The Serpent and the Pearl
Don Goldstein talks to American composer Harold Budd about his past collaborations with such luminaries as Brian Eno and Michael Nyman and, more recently, the Cocteau Twins.
Harold Budd is more than just a leading light in contemporary American music. His work has a natural beauty which seduces the listener with tranquil progressions, delicate warmth, and skilful arrangements that use instruments as diverse as piano, marimba, and Synclavier II.
"My work with Eno has no specific mood - that's what makes it interesting... when you can pinpoint a happy piece and then a sad piece, things get too simple."
How do you feel about your two subsequent collaborations with Eno?
The two albums with Eno are very similar. The language, the timbres and sounds are very much the same. It's curious about The Plateaux of Mirror. It came so quickly and so easily that it was kind of a phantom, you thought you could do 30 more of those with the same joie de vivre, but it's not that way.
There was an idea that The Pearl would be similar even from the outset. The surprising thing to me is that it turned out as well as it did, because I'm extremely fond of the album. In many respects I like it more than I do The Plateaux of Mirror, even though that came so easily and so gracefully and without trial.
The Pearl is more of a unity than Plateaux. All the pieces seem to belong together more. Eno's material tends to be melancholic, whereas yours sounds a bit more optimistic. The mix of the two was quite peculiar...
Yeah. I think that's one of the points that makes it interesting because it's not a specific mood. There's one there but it's very complicated. Sometimes it's a fusion of conflicting waves of emotion. I like that kind of artful confusion. I think pieces turn out not so interesting when they are so emotionally specific, when you can pinpoint a happy piece, then a sad piece. That's too simple.
That can happen very easily when people put lyrics on things.
Yeah, as soon as you have lyrics you're talking about something specific - unless it's an ironic sort of thing, surrealistic. The work that Eno and I have done together is, in a sense, not far removed from classical surrealism. It has an ambiguity of meaning which I think is an important aesthetic consideration for works that can't be placed inside of a fad or time.
How did your newest collaboration — with the Cocteau Twins — come about?
Well, I have to admit that I didn't know of the Cocteau Twins until one of the band members, Simon Raymonde, was using a piece of mine and Eno's as a cover on an album. The piece was 'Not Yet Remembered', and it was going to be the Twins themselves who were going to do it, or that's the story I heard. The publisher called me up and informed me about this, and said 'they're really a great group and I think you'd like hearing them', so I called up a record distributor friend of mine in Los Angeles and asked if he carried the Twins.
He sent me a compilation cassette, so I don't know what the album itself was, or the names of the pieces. But in any case, I was really taken with it.
Then in November they came to Los Angeles. We met and got along famously for a very brief time, and we started swapping ideas on a collaboration of some kind. They asked if I'd be free to do it, and I said 'yeah, absolutely, anytime, just give me a shout and I'll be there'. And here I am in London!
"The studio I work at in Los Angeles has both a Fairlight CMI and a Synclavier II - they're a million times more than I need, though I know they do a million things."
Yes it will. I think Elizabeth Fraser's put vocals on one song so far. Apparently, her method of working - which I totally agree to - is to take the instrumental tracks home and then compose the words and melodies. She works up something that's comfortable to her and seems to work, and that's her way of working.
You're perfectly willing to accept that she will add another dimension to things that you may not agree with...
Yeah, sure. Because in a sense she's rather forced to accept what I'm doing as well. It all goes back to that trust I was talking about.
Who seems to be coming up with the initial melodies?
We have eight or nine songs - well, pieces - tracked. The interesting thing is that the ones which I come up with tend to be pieces, whereas the ones that Simon comes up with on the piano are definitely songs - they're structured that way. Mine frequently don't even change key once they begin, or even change chord for that matter (laughs). Robin's pieces tend to be somewhere in between the two, so I can't say, really.
For the first three or four days I laid down a whole bunch of stuff we had to work on, and then I took a break and Simon began some, then Robin began some and now we're back to the other way again. But it's just going to be raw tracking - I will leave an awful lot to them. We have to see how it works out. It's album length now, and it'll appear as an album.
What instruments have you been using to make these strange noises?
