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.
"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'!"
"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!"
"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."
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