The Sound-Painted World of Harold Budd
The Eno collaborator and leading exponent of American minimalist music, Harold Budd, discloses the fascinating background to his new solo album 'Lovely Thunder', his love of the piano and his strange union with the Cocteau Twins. Mark Prendergast attends the masterclass and takes notes.
Listening to the music of Harold Budd is like being cast adrift in an infinite sea of floating impressions and climatic variations. His creations evoke melancholy, loneliness, isolation, while translating great topographical vistas into sound. Budd's new album Lovely Thunder is strewn with images of other worlds highlighted here and there by the distant roar of thunder. But no one is more surprised at the way his music has turned out than Harold Budd.
Completely unknown in Europe until his 1978 collaboration with Brian Eno on The Pavilion Of Dreams, Budd was quite happy to work in the closed academic world of the universities of Southern California. Born in Los Angeles in 1936 he started jazz drumming at the age of fifteen, held down a variety of unsavoury jobs, enrolled in Los Angeles City College to study music theory at the age of 21, was drafted into the army where he met avant-garde saxophonist Albert Ayler, eventually to immerse himself in the fascinating world of minimalist music and modern art.
Continually composing on keyboards in between art lecturing, Budd spent six years creating what was to become The Pavilion Of Dreams. Through Gavin Bryars, Budd was contacted by Brian Eno and for the first time the American composer released his music on record. Two more albums with Eno followed: The Plateaux Of Mirror in 1980 and The Pearl in 1984; each one developing innovative approaches to instrumental music, composition and the effect of same on the listener.
On a superficial level, Budd's work was slotted into Eno's ambient experiments but as more people heard his deliberately haunting compositions his music became better known, particularly for its use of sparse, treated piano. As proof of Budd's own individual genius, he was invited to work with the Cocteau Twins on an album titled The Moon and the Melodies for 4AD Records. Recently, Harold Budd was flown in from Los Angeles to talk about his new output and new-found popularity.
"I guess it was about a year ago that OPAL (Eno's company) told me that the Cocteaus were talking about the possibility of a collaboration and I thought 'well, what a fabulous idea'. I hadn't heard very much so I went to a friend of mine in Los Angeles who had some of their records and he gave me a compilation cassette of really extraordinary music. It really took me, the minute I heard it I realised they were really great artists. The whole idea about a successful collaboration is that the collaborators come together with a kind of sense of trust; that is to say each person likes the other's history as an artist and, even though you don't have any plan or idea what the marriage is going to be like, you simply go in with enough faith that something interesting is going to happen based upon a hunch. You simply see what comes up and if it does come up it's a delightful discovery."
Q: What do you think of this current 'new age music' situation? Is it true to say that a lot of people are attempting to reduce some of the interesting ideas that you, Brian Eno and Jon Hassell have done to simple musak?
"Well I'll tell you very frankly that this whole 'new age' business is very distasteful to me. I don't like being even considered in that category and I have almost no respect for it at all. To me it's a kind of arrogant philosophical point of view where music has a metaphysical or biological function. I agree that music has a metaphysical function but when that's your whole point of view, when it isn't just a thing that happens out of the normal course of events, I think it becomes arrogant and rather precious. It smacks to me very much of science fiction religion and that's not me. It's very lightweight and very bothersome to me. 'New age music' is a marketing ploy and I don't think it has anything to do with the actual truth about the meaning of the music. The only thing that rings my bell is serious music and music is that way when it's impossible to analyse: 'new age music' is easily analysed."
Q: What kind of composer would you describe yourself as?
"You couldn't ask a more difficult question! I know people like LaMonte Young and Philip Glass dislike very much the term minimalism shall we say. Nonetheless, I'm afraid they're stuck with it. To a certain extent some of my history is related to classical minimalism yet I don't feel in that bag either. I've got a friend in Los Angeles who just gives the whole panoply a term, she calls it avant-pop music."
Q: It has been said that you wanted to be the greatest jazz drummer in the world. How did you end up composing the tranquil music you do now?
"Well when I was in my teens the guys I hung around with in highschool worshipped Thelonius Monk and Charlie Parker. My youthful ambition was to go on the road with John Coltrane since I played the drums. I didn't have the skills or didn't keep up the necessary practice to be really good.
"I actually had no idea of the way that Brian (Eno) worked until we came together to do The Plateaux Of Mirror'. That was the first time I witnessed the idea of using the recording studio as a primary compositional tool."