Well, it's somewhat restricted. I have a philosophy that one is obliged to use what's there. You don't need an awful lot of stuff, but you use fully everything that's there. What is there now, insofar as my own input is concerned, is a Yamaha electric grand piano and a Mirage sampling keyboard. Robin of course is the guitarist, and Simon the bass player, although he does occasionally play the piano, rather well too. And there's an awful lot of outboard equipment there which works very well. It's what gives them the Cocteau Twins sound - it's the stuff they use. Primarily it's the Yamaha SPX90, which is absolutely incredible... an amazing instrument.
Do you find, though, that machines like that sometimes offer you too many options?
That's a very very good point. The answer generally is yes. In this particular instance, since the style that's been developed really only uses a small fragment of the potential of the thing, it's perfectly clear that some sounds work and that all the others don't.
But yes, I feel that if you can do anything, then you're liable to end up with everything... or indeed nothing. It's kind of self-cancelling.
But where we've been recording, there is a limited amount of equipment and an even more limited amount of time. There really isn't room for very much finesse. You have to have a pretty good hunch that you're correct very early on, or else you have to abandon the idea and get on with one that's going to use the time more efficiently.
The Mirage and piano seem an odd combination: from something which is very close to a grand piano where you just lift up the lid and play, to something which you have to spend hours fiddling with to get a sound. How have you found working with something like that?
Well, I've worked with something similar before, or at least I've touched on it before. I'd say that 90% of the sounds are crap, and once you find that out, there are certain disks that you avoid, really. With the piano, I tend to work hearing a treatment with it anyway, so I improvise pretty roughly around what the sound is going to be on the tape.
So your composing is very influenced by the way things sound?
Yes. In many respects, the sort of treatment you hear on the piano influences exactly the note-to-note process: the length of time between musical gestures, and the kind of taking advantage of the ringing timbres which I'm very fond of.
Have you done any sampling of your own?
No, I haven't, partly because I don't own a sampler myself. The studio that I work at in Los Angeles - Meta Music - has both a Fairlight CMI and Synclavier II. That's a million times more than I need, though I know it does a million things... it would go out to lunch if you knew how to program it, I suppose. But really, its capabilities are rather boring to me. What I do like are certain sounds which work for certain pieces. They're rather easy to come by, and the fact that they're on these mega machines is really totally irrelevant.
You don't find it rewarding to explore a machine to find out what it's capable of?
To some extent I do, yes, but not to the extent that the engineer would have to know it, because he would have to know what its capabilities were for situations that are totally unpredictable, depending on the client, for example. For my own purposes, I think it's useful to know as much about it as you can, but I don't see the point in knowing any machine inside-out at the moment.
"We've used the Mirage for strings, organ and chorus... things that sound nice when they are sustained for a while, as a wash in the background because the guitar does all the glitter stuff better."
In what areas has the Mirage been useful?
We've used strings, organ, and chorus sounds... generally things that sound nice when they are sustained for a while, using the instrument as a wash in the background. They don't form the primary sound source, because the guitar, being heavily reverbed, adds a great deal more to it. The guitar does all the glitter stuff much better than the Mirage.
What do you have lined up when you return to the States? Will there be another solo album?
Yes. It'll be a solo work on EG. Half of it is already done, and the other half I have to do this summer. I have a lot of work to do on it because I haven't got the foggiest idea what I'm going to do.
The first side is a full 20-minute piece. It was done in LA, using the Fairlight and Synclavier, and a general array of Oberheim keyboards including the Matrix 12. I use the Matrix in a very unsophisticated fashion, which is to say that although it's multitrack, everything is a live performance. I'm not even using the Synclavier to make the notes proper: it's me, what you hear is the way I'm hitting it.
The piece's working title is 'Gypsy Violin', because that's the name of one of the factory presets I used on the Synclavier. It's a gypsy violin sound and it's excellent.
I originally did the piece for an art gallery installation in Los Angeles last November. It was called 'Blue Room with Flowers and Gong' - which describes exactly what it is. It's an environment through which you walk, or just take a quick look and walk away and think 'this guy's crazy'. It was originally the length of one side of a C60 cassette, but that version went on a bit - the sustained notes and so on...
"I got through the college without knowing how to play the piano at all. I was a traditional note composer... If you're writing a string quartet, why should you have to play it on the piano?"
