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Harold Budd - An Obituary

Harold Budd – composer, musician


Born May 24, 1936; died December 8, 2020 


Harold Budd, who has died aged 84 from complications caused by Covid-19, was a composer and pianist whose work left its mark with a slow burning intensity. This was as evident on Brian Eno produced albums such as The Plateaux of Mirror (1980) as it was on later records with Robin Guthrie. These included the soundtrack to Gregg Araki’s film, White Bird in a Blizzard (2014), and the recently released Another Flower (2020). 


Inbetween came a substantial body of work that felt as elongated as some of the notes played on Budd’s spacious and intricately constructed compositions.  Whether working with such fellow travellers or carving out his musical atmospheres solo, Budd’s palette remained constant. Playing with what he described as ‘soft pedal’, a form of gentle footwork that gave keys different tones, his work was both insistent and barely there. Every sustained note seemed to hang in the air with a woozy, off-centre echo that oozed beguilingly into each other.  From this emerged slow motion sonic cascades that morphed into alluringly amorphous shapes.


At times it felt like the seeming delicacy of Budd’s impressionistic soundscapes might cause them to be blown away in the breeze, and it was all he could do to keep his hands on the keyboard to prevent them being lost to the ether. Despite this, Budd rejected the ‘ambient’ tag his work was too often saddled with. In truth, he created something more demanding than the new age connotations the word eventually brought with it. It was this tension that gave his compositions their strength.


Budd looked to painters such as Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock for inspiration more than musicians. Eno once described Budd as “a great abstract painter trapped in the body of a musician.” In its evocation of emotional intimacy, Budd’s work recalled Satie or Debussy, as he coloured each phrase to provoke a lingering calm that could potentially hover forever.


Harold Montgomery Budd was born in Los Angeles, California, to Harold and Dorothy Budd. He was raised in Victorville, close to the Mojave Desert. A sense of this vast expanse on his doorstep arguably filtered subliminally into his music.


During his time in the army, he played drums in the military band with free jazz saxophonist Albert Ayler. Budd made his living playing Los Angeles nightclubs, and worked various jobs before enrolling in an architecture course at Los Angeles Community College. He later transferred to do a course in harmony, where he was encouraged to compose.


With his earliest works dating from 1962, this led Budd to study composition at the University of Southern California. He graduated in 1966, a heady time in new music, which saw him create drone based minimalist works influenced by the likes of John Cage and Morton Feldman.


Like the spaces in his music, there were moments when Budd threatened to disappear entirely. He did it a first time in 1970, when he gave up composition, having what he later described as “minimalised myself out of existence”. Budd said he was disgusted by what he called the “academic pyrotechnics” of the avant-garde world.


Budd moved into teaching at the California Institute for the Arts, and released his first album, The Oak of the Golden Dreams/Coeur D’Orr (1971). Through composer Gavin Bryars hearing his work, Eno got in touch, leading to the release of The Pavilion of Dreams (1978) on Eno’s Obscure record label. Budd followed this with The Plateaux of Mirror (1980), the second in Eno’s Ambient series. 


Numerous other records followed, as Budd used electronic atmospheres to expand his palette on records including Lovely Thunder (1986) and The White Arcades (1986). Collaborations came with Guthrie and fellow Cocteau Twins Liz Fraser and Simon Raymonde on The Moon and the Melodies (1986), on By the Dawn’s Early Light (1991) with Bill Nelson, with XTC’s Andy Partridge on Through the Hill (1994), and John Foxx on Translucence/ Drift Music (2003).


In 2001, Budd toured to Glasgow as part of Solaris, an international supergroup put together with Jah Wobble. Budd played alongside bassists Wobble and Bill Laswell, former Can drummer Jaki Leibezeit and cornet player Graham Haynes. 


The release of Avalon Sutra/As Long As I can Hold My Breath (2005) saw Budd attempt to withdraw from music a second time. Released on David Sylvian’s Samadhisound label, the record was billed as ‘Harold Budd’s Last Recorded Work’. “I don’t mind disappearing,” he said at the time. 


Two ‘farewell’ concert performances featuring various guests followed in Los Angeles and Brighton. Despite this, two new records, Music for ‘Fragments from the Inside’ (2005) and a collaboration with Guthrie, Mysterious Skin – Music from the Film (2005), appeared the same year. Another fifteen followed. These included several other works with Guthrie. 


Their most recent collaboration, Another Flower (2020), was released the week of Budd’s passing. According to Budd’s manager, Steve Takaki, he had recently composed a series of two-dozen string quartets. Whenever they see the light of day, they will undoubtedly invoke the same air of sublime beauty Budd’s work brought into being over more than half a century of concentrated hush.


Budd is survived by his partner, Elise Fahey, two sons, Matthew and Terrence, from his first marriage, to Paula, and a third son, Hugo, from his second marriage to Ellen Wirth, who pre-deceased him in 2012.

The Herald, December 24th 2020.




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