When I started college I didn't start until rather late, as things go. I had just left a job which I hated, in an aircraft company in Los Angeles, and my 21st birthday present to myself was quitting that job. I moved up to San Francisco and, of course, I didn't know what I was going to do with myself and ended up coming back to Los Angeles, dragging my clothing with me. I enrolled for a two-year course at Los Angeles City College in 'music theory'. You see there was always music around in my childhood. My mother had a great love of music, she was kind of a country girl coming from the hills of West Virginia through the pan-handle of Texas and into a cattle ranch in Colorado. She always had music around particularly the Protestant hymns. We had a little Harmonium in our home and she was really good at playing it. I grew up in little towns in the Mojave desert and I remember the radio being on twelve hours a day and people working to, say, Hank Williams' music. I was always emotionally affected by literature, poetry and music... but I digress.
When I finally got into school I was advised to take music theory classes. I thought to myself, 'well that's pretty interesting, I wonder what all that is' - you know, five lines with notes. I had a very good teacher and was absolutely enthralled, so I did very well at it. It wasn't to do with music per se, it had to do with the basics: how Mozart put it together and things like that. It was writing and reading, all those technical aspects. It had nothing to do with playing and nothing to do with sound. I just fell in love with the theoretical aspect alone."
Q: After this experience and your stint in the army, you really got into composing music at the University of Southern California. I presume you were doing so within quite a rigid format? Is there a radical difference between what you were doing then and what you are doing now?
"Yes, definitely, even though I don't think my attitude has changed very much.
When I was at university I was still very much attracted to the experimental tradition in American music and not so much the European. I had had a heavy dose of Stockhausen and European post-Weberan type composers which I never really cottoned on to. I was more interested in the music of, say, Erik Satie or Charles Ives, and my work comes out of that tradition.
I think it was 1961 and I remember going to a lecture of John Cage's that really blew me out - wow! I then became very interested in painters, in particular Mark Rothko and people like Ellesworth Kelly who went strictly for the surface - brilliant blasts of colour that simply engulfed you. I thought rather than making a music that was pointed, that always referred to itself, I would make something that spun off of Cage. The music I did then, the classical chance music and the theatre pieces, was very open-ended and improvisatory. My music isn't perhaps quite like that anymore but I've retained the attitude all these years and that's the thing which pushes my button."
Budd's first album The Pavilion Of Dreams (EG Records 1978) was a surprising debut. Drafting in a large ensemble of players including Michael Nyman, Gavin Bryars and saxophonist Marion Brown; Budd's chamber music was rich in cross-fertilisation of electronic implements with acoustic instruments, jazz sounds with classical textures and lustrous voices with ambient textures. Even though Brian Eno produced the work with his normal characteristics, the music was too rich and too varied to be Eno's own. Harold Budd had indeed arrived.
"I started The Pavilion Of Dreams in 1971. I finished the first piece called 'Madrigals of the Rose Angel' in 1972. Now that piece really surprised the hell out of me because I didn't know where it came from. It sort of came to me after about 18 months of laying off composing. I'd sort of drifted out of it. I'd come up against a blank wall of minimalism, in fact I sort of minimalised myself out of a career!
"The only thing that rings my bell is serious music and music is that way when it's impossible to analyse..."
You see I was identified with a particular sort of avant-garde music from the West Coast that was extreme minimalism. I can remember writing something called 'The Candy Apple Revision' in 1970. I had a little piece of red paper about 4" x 5" and I wrote on it in ink 'Candy Apple Revision, D-flat Major, Harold Budd May 1970'. It was more of a political statement. It was like going up to a blank wall and then finding little bits and spots on the wall that you could take advantage of. What I wanted to do was knock the wall down and it took me 18 months to realise that you simply pretend the wall isn't there and just walk around it. 'Madrigals of the Rose Angel' was the result of all that."
Q: How did you approach The Pavilion Of Dreams?
"It was actually a fairly simple thing to pull off because by the time that Brian (Eno) and I had gotten in touch I had already written well over an hour of music inside that cycle, and it was composed in a traditional format, that is to say for professional musicians who actually read music. So it was a matter of going ahead and getting musicians that would do it.
It was done in England, in Basing Street Studios, very quickly. We had two days of rehearsal, two days of recording and one of mixing. I didn't find anything unusual in Eno's approach and it seemed perfectly normal to me. Enhance things, sure, but it was 'hands off, just document the music the way it was composed."
Q: Did Eno's speed in the recording studio and unusual approach affect your work?
