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Lecture Notes: Harold Budd, unclassifiable musician



Harold Budd isn't happy about the fact that Tower Records in New York stocks his records in the "new age" bin. "Arrggghhh!" he eloquently responds from his home in Los Angeles. "I hope they never pass gun control laws in this country." But the news that Chicago's Rose Records keeps him in the avant-garde section is no consolation. "That's even worse. I think I'll go back to the new age bins."

At 51, Harold Budd is an unclassiflable musical phenomenon. Although he's collaborated with Brian Eno and the English pop band the Cocteau Twins, there's really nothing in the empty spaces of his music that would be likely to attract a mass, or even rock and roll, audience. His music's eerie tension and weighty atmosphere rule him out as a new age composer; no yuppie would find relaxation in Budd's dark new album Lovely Thunder. Budd's relation to the avant-garde is equally tenuous; he uses no "contemporary techniques" such as serialism, computer synthesis, extended instrumental devices, etc. Though minimalism fans often like Budd's music, it contains none of the repetitions or driving rhythms associated with that style. Early in his career, he had some conceptual pieces published in the avant-garde journals Source and Soundings, but aside from those identifiably west coast roots, Budd's music is simply -- Budd's music.

"People ask me what kind of composer I am. I say, 'You'll have to listen to the record.'"

So you may have to search your local record store pretty thoroughly for Budd's albums: The Pavilion of Dreams, Abandoned Cities, The Plateaux of Mirror (with Brian Eno), The Serpent (In Quicksilver). It's worth the effort. Usually created solo by overdubbing acoustic and electric piano and synthesizers, Budd's laid-back soundscapes are unlike any other music. His slowly shifting harmonies have the force and subtlety of the desert wind, and the sparse melodies laid over them conjure up irresistible moods. Those moods are rarely lighthearted; a vague disquietude is Budd's trademark, and his music is as disturbing as it is compelling. Significantly, he cites as the most formative influence on his work the paintings of Mark Rothko.

Budd admits to having shown little musical ability in his youth. Starting out as a jazz percussionist, he got the opportunity to play with saxophone great Albert Ayler during a stint in the Army. Afterward, Budd became involved with the California conceptualist/minimalist movement, writing instruction pieces along with Terry Riley, Lamonte Young, and others. In one early piece, Lovely Thing, the pianist is instructed to play one chord many times as softly as possible; another, Candy Apple Revision, cryptically states only "D-flat major." In one statement about his music Budd wrote, "Insofar as I feel all art to be utterly worthless (no redeeming social value), I'm interested in that what I do is pretty (terrifying, gripping, sensitive, relaxing, hypnotic, spiritual -- all to the side for the moment); an existential prettiness, a kind of high-art uselessness." In the meantime, Budd taught art to pay the bills. Finally, new wave/ambient composer and record producer Brian Eno heard Budd's The Pavilion of Dreams, and asked to record it. Since then, Eno and Budd have collaborated on two albums.

Today Budd's music is made of more substantial stuff, but prettiness is still high on his list of priorities. His strategy, as expressed in a recent interview, is "to make my music as beautiful as possible at every moment." He now says, "That's very definitely still my aim. It's an unobtainable goal -- but so what? It sounds like a great idea to me."

Critics have more than once noted a Zen-like emptiness in Budd's work. His standard reply to such high-minded speculations is that his music has more to do with the Mojave Desert than the Far East. "I've laid that Mojave Desert bit on a lot of people. The thing is, someone once listened to my music and said to me, 'You were obviously influenced by Japanese art; your music sounds very Japanese.' I countered very brusquely, because I don't know anything about Japanese art." Budd's laughter is contagious.

"I grew up in California, and part of my boyhood was spent in the desert, out in the middle of nowhere. Victorville, no one's ever heard of it, so don't feel bad. A lot of people would have thought it was hell, but to me it was paradise. I can't imagine any artist not being influenced by what they were when they were kids. It's not that the desert influences me; that sounds like a very romantic idea. I don't go out there when I get writer's block, and then say, 'Boy, I can't wait to get back to Los Angeles and write some music.' I can't pinpoint it, but the desert is part of my music."

Budd's only appearance here to date has been the performance of his gorgeous piano solo Children on the Hill at New Music America '82 at Navy Pier. This Wednesday, Peter Gena will bring Budd to the School of the Art Institute for his second Chicago appearance, a lecture/demonstration rather than a performance -- but don't expect anything conventional.

"Live performance is something I've never felt very comfortable with anyway. I'm not a gifted keyboard player, I've never claimed that, but what I do is something that no one else does. . . . I'm coming armed with a lot of work I've done, I want to talk about the processes I go through, and the mistakes I've made. To tell you the truth, I like that kind of function, talking with other artists, better than lecturing or giving a straight performance. I'm coming to press the flesh with my colleagues that I haven't met yet.

Budd's talk will center on the ways in which he makes his music: collaborating, performing, and recording. The latter two, he says, are very different. "The recording is the end result in my music. For me, recording is part of the compositional process. When I perform, I play with an idea, improvise around it, see where it goes. I wouldn't document a performance and put it out on a record. That's just not the way my brain thinks."

Many know Budd primarily through his work with others, and Brian Eno is on his list of topics for discussion. "Ask Eno what it's like working with me," he grins, "and you'll probably get a very different story. It's not always a bed of roses. Collaboration is an act of faith. It's not a shotgun wedding of this guy's personality and that guy's; you don't know what's going to happen. You go in with no fixed ideas, and hope that whatever comes out will be something different than either of you would have produced on your own."

The second Chicago appearance of Harold Budd will take place Wednesday at 7 PM in the auditorium of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Columbus Drive at Jackson. Admission, believe it or not, is free. For information, call 443-3711.

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