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Harold Budd's Music Was Heaven On Earth

Pianist Harold Budd, seen here during a portrait session in 2011, died after contracting COVID-19.
Steve Thorne
Pianist Harold Budd, seen here during a portrait session in 2011, died after contracting COVID-19.

Some artists veer wildly between styles from record to record. And then there are those who discover their sonic identity and stick with it, hardly straying from their one true path. Their life's work is the patient art of inflecting and perfecting.

Harold Budd belongs in this second category of artists, those for whom musical style isn't something you can put on and take off like a costume, but a truth that comes from deep within the self that you discover and distill. Over the course of his four-decade discography, Budd's music floated between ambient, minimalist composition, and dream-pop, but ultimately evaded those categories to gently assert itself as a wholly individual voice. Cherished by a devoted group of fans and admired by musical collaborators like Brian Eno, Cocteau Twins and XTC's Andy Partridge, Budd's slow, tranquil compositions centered around his own piano playing. The Los Angeles-based musician died earlier this week from complications caused by COVID-19, just a few days after testing positive. He was 84.

Budd did not have many colors, but he was their master, as the saying goes. The primary hue in his palette was a snowy-white piano texture so smudged with soft pedal and sustain that it's like hearing Erik Satie through a blizzard. When his melodies wander into the higher octaves, the twinkling tone is so pure and idyllic, it verges on translucent. Across the 30-plus records he made solo and in collaboration, he played other instruments — electric keyboards, synthesizers, early samplers like the Synclavier — but the acoustic piano remained at the heart of his sound. "The way I work is that I focus entirely on a small thing and try to milk that for all it's worth, to find everything in it that makes musical sense," Budd explained in a 1997 interview with Sound on Sound. The trouble with the modern recording studio and all its hi-tech options was that "it gives you the freedom to do everything, and to me everything is a tyranny."

Harold Budd started out as a drummer — which is funny, since his discography is marked by the absence of backbeat and rarely has any percussive element at all. Born in L.A. in 1936, then raised in the Mojave desert town of Victorville, he became bebop mad as a teenager and later rubbed shoulders with Albert Ayler when they were both in the army. Gradually Budd's interest shifted towards the cooler kinds of West Coast jazz. Then, while studying music theory at college, his head was turned around by a lecture given by John Cage, there to talk up his 1961 book, Silence.

Budd's first forays into composition were Cage-damaged and modish in the '60s style: scores that consisted of graphics or brief, open-ended instructions; a 24-hour long performance for gong. Using a Buchla synth, he recorded a droning Terry Riley-like piece called "The Oak of the Golden Dreams" that decades later appeared on — and provided the title of — a joint record with electronic composer Richard Maxfield.

Soon enough Budd turned away from both the post-John Cage American school of chance and reduction and from the stern, sombre atonality of Europeans like Pierre Boulez — the two dominant approaches in the post-war music academy. Instead, he committed himself to what he would later describe as "an ethic of loveliness... It was a political action. I was consciously dissociating myself, and becoming antagonistic toward the American avant garde."

That meant deliberately pursuing music that was "so sweet and pretty and decorative" that it would actively offend his erstwhile peers. The first fruit of Budd's dissidence against dissonance was a 1972 piece influenced by Renaissance music entitled "Madrigals of the Rose Angel." Somehow, a tape of a live performance of a concert that included that piece found its way to the ears of British composer Gavin Bryars, who played it to Brian Eno. He in turn phoned up Budd and invited him to come to the U.K. to make a record. "I owe him everything," Budd once said of the surprise call from Eno. "He changed my life in a way that was extraordinary."

Budd's debut album, The Pavilion of Dreams, came out in 1978 on Obscure, an imprint Eno set up through Island Records to direct attention onto left-field musicians he admired who were starving for an outlet, including then unknown composers like Bryars and Michael Nyman, and experimentalists like David Toop. Pavilion was swiftly followed in 1980 by The Plateaux of Mirror, a full-blown collaboration with Eno recorded in a Hamilton, Ontario, studio part-owned by a brilliant young sound engineer, Daniel Lanois.

