Features I by I 03.03.14

“Art without risk is pointless”: A conversation with avant-garde composer Harold Budd

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At 77 years old, Harold Budd has seen musical trends come and go, and has managed to avoid all of them.

The composer’s passion for music was awakened in Los Angeles, where he grew up, but it wasn’t the piano – the instrument on which Budd is most widely celebrated – that was his initial weapon of choice. As a teenager, he was awed by jazz – bebop particularly – and was magnetically drawn to controlled chaos of the drums. This path led to a particularly interesting collaboration, as upon being drafted by the U.S. army, Budd ended up playing rhythm in a military band, accompanying none other than famed free jazz pioneer Albert Ayler.

When Budd returned home, he resumed his study of music theory and found his world cracked open by a fascination with minimalist composition and painting (a common thread in his catalogue). This was the spark he needed to embark on a long recording career that would see him positioned as one of the world’s most respected avant-garde pianists. Not bad for someone who taught himself the instrument simply so he could play his own keyboard parts.

You see there’s far more to Harold Budd than meets the eye, and while there’s a tendency to write off avant-garde composers as withdrawn, frosty and entrenched in academia, this simply doesn’t apply to Budd. When I spoke to the composer on a warm California morning, he was funny, open and incredibly warm.


“There I was in the new age category and I just thought ‘Jesus Christ, how can I escape from these mindless bastards?'”


As it turns out, his first steps into the world of recorded music were nowhere near as labored and pointed as you might expect, listening back almost 45 years later. His debut album – and still the most experimental set he’s committed to wax – 1970’s The Oak of the Golden Dreams / Coeur D’Orr), might sound meticulous and well-planned, but there was a far more functional reason for its compisition. “I had to ask someone how long an album was,” he admits. “They said ’20 minutes’, and I said ‘right’. So that dictated the form – pretty mindless isn’t it?”

It was eight years later when Budd’s next album, the quite rightly acclaimed Pavilion of Dreams surfaced, and it boasted a production credit from ambient music champion Brian Eno. Budd’s association with Eno gave record stores and magazines the nudge they needed to classify his gusty compositions as more of the same. New age particularly, was “the most annoying of all,” says Budd. “That one frosted my balls so much. I was just enraged every time I’d walk into a Tower Records or Virgin Megastore or something like that. There I was in the new age category and I just thought ‘Jesus Christ, how can I escape from these mindless bastards?’”



Even so, this collaboration would be the first of many that would drag Budd across the Atlantic, and he quickly fell in love with the British pace of life. “I had no trouble adjusting at all, I loved everything about it. It was so different for me; I had never seen anything like it. I loved the lilt of the British accent, I loved the pubs, I loved the food – still do, it’s never gone away.”

Indeed he soon returned to England for his most high profile collaboration, one which introduced a legion of new fans (myself included) to his music – The Moon and the Melodies. The record matched Budd with ascendant dream-pop outfit The Cocteau Twins, and still stands as the most accessible of his career. Budd remembers, “I got a call from [4AD boss] Ivo Watts-Russell and he told me that The Cocteau Twins were going to cover one of the songs from The Plateaux of Mirror, and I said that’s a really great idea. They asked if I had any tips, any hints about how to go about it, and of course I didn’t, no. One thing led to another, and I met them at their concert here in Los Angeles back in 1986 I think, and Ivo invited me to London to record a full on album with them, which I was delighted to do because I adored their music, like everybody else. So that was pretty much the genesis of it all.”


“I would almost give up my life for a pint of John Smith’s”


It marked the beginning of a new chapter in the composer’s life. Budd enjoyed his time in London so much that he found a flat in the city and remained there until the early 1990s, and still regards it as “the greatest city in the world.” He has fond recollections of London’s many museums, which he judged on the “quality of their cafes” (The Victoria and Albert being the “gold standard”), and also made a point of exploring the rest of the UK’s green and pleasant land. He toured the country “from north to south,” retaining a particular affection for Wales, commenting that he had “never seen countryside like that in my life, and I just adored it.” He also recalls visiting Yorkshire a number of times to meet with fellow musical explorer Bill Nelson, but assures me that it wasn’t to “record or play,” but “just to sit down and go to a pub and talk endlessly,” savoring pints of local real ale. “I would almost give up my life for a pint of John Smith’s,” he informs me, longingly. “Actually there is a pub a short distance from me and they do sell IPA but it’s not the same thing by a long shot. But what the hell, it’s all there is, so you know, I do it, of course.”

After a few years in London, Budd returned to Los Angeles, and confesses that he was feeling pretty sorry for himself, caught on the tail end of a broken relationship. He needed to “escape” from his situation, to “catch a breath and find out what the hell was happening,” and luckily Brian Eno had recently established a management company in Los Angeles for like-minded artists, such as John Hassell and Led Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones. This was the opportunity Budd needed to make the relocation worthwhile: “I thought this was a chance for me to return and take a look at my original home and experiment, see what happens.” As it happens, he met another girl and ended up in Los Angeles for the duration.

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Deep personal relationships are at the very core of Budd’s creative career, and he’s very pleased to declare that the artistic bonds he’s nurtured over the years have actually held strong. “All those people, for the most part, that I’ve collaborated with have remained really good friends to this day,” he says, happily. “I’m so honored to have been given the opportunity to work with artists whose work I truly admire above all others.”

