Avathoir: The death of Harold Budd is the death of a truly unique figure in modern American music: neither a minimalist nor an ambient artist, his music reached a level of sublime beauty at a consistency that hardly anyone has matched. His work is always beautiful, but never superficially pretty, tranquil but never calming, and possessed of the supreme confidence of someone who knows exactly what he’s doing with each note he plays. Perhaps it comes from his background: when he began to become known he’d already married and had children, and he’d had a deep appreciation for medieval music, as opposed to the pattern obsessions of the minimalists who were his contemporaries. He is also my favorite composer of the 20th century alongside Toru Takemitsu (who himself had many things in common with Budd, as if they had the same lessons and interpreted them in different ways). wallflower, what’s your history with Budd and his music?
wallflower: Almost accidental. I knew him first through Brian Eno, specifically through the beautifully curated 3-CD box of Eno’s ambient works from 1993 or so; there are a couple of Budd tracks from his collaborations with Eno, The Pearl and The Plateaux of Mirror. There was something different about those tracks, something not like Eno’s almost mechanical, engineered sense of beauty (this is not a dis on Eno); something Romantic held in check by the spareness of the instrumentation and textures. That led to investigating, discovering, and enjoying other works by Budd, which we’ll get to soon enough. I won’t call him my favorite composer of the 20th century (that’s gotta be Shostakovich) but he was an absolutely singular voice of the time.
Maybe singular isn’t the right word, because you’ve already caught what’s distinctive about him, a kind of musical, even philosophical doubling where the word but has to appear in every description: as ambient as Eno but as lyrical as Chopin; as disturbing as Morton Feldman but as accessible as George Winston; as contemporary as a synthesizer but as medieval as chant; as simple as a chord but as complex as its resonances; as contradictory as thought but as simple as experience. Perhaps more than any other art form, music defies our attempts to represent it, and Budd was one of the artists who worked outside that zone of description.
As he’s your favorite composer, beyond the question of your history with him (although let’s get into that, too), what’s your experience of listening to him? Eno noted how our experience of music affects the music; how do you listen to Budd?
Avathoir: My introduction to Budd like you came from Eno, but for me it came through the Ambient series and the iconic Obscure Records label that he ran. It started with The Plateaux of Mirror, and honestly for me that was all it took. Just reading the title. It was an image so perfect in my mind that I knew I’d love the record when I listened to it, and love it I did. In fact, I loved it so much I based an entire short story around it.
Really, one of the things I love most about Budd is he probably had the best titles of anyone in the game. Each one of them inspires an entire world in my imagination: Lovely Thunder, The Oak of the Golden Dreams, The Serpent (in Quicksilver). I listen to Budd for those whispers of images in his music. At his best, listening to him is like being in a space that you don’t recognize but are thrilled to explore, or seeing something but which is blurred and indistinct. It may be a strange comparison, but one of the reasons I don’t like most murder mysteries is because when the killer is finally revealed alongside their motivations, most of the time I end up disappointed: what I imagined usually feels more compelling to me then the mundanity of a solution. With Budd’s work, your imagination is allowed to be free, and there is nothing disappointing it can resolve itself into.
wallflower: it’s that potential that seems so essential here. Feldman was his closest musical relative (seriously, orchestrate a Feldman piece for synthesizer or trip up Budd’s rhythms just a bit and try to tell them apart) and Feldman’s description of his own method sounds like it applies to Budd: “What I picked up from painting is what every art student knows. And it’s called the picture plane. I substituted for my ears the aural plane and it’s a kind of balance but it has nothing to do with foreground and background. It has to do with, how do I keep it on the plane, from falling off, from having the sound fall on to the floor.”
You can hear that in Budd too. The harmonic climate (and Budd’s harmonies are fairly consistent through his whole career) stays forever unresolved but also not needing to resolve; there is never the “mundanity of a solution.” Like Feldman, the music is painterly in that doesn’t seem to exist in a longer world of time: a minute or a day, doesn’t matter. (To use another Feldman line: “it’s static, but at the same time it’s vibrating.”) He uses resonance, it seems to me, in a conscious and again painterly way, a deliberate blurring of the sound’s edges in contrast to the hard-edged lines of modernism. And there’s an attention to the sheer beauty of instrumental colors; although the acoustic piano keeps showing up in his works, he crafted some of my favorite electronic timbres on The White Arcades. For a good contrast of Budd’s sound to others, compare his collaborations with Eno to Robert Fripp’s. In both cases, you’re hearing a distinct 1970s/80s sound, but the Budd/Eno works are gentle and beautiful (without ever being “superficially pretty” as you said) and Fripp/Eno has a harsh, rock edge to it.
Let’s listen a little more closely. What are some of your favorite works, and why? What have you been listening to the last few days?
Avathoir: I’ve already spoken about my love for Plateaux of Mirror, but in the wake of Budd’s death there have been two records in particular that have captured by attention: La Bella Vista, his solo piano pieces produced by Daniel Lanois (who called Budd one of the best collaborators he’s ever had.) These pieces are fantastic, evoking both sunlight and snowfall in equal measure, his soft pedal style of piano never getting agitated or tired. It reminds me of Chilly Gonzales Solo Piano trilogy, except half the notes are missing at random, yet it somehow still makes perfect sense.
However, his record Perhaps might be the best piece of his for this moment. A live piano piece he performed in honor of Jim Tenney, a friend of his who’d recently died, sums up everything Budd is good at. It’s just him alone with his piano, and he can evoke in just a single chord a lifetime of friendship, and what that loss means to him.
wallflower: He kept coming back to the piano and its Romantic-era sense that it expressed the soul. It was never a vehicle for virtuosity with him, never about showing off, never about technique, but something close to holiness. The resonances he always used and the spaces between the notes made his music feel like it carried a church with it, something closer to the medieval music he loved. There’s an aspect to the musical lines of Perhaps that’s closer to plainchant than any other kind of melody; maybe I’m a fan because there’s something of my childhood in the essence of those lines.
For me, my fave Budd will most likely always be Music for 3 Pianos, his collaboration with Ruben Garcia and Daniel Lentz. Six pieces and half an hour long, this was one of my best blind buys of the CD era. (Shout-out to UC/San Diego’s tiny tiny record store!) The best piece is the first, Pulse – Pause – Repeat, which is exactly that, no more. The harmonies are unmistakably Budd’s, as are the held pedals which keep the sound in the air long after the attacks; the three players are never simultaneous, which further blurs out the sound (Feldman did this in his Piece for Four Pianos too); the brief motives within the chords call up the eternal chorale in Charles Ives’ The Unanswered Question at the other end of the century. Somewhere, I believe in Don deLillo’s Underworld, a painter sez that after the first stroke, every action is trying to get back to the perfection of the blank canvas. You can hear the equivalent in sound in these four minutes, of every note, every strike of hammer into strings, every wave fading away not so much into music but a tense, and yes, beautiful stillness that was Budd’s alone.