20th Century Americans - Harold Budd (Part 2)
Harold Budd - The incredible lightness of being
In the second of our series of interviews with contemporary American composers, we speak to Harold Budd, a native of Los Angeles, and a man whose relaxed, West Coast attitude to his own life and work comes as a welcome antidote to the image that could attach to a music graduate with teaching experience in the California Institute of the Arts' Composition Faculty.
Harold Budd is, essentially, a pop artist; one whose love of surface texture and immediate emotional engagement usurps the weightier concerns of structure and form, and simultaneously finds him a considerable and loyal audience. When, in the course of the interview, he talks of 'prettiness', it's not the prettiness of conventional pop; Budd's compositions ignore the restrictions of commerce - which is probably what makes people call it 'art' in the first place. In any event, it's his position somewhere between the sacred and the profane which makes him such a fascinating figure.
Like Philip Glass, Budd has turned away from Western traditions and embraced the alternative structures - or lack of them - found in Indian classical music and free jazz, but in Budd's case such decisions seem always to be intuitive rather than intellectual: rather than consciously decide to push back musical barriers for the sake of progress, he seems to simply reject received forms and notions if they fail to turn him on. In this respect at least, he displays a closer affinity with the pop world than with the academic, and his collaborations in that area - notably a recording contract with Brian Eno and an album with The Cocteau Twins - seem all the more natural.
Like last month's feature on Philip Glass, the interview with Budd was carried out by Geoff Smith and Nicola Walker-Smith and will be included in their forthcoming book on 20th Century American Composers to be published later this year by Faber & Faber.
Can you tell us something about your early compositional environment and how it shaped your work?
"I was raised in a family that wasn't particularly musical or artistic at all - save for my mother who played harmonium in Christmas carols, Protestant hymns and sentimental Victorian songs. They were my earliest memories of really hearing anything that moved me in some way. This is not going to be at all astonishing, but I used to love to go to parades and listen especially to the Scots drummers as they marched in cadence - I thought that was just an absolute thrill. But every kid loves that - I was just pole-axed by this wonderful, ritualised thing."
How did you come to new music?
"Well, when I was a teenager, I discovered be-bop. Me and my friends were such snobs that we wouldn't entertain the idea of even acknowledging any other kind of music at all, especially the people who liked Elvis Presley or things like that. We were totally committed to Lenny Tristano, Charlie Parker and Thelonius Monk. I learned real early on how to get interested in something that was highly abstract to say the least, and moving from there into new music wasn't much of a big leap. It was just a matter of discovery - being told, being shown.
"I didn't start my formal education until relatively late - I was 22 years old. I really started because I didn't want to get a job. There's nothing unusual about that after having worked for four or five years in maintenance jobs. I was looking for an escape, a way to break out of that role that I was forced into. I had one good harmony and counterpoint teacher at my local city college who absolutely turned me on to everything - he wouldn't take no for an answer. I was just encouraged. I also saw it as a way to get out of poverty. I thought that if I couldn't make my living as a composer, I could certainly make my living doing something if I just stuck it out and got a degree.
"Most of my friends were film-makers and painters, proto-architects, that sort of thing. That kind of world looked infinitely more glamorous to me than composing music for a symphony orchestra, for example. I very nearly just wanted to be a painter - that looked like a really exciting life. But I wasn't quite the bohemian or something. I wanted a more staid world."
When did composing become a serious option for you?
"Right away. The minute I found out which direction the stems went, I started crudely putting things together and seeing what they would do. I had no skill as a musician and still don't. I mean, I'm not an athlete, I can't play anything very well at all. So it was all imagination. I think being forced into an unorthodox method of doing things was beneficial in my case."
Would your music necessarily be different if you were a musical athlete?
"I think so, I really do. I think I would take advantage of that kind of skill. But since it isn't a skill that I'm ever going to have, it doesn't pose a threat to me. If you could hear me play, you'd see that there would be absolutely no threat."
What sort of music did you compose initially?
"Well, in those first couple of years, the free jazz movement started and I thought that was going to turn everything around. I heard Don Cherry and those guys for the first time and I was even a little bit embarrassed about being in school. But then I heard other aspects of that. For example, Paul Bley - a more, shall we say, intellectual approach to free jazz. More structured, more thought-through, more disciplined. That seemed enormously attractive to me and I thought I could continue analysing Stravinsky and Milhaud and there was no conflict.
"But I was a complete babe in the woods - I mean, I didn't know anything. I knew a little bit about the masters of the twentieth century like Delius, for example, who I still hold in great reverence - I think he was a wonderful artist. And Americans of that same persuasion - like Hovhaness and Roy Harris - I still have a great fondness for that kind of music and I picked it all up in my first two years of formal education."