Now I don't listen to all that much. I really rely on friends to turn me on to something that's interesting, or something I haven't heard for a long time. I remember that a student of mine came up to me at one time with the Monteverdi 1610 Vespers and said 'You absolutely must hear this' and it was just devastating. I still think it is, but I couldn't sit and listen to the whole thing.
So I generally play music off records when someone is over who I know is genuinely going to like it, and won't insist on everyone being quiet while it's being played.
You don't seem to play live too often. What's your view of live performance of the sort of music you compose?
Well, I'm not the world's greatest performer, and to make my music sound like I really think it should needs a lot of requirements - things you'd ordinarily find in a professional recording studio. I find soundchecks cumbersome and boring, and since I really don't have much of a clue about what I'd end up playing anyway, what if I have it all set up wrong for a particular piece? I do perform occasionally and I do enjoy it, but I don't see myself in that role.
I like the democracy of recorded music: once it's out there it's not yours any longer, people have the option of bouncing the needle, going here or there, and listening to as much or as little as they please. That's why I don't own a CD, incidentally, because once it's on you're a prisoner to it. I can pick up a favourite record and flip it over and say 'oh yeah, this is the side I like without knowing the name of the tune.
You feel vinyl is still the most immediate means of communication?
I think it's ingrained in our generation. It's going to be difficult to get rid of it. Technology does an awful lot of things, but what it doesn't do is really influence our behaviour - I think we influence the technology.
I know a lot of people insist on CDs only, and everyone in America insists I'm wrong, but I think they'll take off for a short time and then be replaced by something easier to handle and less expensive.
Given that your musical ideas are very much based around studio work, would it be fair to say that you compose most of your music in the studio?
Yes, I use manuscript paper the way a lot of people use a cassette. I jot ideas down, and I use the manuscript paper as a kind of memory trigger. I often take reams of paper into the studio but I don't read off it - I just use it to jog my memory into an idea.
The engineer at Meta Music is Michael Hoenig, who used to be in Tangerine Dream. He's a good friend of mine so money really isn't a problem - he just tells me to come over when he's free.
I hate being in a studio with a strange engineer who spends most of the time trying to convince you that you're crazy, and doesn't understand what you're doing anyway. I've worked with engineers who want to put the drum track down first, you know, and I can't work that way. I like working with someone sympathetic who knows what the scene is, a good friend. I rely on someone like that a great deal.
Do you have a recording facility of your own at home?
No. Nothing at all. Just a small Baldwin spinet piano gathering dust, and a little Casio 202 which I plug into my son's guitar chorus and piddle around with. I can get as much as I need down from that.
What's the first item on the agenda when you get back to the States?
Curiously enough, a small college in the Midwest commissioned me last year for a piece that had to be 8-10 minutes long, and had to be for any combination of musicians that they have in the ensemble there. They sent a huge list of what they had, and said they'd pay me a certain amount of money and that I could do anything I wanted, but that they had the right to the first performance.
It turned out that I wrote a piece 22 minutes long and it's for a huge choir of 20 people, with percussion and keyboards, and it's the first traditional note piece that I've composed in eight years. It was a lot of fun doing it. So I have to go to the Midwest for three of four days, and be at the first performance.
Looking further into the future, do you have any unfulfilled aspirations, in any field of music, that you'd like to pursue?
No. Maybe it's a personality defect, but I generally discover things as they come along. I don't have any long-range goals about things as a basic personal philosophy, except for the obvious mundane ones. In terms of 'is there a piece out there that I've always wanted to do?', the answer is no, I don't really operate along those lines.
I'm inspired often by a situation which arises, when there's a certain task in front of me, and if I agree to do it, it's generally because I'm going to like what's happening, without having an idea what the end result is going to be. No career decisions are made.
With that sort of open attitude, you could go in any direction...
Conceivably that's true. I'm the first person to admit that I'm willing to change my mind at the drop of a hat. But I think I would be a very poor commercial composer, for instance. I'll never do anything that I don't absolutely want to do. There may be some commercial success resulting from this latest collaboration. But I don't think I would do anything else if the focus was simply on the amount of units sold.
Interview by Dan Goldstein
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