"I wanted to do another album with him for a number of reasons. Since I'd always been a lone gun and I admired his music so much, I felt it would be really remarkable if we collaborated. Also, I wasn't teaching anymore and I wanted to make a record for a small group of musicians ie. myself and Brian Eno. I actually had no idea of the way that Brian worked until we came together to do The Plateaux Of Mirror. This was the first time I witnessed the idea of using the recording studio as a primary compositional tool. That was the genesis of the method of doing good pieces quickly, or shall we say rather half-planned and then going in with the openness to accept surprise when it comes along and take advantage of it."
Q: What was the modus operandi for The Plateaux Of Mirror which to me sounded very simple, just piano and ambience?
"The album is piano alone with texture. The way that I work in the studio and the way Plateaux was done for the most part is that I'm listening to the atmosphere at the same time that I'm playing so that the treatment influences what I play. If you just play the 'dry' piano and then you try and go back and make it into something else, it doesn't have the immediacy or the impact that it could have if played directly against the atmospheric treatments.
" ....with 'Lovely Thunder' I've broken out of that sensitive mode and gone onto something that I think is a little bit more aggressive... I'm drifting away from the lone sound of the acoustic piano. That sort of sound forces you into a kind of aesthetic cul-de-sac."
Anyway, on Plateaux, Brian demonstrated to me this brand new world of making solo music that was hardly solo. It was employing chorus effects and delay effects to alter music in a way that they weren't designed for. We were using them at the extreme left end of the spectrum, where you're hearing the effect as the sound itself, rather than using them to industry standards whereby they enhance a fully created sound. I just put a microphone on the piano and this is going through a configuration of processing machines, then into the mixer and onto tape. Yet I'm hearing what's going onto tape and thus my work is not being messed with."
After the enormous critical success of The Plateaux Of Mirror, Harold Budd decided to go into the studio on his own and record. Adding his own electronic treatments to synths, electric bass and pedal steel guitar he produced The Serpent In Quicksilver EP in 1981. Following this he wrote 'Abandoned Cities' in 1984, a piece for a Los Angeles art gallery installation of artist/friend Lita Albequerque. Budd was deeply impressed by the way the use of electric guitar, low instrumentation and his characteristic spartan piano notes fused together.
After six weeks of working in the gallery he decided to approach Jam Records with the music and, to his surprise, it was released. Never an arrogant or conceited man, Harold Budd has been pleasantly surprised by his involvement in the music business. When he went to Canada to record The Pearl with Eno and Daniel Lanois in 1984, Budd hardly realised that this album would leave an indelible mark on the public. The Pearl conveyed an oceanic atmosphere, each track building a picture of sub-marine movement almost inaudibly lost in the slow cadences of Budd's piano. Images of lost Spanish galleons creaking on the bottom of the Atlantic, deserted beaches surrendering to the crashing waves, and silently swimming fish, easily flooded the mind as one listened to tracks like 'A Stream With Bright Fish' and 'An Echo Of Night'.
"The Pearl, for me, is an extremely interesting album because it's the end of that sort of music for me. It was much more cohesive than Plateaux, much more focused. You see, with Plateaux, the musical language was so utterly new to both myself and Brian that everything that happened was a fantastic delight. In many respects it was a naive album. By the time we got to The Pearl we had both become mature in that language and so it was a bit harder to bring out.
It was recorded in Hamilton, Ontario, with Daniel Lanois. We all lived in a house there for that period and it was work everyday, seven days a week. It was cold-blooded work and it took two weeks to put the music down on tape and maybe eight to twelve months of deciding which pieces were going to work and how best to get the sound. Brian did a lot of solo work and recorded pieces at different speeds. Because it's human nature not to be blitzed out on lovely sounds all the time, a lot of it was tiring and exhausting. With someone as skilled as Brian in the studio, a lot of the aesthetic decisions were taken off my shoulders because he assumed them and quite rightly."
Q: What instruments and treatments did you use on The Pearl?
"I used a Yamaha electric grand piano, a standard acoustic piano and a Rhodes electronic piano; those three. As far as treatments are concerned we used an AMS digital delay, an Eventide Harmonizer, an EMT 250 plate reverb, a Yamaha DX7 keyboard and a Casio CT-200. The latter is an inexpensive instrument which I think has a gorgeous sound.
"I would react negatively against being called an 'ambient musician' and it's not something I want to see in print very often - but it's not as bad as 'new age'!"