Sometimes his musical friendships haven’t even had to result in traditional collaboration, either. “The one collaboration that never occurred and never would occur would be David Sylvian, whose work I admire above all others. I just love everything he does. There is a really good reason, it’s because although one thing is good and another thing is good, putting them together doesn’t make it twice as good. In fact it could be a disaster, and I’ve never wanted that to happen.”

He describes his and Sylvian’s respective sounds as “contemplative, a little bit abstract, maybe too abstract at times,” but refuses to apologize, offering the endearingly combative, “so what? Art without risk is pointless.”


“Although one thing is good and another thing is good, putting them together doesn’t make it twice as good.”


Sylvian instead took the opportunity to release Budd’s outstanding (and at the time, supposedly final) album Avalon Sutra, a record that remains a high point in the composer’s catalogue, and Perhaps, which was reissued last year by San Francisco outfit Root Strata. Discussing the Root Strata connection, Budd is reminded of a trip to rural Montana. “I was gonna go visit a girl – friend, not a girlfriend – in rural Montana. The day before that I was driving around endlessly, and I came across a road which led to a place called Mount Baldy. It’s where Leonard Cohen resides, in a monastery, and I thought ‘I’ve got an idea’, that last book of poems by him, I think I will give to this girl who I’m going to visit tomorrow.

“I drove down to the little town, and went inside a store. Sure enough, they had it, the book of poetry called Book Of Longing. That record was out, and I didn’t know it was out, but all the clerks in the store brought it over to me and I was asked to sign it. It was a complete surprise to me, and within a couple of days my copies showed up on my doorstep and there you go. That’s my Perhaps story.”

Budd’s most enduring collaboration is with The Cocteau Twins’ Robin Guthrie. The two collaborated memorably on the soundtrack to Greg Araki’s acclaimed 2005 feature film Mysterious Skin and have recorded together a number of times since. They have reached the point even where they don’t even have to see each other face-to-face to compose naturally and convincingly, and finished the soundtrack to Araki’s new film White Bird in a Blizzard without ever sharing a studio.



“We didn’t work together at all,” Budd reveals. “Robin was in his studio in France, and I was in my studio I use all the time in the Little Tokyo section of Los Angeles, and we communicated by telephone, but the music was communicated by email.”

He confesses that the method was surprisingly painless, “When I hear Robin start his patented sound – Robin’s sound – it’s so easy for me to know exactly what I want to do. I mean, I really take my cue about what’s going to happen from him entirely, and thank God for that because I don’t have to come up with anything. It’s kind of lazy really. I’m sorry to have to admit that, but he is so easy to work with. And it’s so rewarding. He’s the magic bullet for me.”

Budd’s most recent collaboration has been with visual artist Jane Maru, something especially fitting given the composer’s “particular fondness for painters.” The project was particularly interesting as Budd decided to force himself to work under a very particular set of restrictions, “My rules to myself were to finish one piece minimum a day, don’t come back and revisit, don’t do anything, don’t revisit. Just don’t do it. Don’t use a microphone – it has to be mixed and ready to go, and then forgotten about. I’ll hear it months later, and that’s it. And I take them as I do them number one precedes number two, which precedes number three.”


“I recorded it laying on the couch with my leg in the air to get the blood flowing correctly”


While he’s not particularly sure of his own reasoning (“Of course there has to be a reason but I’ll be god damned if I know what it is”), Budd does admit that he’s been very interested in spontaneity and showing the blemishes in his work, especially in the digital age. He was certainly surprised to read that he wasn’t alone in his quest, when he spotted an interview with Belgian artist Luke Tuymans, whose project Stage Fright dealt with a similar set of restrictions. “He doesn’t have a clue what he’s going to do [in advance], but he’s going to finish one painting a day, and he means finished. No going back and touching up and erasing – finished, that’s it. And I thought to myself ‘Jesus Christ, I’m not the only one’. And that was really awakening for me; I thought ‘wow, I’m not alone in this world, amazing’.”

His struggle against perfection has already provoked some surprising results. Budd thinks back to a particular piece called ‘Jane 16’ (from his forthcoming album, tentatively titled Jane 12-21), “I had injured my leg,” he says. “I could scarcely walk at all, and I did a piece with multiple wine glasses only, and that’s all there is to ‘Jane 16’.

“I recorded it laying on the couch with my leg in the air to get the blood flowing correctly, and no piano, nothing, just these wine glasses. And at random went through them six times, so I had a fairly thick track of just these random wine glass sounds – being hit by little teeny screwdrivers or thumbnails. I had no idea what was going to happen. So I have two and a half minutes, that was long enough for me, I got bored.

“I was so shocked at how accurate it seemed, and there was no planning or nothing. There was no performance, honestly. Things just happened, and it was me making them happen, but I’m not playing anything at all. I thought that was really cool to be honest.”

For a musician who has watched four decades pass in his recording career, to still be surprising himself and his audience is an admirable feat. His future plans however are admirably foggy, “I have no idea about what’s coming up next. I suppose I should be concerned about that. I don’t like counseling people to be blasé, because if nothing was happening for a long time it would be maddening, but I’m not there yet, so I don’t know.”

He’s not worried, and neither should we be.



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