When did you start to shape your own musical voice?
"I went into the army for two years. Everything was kind of put on the back burner for a long time, although it was a very good learning experience in that I was in the army band and almost everyone there was a professional musician, whereas I was a complete novice. So once a week they used to have a radio programme in Monterey, California, of the band, and I was the only one willing to conduct. So that's when I seriously started to get pretty skilful at score-reading, because it wasn't very difficult music to begin with. So I got on real well with a lot of these really good players and learned a tremendous amount from them - what they could do and how they'd stretch their own imaginations.
"When I got out of the army I went to a local university here, largely because of the head of the music department, Gerald Strang, who had designed this school. I knew him from one album I had heard years earlier under the umbrella title of The California Percussion School: Harry Partch, John Cage, Lou Harrison, Henry Cowell, Gerald Strang. I thought this was exactly what I sought - maybe I wouldn't have to listen to Brahms very much. The first semester I was there, he brought John Cage in for a lecture with David Tudor.
"So I had the chance of actually seeing Cage, hearing what he had to say, hearing what he did, and all of this coinciding with the publication of his first book, Silence - this was 1961. When I think of it now, I realise he was 'on the road' promoting this book. Isn't that funny? Instead of doing the talk shows with those dreadful people, Cage is going around universities! Anyway, this poor guy, Dr Strang, was fired on the basis of having brought in this person. I was so angry that I just gave up.
"My philosophy is that if you can't make an album with wonderful people who like what you do and know what you do, then you're certainly in the wrong profession"
"I stayed on and got my degree as quickly as I could without any commitment to the school, but that had sealed my fate insofar as new music was concerned. I wasn't going to be a Cageian all my life, but I could see that Cage's influence, plus my interests in the visual arts, especially the more gestural artists, would form into something that I would be responsible for - I was positive of it from that moment on."
So out went the hopes for a sensible day job?
Can you describe the music you were writing at this stage?
"Experimental. Somebody had told me that Morton Feldman did graph pieces. I thought, 'No kidding? Where can you see these things?'. The school I was at certainly didn't carry any Morton Feldman scores - I mean they fired the guy that brought in John Cage. They'd have a book burning! So I thought, 'Well, hell, I'll do it myself'. So I made up my own graph and used coloured pencils. I gave it to this guy (Peter Hewitt) who first turned me on to Cage. He sat down and sight-read it at the piano - or at least a version that I thought was pretty good. I just thought, 'This is great, man! You don't have to write notes'. So I started at that time heavily influenced by Cage and Feldman."
Was that very much an East Coast influence that spread across the country, or was there a 'West Coastness' to it even then?
"There was a 'West Coastness' to it because it was indigenous there, and then moved away because there was no support for it. There was an enormous support for Cage on the East Coast."
How would you describe 'West Coastness'?
"That's a very good question, and I'm going to cheat on the answer, but I think it probably has something to do with the fact that people on the West Coast are a very long way from Europe, whereas Americans that live on the East Coast, when they say 'colonial', they mean English colonial. But 'colonial' in the West means Spanish. I think its roots are there plus the tremendous influence of people from Asia, and Asian philosophy. A kind of bohemian, Zen thinking is just typical of California, Oregon and Washington."
Lou Harrison described 'West Coastness' as "not being afraid to do something pretty".
"Well, I just can't say better, and I'm going to remember that and use it next time that I'm asked this question - and I'll try my best to cite my source. It's perfect, absolutely correct."
Are there any other particular features apart from being immediately pretty?
"Being immediately pretty is the most important component. I think that it's probably so important that it supersedes all other concerns of structure, environment and so on. Now, whether or not it's profound and deep are legitimate questions, but ones that I choose not to even deal with because it seems pointless. If you've already made your point of being even superficially pretty - highly-polished, well-finished little gems of something - that seems adequate to me. That's good enough. I'll have fulfilled my role and my promise to myself."
You yourself are largely responsible for the way West Coast music has developed, in that many young composers here cite you as a major influence. Would you accept that?
"I can't. I can't do that. That's very flattering but it's a double-edged sword. It's also my 'fault', you know, 'all the Harold Budd stuff'!"
How would you describe your music? Is it a branch of minimalism?
