The Portland Phoenix - Harold Budd "Avalon Sutra"

04.08.05

Swan song
Composer/pianist Harold Budd says goodbye
BY MAC RANDALL


HAIL AND FAREWELL: on what Budd says will be his final album, the dominant tone is one of valediction.

In most professions, the retirement of a man in his late 60s isn’t big news. In fact, lots of people would probably wonder what took the guy so long. But in the realm of artistic endeavor, where nobody’s punching a time clock and corporate pension plans are all but unknown, it’s a different story. And so it comes as a surprise to hear composer and pianist Harold Budd say that his latest album, Avalon Sutra (Samadhisound), will be his last. For four decades, Budd has worked in the fringe zone between pop and modern classical. Along with close friend and frequent collaborator Brian Eno, he’s been a pioneer in the field of ambient music, and unlike most proponents of that genre, he’s kept his work subtly challenging. He’s done exactly what he wanted to do as a musician, and against tremendous odds, he’s been successful. So why on earth would he want to give up making music?

Over the phone from his home in Los Angeles, the 68-year-old jovially denies that his announcement is a publicity stunt. "I agree that it’s strange. But I must confess that music is not my number-one or even number-two favorite art form, so it’s not difficult for me to step away from it. Coming up with ideas is still a thrill, but all the work that goes along with it just doesn’t ring my bell anymore. Were I a painter, I would probably hire studio assistants to do it all for me. And that’s not terribly fun."

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This career decision, it turns out, is only one aspect of a greater personal shift. Budd’s music, which is organized around the repetition of motifs as basic as they are affecting, has always been based on the belief that simplicity is best. Now, he’s trying to lead his life that way as well. "My wife and I sold our old house so we could go wherever we wanted. I got rid of everything: books, instruments, paintings. I’m free."

One item that Budd didn’t have to sell was his piano. That’s because he hasn’t owned one for years. Given how closely associated he is with the instrument, this seems odd, but it makes perfect sense to him. "I like living with flowers in nice vases. I don’t want that big bulky sonofabitch hanging around my room."

Budd’s lack of devotion to the piano becomes more understandable once you discover that he didn’t even learn to play it until he was in his late 30s. He started out as a drummer, and during the 1960s, when he was first struggling to establish himself as an artist on the West Coast, he rebelled against the conventional notion that composers should also be keyboardists. When he finally did teach himself to play piano, the impetus was pure necessity. "I wrote a piece in 1972 called ‘Madrigals of the Rose Angel,’ and it was sent off for a public performance back East somewhere. I wasn’t there, but I got the tape and I was absolutely appalled at how they missed the whole idea. I told myself, ‘This is never going to happen again. From now on, I take full charge of any piano playing.’ That settled that."

It was a recording of this same piece that first brought Budd to Brian Eno’s attention and led to the release of his first album, The Pavilion of Dreams, in 1978. Since then, he and Eno have joined forces on such ambient landmarks as 1980’s The Plateaux of Mirror and 1984’s The Pearl. Budd also collaborated with the Cocteau Twins on 1986’s The Moon and the Melodies and XTC’s Andy Partridge on 1994’s Through the Hill.

Avalon Sutra is his 17th release, and if it really is his goodbye to music, it’s a fitting one. Composed mainly of brief melodic vignettes (only a handful of tracks stretch past five minutes), the album offers plenty of the wistfully swirling keyboard work that has become his trademark. A string quartet joins in on several pieces, but the most moving selections are the duets with saxophonist and flutist John Gibson. "How Vacantly You Stare at Me," with its languid ripple of piano chords and bass flute, conjures the image of two ghosts following each other through a series of empty rooms. The dominant tone is one of valediction.

"I hadn’t planned this to be the last album," Budd claims, "but I have been secretly entertaining the notion ‘What if this is my last one?’ for the last few albums. It’s a liberating attitude, because it frees you of solipsism. Most artists are just consumed with their own careers, consumed in their own juices. It’s toxic. I’m so very happy to unload that and to go out on this note."

MAC RANDALL

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