades which explored the potential of the studio to enrich his music. 1991’s She Is A Phantom was a live recording made with the new music quartet, Zeitgeist, which saw him return to ensemble writing for the first time since The Pavilion Of Dreams. Indeed the 1990’s generally saw Budd compose using a wider sonic palette. Releases which benefited from this approach included Music For Three Pianos with Ruben Garcia and Daniel Lentz, Through The Hill with Andy Partridge, a poignant exploration of the resonances of ancient history, and a surprisingly effective collaboration with French producer Hector Zazou that married his playing to contemporary beats. A number of the decade’s releases including Glyph, By The Dawn’s Early Light and She Is A Phantom featured self-penned texts that recalled the surreal juxtapositions of magic realism and occasionally bore traces of the loneliness of Edward Hopper’s painting. Perhaps most unexpected was Budd’s electric performance on Jah Wobble’s Solaris project in which he performed alongside Graham Haynes, Bill Laswell and Jaki Liebezeit. Much of the aforementioned music originates with Budd sitting down at the piano, either after some degree of preparation or none at all and finding that “something happens... if it’s attractive to me I try to explore some of the ramifications of it given the boundaries of my technique.” This signature approach is most nakedly heard on 2003’s La Bella Vista, claimed by its producer, Daniel Lanois, to have been captured covertly after a chance encounter resulted in an invitation to try out Lanois’ recently restored turn-of-the-century Steinway. The two twenty minute sessions, although impromptu, carry all the measured weight of long-honed compositions and the performance is captured beautifully in a richly detailed recording.

Steal Away

The title of Budd’s swansong as performer, Avalon Sutra, conflates a reference to lengthy discourses upon Buddhist teachings with the Celtic myth of the island paradise to which King Arthur traveled after his death. The music is a varied set that cumulatively suggests the image of a table crowded with framed pictures, each a portal to a memory or particular experience. The sense of Avalon Sutra as memento mori is in part conjured by titular dedications such as ‘Chrysalis Nu (To Barney's Memory)’ and ‘A Walk In The Park With Nancy (In Memory)’ and in part by the music itself. Alongside Budd’s pellucid sound, there is a plangent sense of loss that plays a more emphatic role than the feeling of wonder and possibility in his previous work. Gone for the most part is the “relaxing, warm music, like sun on a red tile floor” as Ted Mills described 1996’s Luxa in the All Music Guide. When it returns on Little Heart there’s an almost palpable sense of relief, but still Budd’s piano sounds as though it is disappearing into the distance, perhaps beckoning, pied piper-like for the listener to join him. At others times, as on ‘Chrysalis Nu’, the arrangement for strings evokes an unsettled, almost chilling bleakness. Avalon Sutra sounds like a summation, a farewell and, in its arrangement for acoustic instrumentation, it appears to close a circle that in hindsight began to be drawn slowly, but surely, with The Pavilion Of Dreams. This connection with the composer’s past is further underlined by the album’s second cd which presents a 69 minute reworking by American electronica artist Akira Rabelais of the first cd’s final track ‘As Long As I Can Hold My Breath’. Although not the first time Budd’s music has been remixed (there was a 12” single from his collaboration with Hector Zazou), Rabelais’ remix is more a re-envisioning than the sort of pedestrian work most remixes result in. Budd’s piece is transformed into a seemingly infinite Escher-like threnody, the experience of listening to it can feel like being trapped in an endless circular corridor unable to find an exit. In its ebb, flow and metamorphosis of granular elements the piece also echoes Budd’s earlier career as minimalist composer.

Still Return

While epitomising the dictum that less is very much more, Budd’s unhurried tempos create ample space for contemplation. At the same time, the composer’s attention to beauty, exemplified by his investigations into harmony, have provided both a crucial humanist balance and a sometimes troubled sense of wonder within the wider landscape of music. The music at times suggests both a rosy firelit warmth and the greater, nighttime darkness that surrounds it. In so doing, it recalls the calmer of Chopin’s Preludes composed on the deserted island monastery at Valdemossa (“The cloister was for him full of terrors and phantoms...”, George Sand, History of My Life). When asked what he intends to do with his time, he answers “The only thing I'm certain about is to be a full-time daddy for my 4-year-old son, Hugo.” Having gifted listeners with such a consistently rich variety of music, it’s impossible to begrudge him his decision. The possibility that he will continue to compose works to be performed by others is, however, a hope impossible to resist.

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