Harold Budd

Dictionary entry for Contemporary Composers, St James Press London 1992

Harold Budd is a composer who has worked consistently within a limited range of musical resources, of emotional climate, of instrumental colour and of dynamics - a self-imposition that can give, at its best, a conceptual consistency and strength to his work. More than most composers he has remained rooted in the poetic overtones of his native environment -the fringes of Los Angeles. He has often spoken of the importance of his experience of living in the Mojave Desert. He has absorbed salient features of many of the diverse musics that he heard : Mexican Mariachi bands ; the more ruminative forms of free and semi-free jazz ; the film music of Ennio Morricone. From these he has learned the improviser’s sense of space and a kind of musical poise.

Like a number of Californian composers of his generation he has an interest in the more meditative forms of music, in the idea of a controlled musical environment, and in a sense of non-doctrinaire spirituality. Some works from the 1960’s are concerned with the idea of installation, in the visual art sense. Magnus Colorado (1969), for several gongs, asks for a “very soft coloured light” to flood the performance area. Lirio (1971)has the simple notation “under a blue light, roll very lightly on a large gong for a long duration”. Intermission Piece (1968) is a verbal score that sets up conditions for an ambient performance in any intermission (concert, play etc.) in a way not unrelated to Satie’s earliest essays in his musique d’ammeublement (1920). Even Madrigals of the Rose Angel (1972), a later work for female choir, has the note that it should be performed “with dark lighting, maybe blue, preferably from above. It would be nice if the chorus were topless”. To my knowledge this piece still awaits an authentic performance. As late as 1985 he included a piece in the New Music America Festival , Blue Room with Flowers and Gong which continued this concern for a total experience of both music and space. He has often spoken of the impact of the paintings of Mark Rothko on him, and there is a clear connection between these works and minimal or colour-field painters from the 1950’s onwards.

During his period of military service he played drums with Albert Ayler, and several jazz musicians find their way into his conventionally notated works of the 1970’s. Let Us Go Into The House Of The Lord (1974)is based on the playing of Pharoah Saunders ; Butterfly Sunday (1973)is a free transcription of John Coltrane’s After the Rain ; Bismillahi ’Rrahman ’Rrahim (1974-5) was written for Marion Brown, and involves improvisation. These come from the 1970’s, a period in which we find all his notated pieces. They are characterised by extremely slow tempi, a free approach to rhythm with considerable rubato, extreme consonance, and an interest in lush orchestration utilising tuned percussion (celeste, glockenspiel, vibraphone), harps, keyboards (acoustic and electric) and colouristic untuned percussion (wind-chimes, tam-tam, sleigh-bells), accompanying solo instruments or voices. Many pieces have mystical or semi-religious connotations ( the Koran , the Old Testament). At the same time he is fond of the abstraction of vocalise and several works from this period feature vocalise, most notably Madrigals of the Rose Angel (1972), arguably his strongest work from the 1970’s. The voices maintain an extremely slow unison (occasionally octave) melodic line against harmonies that drift from one major seventh chord to another with a quiet inevitability that is completely captivating once the listener accepts the basic premise of stasis and relative uniformity of colour.

It was the recording of these ensemble works in 1978 for Brian Eno’s Obscure label that brought Budd to Europe and set in motion a shift in his career where his work became based in the recording studio, utilising solo keyboards and electronic treatment, collaborating with musicians from popular music such as Brian Eno or the Cocteau Twins. Here the limitation of his method of making pieces through improvising at the keyboard - a method that is less obvious in his notated works - can be apparent. Clearly his interest in ambient forms of music finds an aesthetic response in producers such as Eno. The earliest examples of this work are the least successful, perhaps because of the dominance of collaborators, but by the late 1980’s, with works such as The White Arcades (1988) Budd asserts himself more forcibly and raises himself above the sloppy contemplative vacuity of most New Age music thanks, probably, to his roots in music of greater toughness and durability.

Gavin Bryars

Additions to worklist:
One Sound (1968) String Quartet
Intermission Piece (1968) indeterminate
Lovely Thing (Piano),(1969)
Magnus Colorado (1969) several gongs
The Dragonfly Cymbal (1972) piano
In Delius’ Sleep (1974) clarinet and piano
October Dreams (1977) choir (SATB), texts Jean Toomer, D.G.Rossetti, Paula Bethsebe, e.e.cummings