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Harold BuddHarold Budd
Lost In the Humming Air

Harold Budd has been a decisive influence on the development of experimental music for more than 30 years. As he releases his final album, Avalon Sutra, the modest composer and musician tells David Davies about a career spent exploring the quieter reaches of sound

In full view of the evidence, the term ‘reluctant musician’ seems woefully insufficient. Modest regarding his own abilities as a pianist and uneasy about his frequent pigeonholing as an ambient artist, Harold Budd has nonetheless created a handful of defining works in what – for want of a more expressive term – we will have to call modern experimental music..

Not that it’s likely he would acknowledge this fact anyway – in fact, these days he doesn’t seem particularly engaged by music at all. “I have to admit to you that I’m not a music fan,” he says. “I have a generally apt knowledge of what my personal friends may be doing, or have just done, but aside from that music has never been one of my art needs.”

In this context, Budd’s decision to retire from recording following the release of his latest album, Avalon Sutra (Samadhi Sound), doesn’t seem nearly so surprising. It’s a striking final work, Budd’s trademark stark piano and synth lines complemented on occasion by saxophone and a string quartet. While by no means a substantial departure from the musician’s characteristically minimal soundworld, the album’s larger instrumental palette does have the effect of bringing Budd full-circle by recalling his period of more conventional modern classical composition during the mid-‘60s.

What Avalon Sutra also reveals is that, aged 68, Budd’s evocative gifts have in no sense begun to wane, so there can be no avoiding the question: why call it a day now?

Time Gentlemen Please

Harold Budd“I hope I haven’t made a mistake but I’ve found that making CDs has become a chore, and the boredom with the process is becoming really severe,” he admits. “But I’ve always loved the process of pre-recording the most anyway – conception, titles and so on.”

Regrettable though his decision might be, Budd’s existing body of work – around 20 albums, including a host of collaborations – offers plenty for us to be going on with. From early works like The Pavilion of Dreams to Avalon Sutra’s immediate predecessor, the wraithlike The Room, Budd has established a soft but persuasive style, built around a handful of piano or synth notes and subtle atmospherics, all applied like the gentlest of brushstrokes

The collaboration with Brian Eno that produced two of his most striking works – The Plateaux of Mirror (1980) and The Pearl (1984) – inevitably led to the ‘ambient’ tag being applied to his work, but it’s a term he remains uncomfortable with. “I have a great deal of trouble with so-called ‘ambient music’ generally,” he admits.

Budd would also doubtless baulk, and rightly so, at the utterly meaningless epithet ‘New Age’, and has from time to time gone out of his way to highlight the true scope of his work. The 1996 release, Luxa, attracted rave reviews for its contrasting soundscapes – as it turns out, Budd has particularly fond memories of the sessions for this album.

“I loved every moment of it!” he recalls. “I loved working with [engineer] Mike Coleman at his studio in Mesa, Arizona; I loved sipping wine in 110 degree temperatures at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Biltmore Hotel in Phoenix; my nightly supper; my early morning drive...it just all fell out of me.”

Through the Hill, a collaboration with XTC’s Andy Partridge also birthed during the mid-‘90s, highlighted hitherto untapped dramatic potential in Budd’s music, with his keyboard washes and Partridge’s arpeggiated guitar phrases and eerie wordless vocals generating a series of subtle but nuanced soundscapes. Although on the surface an unlikely partnership, Budd had been impressed by an instrumental piece hidden away on an XTC B-side during the mid-‘80s; a “saki-fuelled night in Tokyo” enjoyed by Partridge and mutual friend Ray Hearn years later prompted the suggestion of a collaboration, and the pair duly began to exchange ideas.

The slow but steady evolution of his music down the years has been achieved by an impressive consistency of working practices – it’s clear, for example, that new technology has played little role in developing his technique: “I have zero interest in software and samplers – zero.” Instead, through the adherence to a simplicity and spaciousness of composition, Budd has developed an entirely distinctive style and one that – in its own, diffident way – offers a temporary escape route from the unrelenting sonic assault of contemporary life. Since there is no chance of that abating any century soon, there has probably never been a better time to explore this unique body of work.

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