Born in Los Angeles, California (1936), Harold Budd had music ingrained from childhood, be it the Protestant hymnals sung in church, the Mariachi music from East LA, or the strains of the harmonium the he recalled his mother played so beautifully. Harold was only 13 when his father passed away, and soon his family fell out of their comfortable middle class existence. He was sent him up to the desert to live with friends and relatives as often as possible, but the reality in Los Angeles was growing up in a tough neighborhood, and as the oldest son, being the man of the house. During this time Black culture had an enormous impact on Harold, especially jazz music and bebop, and he could be found in his teen age years playing drums in bars and jazz clubs in South Central Los Angeles. After high school, Harold went to work at Northrup, working a blue collar job to support the family. At 21, he decided to get himself an education and enrolled at Los Angeles Community College for a course in music theory. “From that moment on,” he recalls, “I had an insatiable appetite. Harmony, counterpoint, Renaissance music: I really heard it for the first time.”
After a stint in the army where he played drums in an army band with avant-garde jazz saxophonist Albert Ayler, Harold studied under Schoenberg protegé Gerald Strang and received his undergraduate degree from Cal State Northridge. He then received a scholarship to study under Ingolf Dahl at the University of Southern California. It was there that he discovered the abstract expressionist paintings of Mark Rothko. These “brilliant blasts of color that simply engulfed you” held an enormous significance for Harold, but the ability to translate such sensations into musical terms still eluded him.
As Harold recalled, “In the very early '60s, John Cage had an enormous impact on me -- but I must say more through his writings and the example of his lifestyle than through his music. He showed us that it was possible to be an artist without selling out to the academy, and to go directly into art itself. That was an important heroic posture for almost all American artists at that time.” It was a diverse universe of music that Harold drew upon in these formative years, and he was not only influenced by avant-garde artists like Morton Feldman and Terry Riley, but also by the music of Pharoah Sanders. Harold remembered that Sander’s music, “seemed to me to kind of allude to a very undisguised tonal music. It was exactly what it was. It was that note at that time and it was the right one. I loved that idea. To a large extent I confess that I was influenced by that more than I can really say.”
In 1966, when presenting his ground breaking orchestral piece Rothko, he was told that it was rhythmically too complex and could not be done. Harold proved otherwise and soon after received his Master’s Degree in musical composition. Afterward, speaking with Ingolf Dahl about whether he should continue on for a higher degree, Professor Dahl told him, “no, go out and compose”. He did, and became a respected name in the circle of minimalist and avant-garde composers based in Southern California and during the late ‘60s.
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).
Harold saw the answer to the problems of "sterile" avant-garde music in the tight structures of minimalism, and he started to bring his music back to bare and tonal essentials. However, the direction he took was different to other minimalists. Firstly he steered clear of the 'pattern music' of Reich and Glass, and secondly he became "fascinated by old-fashioned music, like mediaeval and Renaissance music. I found delights and wonder in a musical language that was really uncool, that was really unhip and had nothing to do with avant-garde, and that was also different from the starkness of much minimalistic music. When I made my break from avant-garde in 1970, both psychologically and aesthetically, I pretty much rejected everything I had done until then, but didn't quite know which direction to go in. But once I hit on my interest in older music, I found a new direction, in which I purposely tried to create music that was so sweet and pretty and decorative that it would positively upset and revolt the avant-garde, whose ugly sounds had by now become a new orthodoxy. Hard as is it is to imagine now, the prettiness of my music was very much a political statement at the time."
Although Harold’s music is intimately associated with his unique “soft-pedal” style of piano, he did not actually take up the instrument until his late 30’s. He rebelled against the conventional notion that composers should also be keyboardists. When he finally did teach himself to play piano, the impetus was pure necessity. "I wrote a piece in 1972 called Madrigals of the Rose Angel, and it was sent off for a public performance back East somewhere. I wasn’t there, but I got the tape and I was absolutely appalled at how they missed the whole idea. I told myself, ‘This is never going to happen again. From now on, I take full charge of any piano playing.’ That settled that.”