"Well, it does come from minimalism - that sensibility - there's no question of that. But certainly not the kind that Steve Reich has been responsible for. I'm diametrically at the other end of the same family. 'Minimalism' was a word that was used to describe only four composers a long time ago. Minimalism to me was an art term that I associated with the West Coast painters. I liken my work to that world more than to the musical world. I had already known the painters at Los Angeles, the so-called 'Finish-Fetish' school of artists - I knew their work intimately and far better than Steve Reich's music, until Jon Gibson played some for me, and by that time I was already a fairly well-formed, mature composer. So I didn't hear much of the classic minimalists of the East Coast at all. Pauline Oliveros is the one that really got me interested in exploring all the ramifications of drone music. It didn't come from La Monte (Young) at all."
"When I have an audience that's just 'so-so', I often say to myself when I'm out there performing, 'This is absolutely the last time. Never am I going to put myself through this nonsense again'"
How did you and how do you relate to the European avant-garde?
"I was crucially aware of almost everything that was going on, I don't even have to mention the names. I found Stockhausen to be a particularly intriguing mind, whereas I didn't find Boulez to be an intriguing mind or language at all. It was kind of scattershot. I thought Luigi Nono's music was sublimely wonderful - still do - he was a great composer. But, by and large, it seemed there was an awful lot of pressure from your professors to 'get with it'. I resented that a little bit. Cage was the solution here - it just threw the avant-garde totally out of sync, it just ruined it, which was the best thing that could have happened.
"Having said that, I still consider Cage and Feldman as the avant-garde, but they're not the kind that belong in school! It's a very different thing altogether. The ones that did belong in school - Boulez and what-not - it was very definitely a point of honour to consider them the enemy. And I still do to a large extent."
Does much of your inspiration still come from painting and painters?
"Yes, it does. I think that I'm influenced by things I admire a lot. It doesn't mean that there's some philosophy or some hidden 'vibe' that I'm trying to make a one-to-one relationship with - it's nothing remotely like that. Actually I'm very jealous of painters because they can do their work and then it's done, it's there, they have a product you can actually touch. I really like that."
Don't you also have that in your albums?
"I almost do have that. I used to be accused of a sort of laziness when I wouldn't write things out very well or just sketch something. Or if I got upset the way things were going, I'd say 'Well, never mind that. Can't you just sort of do this instead? I'll take care of it later'. I still like working that way, it just works out best for me."
Do you play live? Tour the album?
"Sure, but many of my things are solo keyboard, and that makes for a very dry concert. When I have an audience that's just 'so-so', I often say to myself when I'm out there performing, 'This is absolutely the last time. Never am I going to put myself through this nonsense again'. Sometimes when I'm really with the audience or just know they're 'there', I have a wonderful time. But that isn't my strong suit. As a performer I am the first one to admit that I am there just to 'meet' those people - I'm really curious about who it is that likes what this is, I really want to know, because we must share something fundamental. But I'm not there selling a product or putting on a show the same way that a really skilled musician could - I make no bones about that and I happily tell everyone beforehand that this is not going to be your usual concert!"
Can you tell us how you make your pieces?
"No I can't, because it's a complete mystery to me. I try to be as prepared as possible simply because it costs so much money to work in a studio. But, in any case, the last album I did, I pretty much had the concept together and it's the first time in ages that I've actually worked with an ensemble. So I couldn't very well expect these really nice people who were doing their best to make it all happen, just kind of 'wing it', you know. I mean, I owed them more than that, and I owed the concept that I came up with more than just messing around in the studio. So there's very little, if any, 'studio technique', you know the usual tricks - there's very little of it there.
"It's acoustic music. It goes directly through microphones. You can hear the traffic outside, the bus pull up, the motorcycle pull away. If you listen very carefully, it's all there. But we decided to keep the spirit of the thing. When it was a good performance, it didn't make any difference that there were slight ambient interruptions. I always think that way, but sometimes the musicians are a little picky about it, or you get an engineer who's not as interested in music as he is in engineering. And you have these continual waits while some really fractional problem is solved, when in all this time you could be getting right to the heart of the thing and then everyone's going to forgive you - except audiophile maniacs, and they're not interesting people anyway.
"I'm putting out a CD which is old out-takes - I call it the Orange Ranch Archives. These were all done in a shed in Fillmore, California, on an orange ranch from 1981 to '83 - my friend Gene Bowen lived there. The recording quality is just low-tech, real garage recordings, but I tell you, there is something there that is absolutely magical. I don't think we could have gotten some of these sketches down if we had ever thought that this was the final product or that everyone was going to hear it some day. We were just 'winging it', trying things out and actually I just couldn't be more thrilled. So, there you go."
I would have expected you to be really hyper-critical about detail in the products that you make, especially in the age of CD, but it's quite refreshing to see that you're not.
What sort of equipment do you use?