You see I think the acoustic piano is unbeatable but I honestly wished that I played real well. Since I don't play Beethoven or Mozart I don't require a Bosendorfer or a Bechstein. Very often I'm intrigued with the way the piano sounds in the studio and how easy it is to play. I don't sit down and warm up on scales, I just place my finger down and if the note comes out then I'm happy. In a sense you are violating the purity of an acoustic piano anyway by using these devices on it, so it's a kind of folly, or sort of pretentious, demanding a Bosendorfer when you're going to make it sound like something else."
Q: What is your attitude towards studios?
"Well the basic thing about a studio is the people you are working with. I mean if you are getting on well with them you trust their judgement. You know, 'a little help from your friends'... That's the only situation which is tenable otherwise you are just at loggerheads because you are fighting the system - you're looking at the studio clock and its just bad psychologically. I mean very little interesting happens under those conditions.
Metamusic Productions in Los Angeles, the studio I used for my new album Lovely Thunder, was very well equipped. It had a Fairlight CMI and a Synclavier II sampling keyboard instrument - very hi-tech! But I never used the studio for its technological side since I only utilise a fraction of its capabilities to produce my music. That's a philosophical point with me. An awful lot of music justifies itself on how sophisticated the technology is, but me, I don't give a damn about the sophistication of the technology. I care about the music and the only way I can get to the music is to be responsible for every sound that's there - and that means it has to be me doing it in real time."
Q: Do you play live concerts and what do you find are the crucial differences between performing your work onstage and in the studio?
"I performed every now and then up until 1984 and to be honest with you the music that comes out in live concert isn't quite satisfactory to me. I don't think of myself as a performer, I think of myself more as a composer who occasionally plays the piano. You see the traditional way of recording or of performing is documentary. I like the alternate way of continual discovery so that a piece of music that I put down in the studio is unique and later on I can work on a different version, when I have thought about it, and put that down as a unique expression. Then when it comes to selecting one which best represents an idea, then I can. This is impossible in performance because you have to take what you get."
Harold Budd is 50 this year, yet his easy-going manner and good natured openness convey the enthusiastic spirit of youthful discovery. When he talks, his eyes light up with inspiration, and sometimes he is lost for words to satisfactorily describe the music he is creating.
Budd's genuine belief in the emotional power of music is nowhere better comprehended than on his latest solo album Lovely Thunder (EG Records). The beautiful, isolated tranquility of this record was achieved during an intense period of creativity in Budd's life, for it was part-recorded with the Cocteau Twins while he was working with them on their album The Moon and the Melodies. In fact, both projects were recorded side by side in the Spring of this year and the crossovers were so close that two Cocteaus'/Budd tracks - 'Flowered Knife Shadows' and 'Valse Pour Le Fin Du Temps' appear on Lovely Thunder. These cuts prove that the marriage was made in heaven, each artist complementing the other: Budd's slow, graceful beauty enriching the Cocteau Twins' mesh of sound; their forceful personality dramatising Budd's, sometimes, fragile piano. For Budd, Lovely Thunder represents the peak of his career, particularly the twenty minute 'Gypsy Violin' cycle which combines a sampled violin sound with the rumblings of intemperate weather.
"'Gypsy Violin' is the Synclavier. I'll tell you, I'm really enthralled by it. About September of 1985 I went to my friend Michael Hoenig's studio in Los Angeles. He was kind of showing me the new stuff he had bought and one thing was this Synclavier keyboard instrument. He started going through the sounds it could make - like, say, a clarinet - and I was totally uninterested saying: 'Yeah, okay, that's a clarinet'. He was going through a bunch of things which were coming up on the monitor screen and this thing called 'Gypsy Violin' came up. He said: 'Well you won't want to hear this', and I said 'Wait! wait! wait! Is that a factory setting?' Michael responded with: 'It's one of those silly sounds they programme into it, you don't want to pay any attention to it!' I messed around with it and thought 'God, this is the strangest damn sound I've ever heard in my life.' I started working there and then as there were other keyboards I could reach whilst I was playing the Synclavier. I said 'Oh boy!' and the adrenalin started to flow and I said 'God! I've been looking for this damn piece for ten years. I think I'm really onto something.'
"I'm intrigued with the way the piano sounds in the studio and how easy it is to play. I don't sit down and warm up on scales, I just place my finger down and if the note comes out then I'm happy."
Shortly after that I was over at Michael's place again. He used to be in Tangerine Dream and he lives in a loft in the Tokyo section of Los Angeles. The building is full of artists and this time he had to go to a party. I let him go because I wanted to compose on the Synclavier and I swear to God I played for three hours creating this 'Gypsy Violin' piece!