Madrigals of the Rose Angel was a gently hypnotic work for harp, electric piano, celeste, percussion and lulling, angelic chorus - “my favorite instuments”. It marked a turning point in his young career, and when it caught the attention of British producer and musician Brian Eno, Harold was offered a recording contract with EG Records, who released his debut album, The Pavilion of Dreams, in 1978. Just as Rothko had been his ground breaking piece at the beginning of his musical journey, The Pavilion of Dreams was what he considers his birth as a serious artist. Eno inspired Harold with the attitude of absolute bravery to go in any direction.
In the early eighties, Harold began using the recording studio as an instrument in his compositions, not merely as a facility for documenting them. His two collaborative efforts with Brian Eno Ambient 2: The Plateaux of Mirror (1980) and with Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois The Pearl (1984) were landmark albums in the emerging musical genre of ambient music. Harold himself has never been comfortable with the description of his music as ambient, stating that, “it’s meant to mean something, but is in fact, meaningless. I don’t think about genres. I don’t think about labels: they don’t have meanings.” His two self-produced works during this period The Serpent (in Quicksilver) and Abandoned Cities, explore darker textures, and show why his music defies such easy classification. With the steel guitar of Chas Smith, and the country-western influenced guitar of Gene Bowen, these two albums perhaps more than any others evoke memories of the desert and the sounds of Los Angeles, and the subtle disturbances and disquiet that lurk beneath. As Michael Padletta of Billboard Magazine wrote, “Like the Southwest desert landscapes of his youth, Harold Budd’s music has a thin veneer of serenity, masking a mood that is dark and dangerous.”
Ever restless and searching for new challenges, Harold left Los Angeles and lived in England from 1986 to 1991 and recalled in an interview that, “I had a wonderful life there. I had a British version of a green card, and I traveled all over the continent and concertized a lot and had quite a professional life there. I had to get out of America to get a professional life going where I could actually make a living.” It was in London that Harold formed an unlikely collaboration with Robin Guthrie and the Cocteau Twins with the release of The Moon and the Melodies (1986). It was Harold’s first foray into popular music, and though at the time many of his admirers leveled heavy criticism at it, this album has grown in stature over the years. It also represented Harold’s boldness to go in new directions and learn and experiment with new collaborators.
Harold followed with two acclaimed solo works, Lovely Thunder (1986), co-produced with Michael Hoenig, and The White Arcades (1988), produced by Robin Guthrie in Edinburgh, Scotland. Lovely Thunder grew out of an art installation for a US sponsored program called New Music America. Harold’s work entitled Blue Room with Flowers and a Gong recalled his audio/visual work of the late 1960’s. In Harold’s words it was, “a room full of blue light, very dark, with a large polished gong hanging from the ceiling with lights on it and the room full of big flowers, taller than me and a lovely smell. I liked Gypsy Violin (the title of the music) so much that I decided to make an album out of it.”
By the Dawn ‘s Early Light (1991) signaled Harold’s return to the US, and a departure from studio-produced albums and return to a more formal mode of composition focusing on his personal fondness for unusual, idiosyncratic instrumental combinations (in this case, harp, pedal steel guitar, electric guitar, and viola) and short, spoken word poems. With its haunting Western imagery and lonesome, open sounds, this album also marked a return to a recurring theme of Harold’s music, the mystery, the beauty, and the mythology of the desert. She is a Phantom (1994) continued this return to ensemble performance and poetry, teaming with Zeitgeist, an American contemporary ensemble.
Harold followed up with two collaborative efforts that took his music in entirely new directions. Harold recorded Through the Hill (1994), with XTC’s Andy Partridge, an unlikely combination of talents from opposite ends of the recording spectrum and one of his most critically and commercially acclaimed collaboration albums to date. Glyph (1995) with Hector Zazou, the French techno-rock producer, was described by Harold as “carving on a large stone with our tools and then waiting until later to find out what we said.”
With Luxa, (1996), Harold returned to the spaciousness that characterized 1988’s White Arcades. Despite its spaciousness, however, Luxa is harsher and starker, features much more solo piano, and employs more rhythmic devices. In the words of a reviewer from 1997, “Luxa is a minor masterpiece that demonstrates that there's still life in ambient music, and that it's still possible to make a meditative musical work that's neither New Age kitsch, nor weighed down by the numbing repetitiveness and sterile conceptualism that's hampered the minimalist and ambient genres for so long.”