"I work very much in a way that an assemblage artist works. I treat what's in the studio very much like a found object. I think on the last album I used an Indian tom-tom that was hanging around. There was one of those real inexpensive autoharps that teachers use: where it says C sharp minor, if you press that button a chord comes out. They cost $40 and they're made for schoolteachers to assist them when the children do their sing-a-long. I used it all the time. It's just a great sound. It's hidden in there, but it's there."
Do you process those sounds?
"No. I have done all the processing bit - everyone does - but it's almost a cliche, I think. I look back on some of the things and I think, 'Thank God it says when this album was made, so people can see it was at least a decade before everyone else'."
You say you can't reveal the mystery of how you actually make your music, but what do you go to the studio with? A piano idea or...?
"When I did the White Arcades album, I went to the studio with a list of titles and that's all. I was talking to some friends in England (The Cocteau Twins) and they told me about this really wonderful, nice, laid-back studio in Edinburgh. They came in and said, 'Well, we've booked you two weeks in the studio starting next Monday. You're going to love it'. They described the dinners that are made there, how great it is at tea-time, only one pub in the village. So I went up there and, sure enough, these people were the salt of the earth, the most wonderful folks.
"As a performer I am the first one to admit that I am there just to 'meet' those people - I'm really curious about who it is that likes what this is... we must share something fundamental"
"My philosophy is that if you can't make an album with wonderful people who like what you do and know what you do, then you're certainly in the wrong profession. That's the way I look at it, anyway. And you use whatever's necessary. It's always a discovery.
"On one thing I started out recording a sort of piano loop. It sounds like a loop but in fact it isn't, it's just a straight ahead-piano. But since I can't play the piano very well, I had to back up and play the second bit on another channel along with it. Well, in the process of doing that I discovered that, by just knocking out a certain portion of it, I came up with a pattern that was really interesting and that I could never have dreamed up myself or written down."
Your titles are extremely evocative. Do they come first?
"Very frequently. I carry them around like baggage, sometimes. I often can't wait to find a piece so I can get rid of a title because it's been haunting me for so long."
You can't off-load the title until you find the right piece?
"No, it's just got to work."
And you just know which is the right one?
What do you get from collaborating?
"I do it because I just want to see what happens - and I like the work of the person I'm collaborating with. The idea is to come up with something that neither side would have come up with on their own. I've never worked with musicians who know how to read music. So that's always swell for me, because it means that I'm locked into people who have a hell of a lot of experience being open-minded about the art world generally. I like that. I like audiences like that and I like people like that in general."
How did the Cocteau Twins collaboration come about?
"That came about kind of in a circle. They were going to cover one of the pieces that Brian (Eno) and I did ages ago. And I think Simon (Raymonde) called me up wanting some helpful hints on the piano parts, and I assured him that there was absolutely nothing to it and that all he had to do was go in the studio and do it his own way, and that would be perfectly OK. Then suddenly, I think Robin (Guthrie) called and asked if I had any free time at all and if I'd like to come over and see if we could do something together.
"That's exactly how it was. I was a little bit - I won't say hesitant - but I didn't quite know what was going to happen, because I didn't know their music very well at all. I subsequently did - I went and got a mixture of their things and I liked it a lot. Of course the first thing you hear is Elizabeth's voice, but I didn't know exactly what I was going to do. And I guess, likewise, the end result, for me, is a little bit problematic. But so what? There it is. No-one's fainted or lost their job because of it. It has some nice things and it has some things that are very puzzling. But trying to do art without any risk doesn't seem worth the time."
It seems that you've always had a foot in both camps, popular music and art music. Is that true, did it just happen that way?
"Yes, it did just happen that way. But I think that in fact I'm not in pop music very much at all. I'm only there as a kind of voyeur. I take advantage of that occasionally but I don't belong there. This is my own opinion. I'm not responsible for anyone else's opinion... fortunately! But that's the drawback of making records, it's not yours anymore. People will tell you what you are and you have to accept it and say, 'well, all right!'."
You're also unusual for an art composer in that you're writing for a relatively large audience - through your albums you reach a much larger audience than most.
"I like finding out who those people are. I've been working with Bill Nelson, for example. I think that he is typical of most intelligent artists (in his case he's a musician) in that you can carry on an extremely informed literary discussion about all facets of art music, art itself, sculpture, literature, arcane literature and pop literature. Since I fancy myself to be one of these kinds of people that is attracted to large varieties of serious artwork - it doesn't make any difference what camp it comes from - I gravitate towards and work best with people who have like interests, and that just makes for a surefire combination. Often enough, that pays off somehow - I don't mean in a commercial way, but in an aesthetically satisfying way."