Harold Budd : utterly no interest in labels

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It’s a strange thing for anyone to say, but from a renowned composer it’s especially baffling. “I’m not much of a music fan,” says Harold Budd towards the end of a warm, engaging if occasionally mystifying conversation. “I just don’t listen to music – at all!” Even more surprising, perhaps, is the fact that the 77-year-old doesn’t even own his favoured instrument: a piano. “I think they’re ugly things,” he chuckles. “Architecturally speaking, and in other ways. So to actually live with a piano? Well, that would really insult my aesthetic sense.”

There are other ways in which the American composer, over a career spanning several decades, has trodden his own path. His early compositions embraced 1960s minimalism, yet he soon felt so trapped by the movement’s conceptualism it caused him to (temporarily) retire. He helped pioneer ambient music with Brian Eno in the early 1980s, yet has little regard for the tag – or tags in general. “I just have utterly no interest in that sort of thing,” he sighs. And despite his highbrow credentials (Budd has composed for string quartets, choirs and even penned an extended gong solo), he has devoted much of his career to collaborating with British pop stars, from Cocteau Twins to Jah Wobble.

To confuse things further, Budd cites not music but visual art (in particular, the abstract expressionists Mark Tobey and Jackson Pollock) as his chief inspiration, although the notion that he’s somehow immune to the thrill of music isn’t true. As a teenager, he fell in love with the electrifying sound of bebop and went on to play drums for saxophonist Albert Ayler’s band while serving in the army. “I wanted to be the world’s greatest jazz drummer,” he says. “And I failed at that!”  (The Guardian)

“Honestly, I have no idea why I was tagged as “minimalist”. I’m so minimal, I’m not even minimalist!  I don’t like minimalism, and I never have.”

Harold Budd (born May 24, 1936) is an American avant-garde composer and poet. He was born in Los Angeles, and raised in the Mojave Desert. He has developed a style of playing piano he terms “soft pedal”.

Budd’s career as a composer began in 1962. In the following years, he gained a notable reputation in the local avant-garde community.  In 1966, he graduated from the University of Southern California (having studied under Ingolf Dahl) with a degree in musical composition. As he progressed, his compositions became increasingly minimalist. Among his more experimental works were two drone music pieces, “Coeur d’Orr” and “The Oak of the Golden Dreams”. After composing a long-form gong solo titled “Lirio”, he felt he had reached the limits of his experiments in minimalism and the avant-garde. He retired temporarily from composition in 1970 and began a teaching career at the California Institute of the Arts.

“The road from my first colored graph piece in 1962 to my renunciation of composing in 1970 to my resurfacing as a composer in 1972 was a process of trying out an idea and when it was obviously successful abandoning it. The early graph piece was followed by the Rothko orchestra work, the pieces for Source Magazine, the Feldman-derived chamber works, the pieces typed out or written in longhand, the out-and-out conceptual works among other things, and the model drone works (which include the sax and organ “Coeur d’Orr” and “The Oak of the Golden Dreams”, the latter based on the Balinese “Slendro” scale which scale I used again 18 years later on “The Real Dream of Sails”).  (from the 1988 CD The White Arcades)

Working with Brian Eno changed Budd’s life. “I owe Brian everything,” he says, “But the primary thing was attitude. Absolute bravery to go in any direction. I once read an essay by the painter Robert Motherwell and he pointed out a truth that is so obvious and simple that it’s overlooked: ‘Art without risk is not art.’ I agree with that profoundly. Take a flyer – and if it fails don’t let it crush you. It’s just a failure. Who cares?”

Eno and Budd were soon hailed as the godfathers of ambient thanks to collaborations such as 1980’s Ambient 2: The Plateaux of Mirror and 1984’s The Pearl. Budd embarked on collaborations with other British artists: John Foxx, Andy Partridge, David Sylvian. “I couldn’t get arrested in America,” he says. “But as soon as I landed in Britain, I was taken seriously as an artist. What a change from just a few hours earlier!”

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