Harold followed this with an unusual album, Walk Into My Voice: American Beat Poetry (1988) that consisted of a selection of poems dominated by the cultural influence of the American Beat Generation. The 33 brief poems included in this CD are recited by Harold himself and by Jessica Karraker, with background music composed by Harold and Daniel Lentz. His next album The Room (2000) expanded upon the eponymous song from his 1988 release The White Arcades. It was, as the Los Angeles Times reviewed, “A collection of rooms, including a flowered room and one dedicated to forgotten children; it serves as a conceptual springboard from which ambient alchemist Harold Budd creates 13 vignettes of bewitching subtlety.”
Harold continued to challenge his musical boundaries with collaborations with punk and new wave pioneer Jah Wobble with a live performance in Solaris (2002) and with electronica and downtempo artists Filia Brazilia in Three White Roses and a Budd (2002). Translucence/Drift Music (2003) was a collaboration with another English punk rock / new wave pioneer, John Foxx of Ultravox. La Bella Vista (2003) is an album of Harold playing acoustic piano surreptitiously recorded by U2 producer Daniel Lanois.
Let go by Atlantic records, and feeling distaste for the music business in America, Harold created what was to be his “farewell” album, Avalon Sutra (2004). By chance, he met yet another British new wave pioneer, David Sylvian, in Los Angeles and agreed to release the new album on David’s small, independent label, Samadhi Sound. Considered by some to be Harold’s finest work, Avalon Sutra showcases his compositional insights by combining string quartet, woodwinds, and synthesizer with his own haunting acoustic piano. As Peter Marsh of BBC Music reviewed:
Whatever the delights of his back catalogue, to my ears Avalon Sutra is possibly Budd's most consistently ravishing work. It owes a lot to the largely acoustic textures of The Pavilion of Dreams, his 1978 debut for Eno's Obscure label. Influenced equally by the more meditative moments of Alice Coltrane and Pharoah Sanders as well as minimalist Cage piano works like In a Landscape, it mapped out an area that he's not often returned to since.
Augmented by the woodwinds of Phillip Glass collaborator Jon Gibson and the occasional appearance of a string quartet, the composer's piano offers gentle, rippling arpeggios and skeletal, yearning melodies characterised as much by the space between the notes as the notes themselves. The four duets with Gibson are tiny gems; melancholic but never maudlin.
The pieces with string quartet makes me wish Budd had done more in this vein, or that maybe he'd stick around and do some more. For the remainder of the record the piano is left alone, sometimes with the haze of distant electronic textures. Nothing outstays its welcome; nothing is out of place.
However, Harold’s “retirement” proved short lived, and his restless energy over the last decade has included 15 releases, including 12 studio albums. Five of these albums saw Harold reunite with Robin Guthrie of the Cocteau Twins, including the soundtracks of two Greg Araki films, Mysterious Skin (2005) and the just released White Bird in a Blizzard (2014). Three albums with guitarist Clive Wright marked a productive period while living in Joshua Tree, including the lovely album Candylion (2009). Bandits of Stature (2012) saw Harold employ a string quartet to play haunting and soulful pieces written in memoriam for his late wife, Ellen Wirth. In 2013 Harold finished a year long project with the video artist Jane Maru. Once again he explored new territory by entering the studio with no preparation, no notes or even ideas and recorded whatever came up in the particular session. Whatever he did was mixed and pressed without ever being revisited. The result is two albums, Jane 1-11 (2013), and Jane 12-21 (2014), that highlight Harold’s improvisational genius.
Harold’s music continues to influence many generations of musicians, from U2’s sampling for Cedars of Lebanon (2009) to an anthology of 13 contemporary ambient musicians paying homage to Harold in Lost in the Humming Air (2012). Meanwhile, Harold continued to create and innovate, and in 2018 and 2019 he performed new and beautiful music at the Toledo Museum of Art and then at a headlining set of performances at Big Ears Music Festival.
Harold passed away in 2020, thank you to all of his kind fans for their words of comfort and support.