/ Obscure

The Plateaux of Mirror became the second release in the Eno-conceived Ambient series, after Music For Airports. Eno's contribution was literally to create the ambience out of which the music emerged, using delays, reverbs, and other effects. "I would set up a sound," Eno recalled, then Budd would improvise the melodies in response. As Budd put it, "I'm listening to the atmosphere at the same time that I'm playing so that the treatment influences what I play." The result of the symbiosis between the two was an intensely visual soundscape that lived up to titles like "First Light," "An Arc of Doves," and "Among Fields of Crystal." But the music's effect isn't just a synesthetic trigger to mind's eye reveries. It's physiological, too: Listening, you find yourself breathing deeper and slower. Time dilates — each moment glistens like a pearl catching the light as it revolves in front of your eyes.

Like many musicians, Budd disliked categories — "ambient" made him uncomfortable, and he was positively scathing about "New Age," describing the concept as "distasteful," a mere "marketing ploy" that smacked of kitschy "science fiction religion." Still, the positioning of his work in those terms didn't hurt when it came to reaching audiences. If the idea of music being healing or therapeutic didn't appeal to Budd, his music's meditational inwardness and the way that it activated visual imagery, through its sound but also titles like "Abandoned Cities" or "Ice Floes in Eden," put it in proximity to the aims and effects of both ambient and the more interesting figures in New Age.

Titles were something of a Budd forte. He wrote poetry and this facility with imagistic language led him to generate a large number of titles for music pieces long before he had composed them. "Very frequently, I carry them around like baggage," Budd revealed in one interview. "I often can't wait to find a piece so I can get rid of a title because it's been haunting me for so long." In the liner notes for the reissue of his 1981 album, The Serpent (In Quicksilver), he wrote of being inspired by "the image of a lethal viper gliding glacially in a pond of mercury ... it's what you see at the end of time."

/ Obscure

In 1984, Budd, Eno and Lanois reprised their Plateaux synergy with The Pearl, another peak in all three men's careers. If the Eno connection brought Budd an audience he'd never imagined reaching, a whole other swath of listeners discovered him through his 1986 collaboration with Cocteau Twins, the Scottish trio whose intricately-textured rhapsodies floated somewhere between eerie Goth and enchanted shoegaze. Released on 4AD, clad in an exquisite sleeve by designer Vaughan Oliver and photographer Nigel Grierson, The Moon and the Melodies was credited to Harold Budd, Elisabeth Fraser, Robin Guthrie and Simon Raymonde. Gorgeous tunes like "Eyes Are Mosaics" sung by Fraser in her liquid chirrup sat alongside diaphanous instrumentals such as "Memory Gongs," as blurry as a watercolor with a little too much water in it. That tune reappeared very slightly altered and with a different title, "Flowered Knife Shadows" on Budd's solo album of 1986, Lovely Thunder.

Budd collaborated frequently across his career, often finding the most sympatico partners in the U.K. and Europe. He made albums with Hector Zazou, XTC's Andy Partridge, John Foxx, and Bill Nelson; he teamed up repeatedly with Cocteau guitarist Robin Guthrie (their last collaboration, Another Flower, came out this summer). Japan's David Sylvian and Steve Jansen coaxed him out of mid-2000s retirement, putting out Budd's albums Avalon Sutraand Perhapson their label Samadhisound.

Despite this proclivity for building artistic relationships based in mutual trust and warm friendship, Budd primarily steered a lone course. Alongside the pair of Eno projects, the characteristic core of his work are the solo records, albums like Abandoned Cities, Lovely Thunder, The White Arcades and Luxa. These are records that not only refute the idea that artists ought to develop, they in some profound way challenge the idea of progress itself, hinting that the true goal of art is to achieve suspension from time altogether.

Quickly pulling together a tribute like this puts you in a mind state that couldn't be further from what Harold Budd's music is all about. Every so often, amid the frenetic collating of information and quotation, the sifting and sequencing, I had to remind myself to take a deep breath and listen to the wordless wisdom contained in his sound.

Although its aura is ethereal and unworldly, Budd's music is actually an exemplary form of humanly useful music. When the mundane urgencies of life, or the nonsense of our political culture, get you frazzled, which is pretty much every day these days, you can put on this music and imbibe its stillness and grace. His records are exactly the kind of music you'd play for calm and solace during a bereavement — or at a service sending someone to their final resting place. Harold Budd sounds like heaven on earth.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Simon Reynolds