I wasn't recording or anything, I was getting it so that it was implanted, burned into my brain and exploring everything about it. Oh man! It was the thrill of discovery that was really astonishing. I would occasionally get up and pop a Mexican beer but I couldn't stay away from the keyboard. I was still there when Michael came back from his party and we decided then and there to put it down on tape for an album."
Q: How did you create the thunder rolls on the album?
"As I recall they were samples of those huge Japanese drums that are used in rituals. They are hit with huge clubs and I kind of found that sound by mixing a kettle drum with a bass drum, a double bass and something else. I simply found that sound by experimentation. It's not a discreet sound. You see with Lovely Thunder I've broken out of that sensitive mode and gone onto something that I think is a little bit more aggressive and not quite so depending on the spacey, seductive quality. I feel that it's more direct and that I'm drifting away from the lone sound of the acoustic piano. That sort of sound forces you into a kind of aesthetic cul-de-sac."
Q: Was collaborating with the Cocteau Twins much dfferent from working with Brian Eno? Will you be collaborating with others in the future?
"It wasn't terribly different from working with Brian. The result with the Cocteau Twins is that the album The Moon and the Melodies isn't really a Cocteau Twins album and it's not really a Harold Budd album; but it's something that would have been impossible without those four people. Robyn Guthrie (Cocteau Twins' guitarist) did the production and Liz Fraser (vocalist) was involved after the instrumental tracks had been layed down. She selected the tracks she could work with and did it after the fact.
You see by collaborating with them and Brian Eno I'm seriously working with the best there is. This forces me to come up to their standards which means you can't slack off. It has to be total concentration all the time which invariably makes for much better music. Now I know Jon Hassell very well, he's a great artist, and I'd love to collaborate with him. In fact, Jon and I have talked about this and at some point it's going to happen. It would be like going into the studio without any pre-conceived notions about what the music is going to be like, just this immense metaphysical trust."
Q: Do you see your work as part of the whole phenomenon of modern composers like Jon Hassell, Philip Glass, Hans Roedelius, Steve Reich, Michael Brook who are working in the 'ambient' music area?
"I don't see myself being divorced from that and in so far that it might be a clique, I don't feel part of it. I think that each of these people have their own individual voice. I think we all belong over on, say, the left-end of modern music and each person has arrived at these conclusions based upon their own personal histories and it's interesting that it's happening. I don't see it as a 'school', shall we say, and I have difficulty coming to terms with the 'ambient' business. It isn't one of my concerns. I would react negatively against being called an 'ambient musician' and it's not something I want to see in print very often - but it's not as bad as 'new age'!
You see I cannot perceive a situation where music is completely taken for granted so much so that it's a passive experience. I don't think this is something to be strived for. Even though some people make music in this ambient way, I feel that all music can be listened to at many different levels and one cannot pigeon-hole it. You see for me, if someone likes a piece of music and the person who created it likes it as well, I have to presume that there is something fundamental that is agreed upon, and it can't be analysed or stated. That to me is immensely important. The idea of communication is immensely important to me. Even if I the artist and you the listener disagree throughout our personal histories, somewhere along the line there is a fundamental bond and that is very important."
Q: Do you have many other interests outside your work, such as listening to music?
"I don't listen to much music at all. I'm very fond of Jon Hassell's music, of course, and Brian Eno's most certainly, but the most astonishing improvising artist I've ever heard in my life is Terry Riley and I think he's an absolutely fantastically gifted artist. Now that the audience for experimental music is growing, Terry is being recognised. He was there from way back, very early on when it was a very, very esoteric and insecure thing to do.
I admire painters very much and I secretly wish that I were doing that. Part of the reason is that, as a painter, the work you're doing is right in front of you. I mean you get something that you can hold. It's right there and if you have a great idea you can realise it. It's the actual physical doing of it that is very important whereas with music it's all these amorphous ideas which are going to be formulated later on, and it usually works out to be more a case of: 'When can I book the studio?' and 'Will it be open?' or, 'Will I have the flu?' (chuckles loudly)."
I like Harold Budd for his honesty and wisdom. Completely unaffected by the trappings of the music business he never wavers from the purpose of his being. Harold Budd is serious about the art of making music and doesn't want it reduced or labelled. Yet his good humoured chuckles and healthy laughter show a man enjoying himself immensely. I would advise many a cynical music writer, musician or businessman to meet Harold and be swept away by his enthusiasm. He still lives in Southern California with his family and describes his current lifestyle as 'Baroque'. Having struggled for years through the austere world of serious music academicism, he can now afford to just carefully compose for records.
Interview by Mark Prendergast
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