Harold Budd, ‘soft pedal’ composer

Harold Budd in Japan

Such a sparsely populated environment as the Mojave desert has clearly been a huge influence on Harold Budd’s style, which contains classical and jazz elements, though probably hews more closely to the modern ambient template (Budd prefers the term ‘soft pedal’).

By Steve Timms

Many years ago, I put down a large deposit on a charity bike ride to Patagonia. I’d just read a book by Bruce Chatwin, and the idea of visiting such a remote part of the world appealed to the dreamer part of my personality. But the truth is, I was deluding myself: I like the idea of travel but the reality is something very different.

Partly it’s laziness but it’s more to do with fear. As a hypersensitive person who has suffered debilitating anxiety for decades, I have learned to accept the life of an intrepid Bruce Chatwin-type isn’t for me. Going to an airport is stressful enough. All those checks, all that noise. When I’m on a plane, I can’t switch off from thinking that I’m in a flimsy metal tube thousands of miles above the earth. And when I finally arrive at my destination, it takes at least five days for my anxiety to subside. A period of acclimatisation follows; adjusting to a new country – with its particular customs and cultural rhythms – is a slow and difficult process. 

This isn’t to say I never go anywhere. It’s just that the majority of these journeys take place in my imagination. The springboard for this has always involved listening to music – in particular the work of Harold Budd.

Joshua Tree National Park
Image by nightowl from Pixabay

Born in LA, Harold Budd grew up in the arid rain-shadow Desert of Mojave. Singing sand dunes, cinder cone volcanoes, Joshua trees, and carpets of spring wildflowers are all found within this 1.6 million acre park: A visit to its canyons, mountains and mesas will reveal long abandoned mines (home to gold, silver, iron and copper), homesteads and walled military outposts. A random list of films made here would include Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Casino, Lost Highway and the recent Nocturnal Animals

Such a sparsely populated environment has clearly been a huge influence on his style, which contains classical and jazz elements, though probably hews more closely to the modern ambient template (Budd prefers the term ‘soft pedal’). Budd’s music has always had an elemental quality, conveying a sense of environmental change: elegant and hypnotic, moving like beams of sunlight across a body of water. Some might consider this background filler – the worst insult imaginable. If anything, it’s the opposite; music that requires a sort of surrender in order to appreciate the depth of its fragile beauty. 

Now 84, Budd has officially retired, though with a back catalogue of around 30 albums – including a plethora of collaborations – he’s perhaps said everything he needs to. Where does the newcomer begin? Perhaps with The Serpent in Quicksilver (1981).

‘I’m in love with California place names’, writes the composer in his sleeve notes, ‘(William) Burroughs called them places of dead roads. I don’t call them anything but it’s the same thing – haunted, lonely places; fat with history and long forgotten.’ Quicksilver is the most place specific album of Budd’s career. Imagine if the film Paris Texas had been about a spiritual rather than an emotional quest; imagine if Harry Dean Stanton was the sole character; imagine a scene in which he sits in the desert, takes mescaline and has visions of his impending death but embraces the experience with cheery humour. Well, that’s a very different film but one I’m sure a lot of people would want to see (Stanton’s moving swansong, Lucky, is a similarly stoic response to looming non-existence).

The Russell Mills cover for Lovely Thunder (1986) features a watercolour painting of a mountain at high altitude, beset by heavy clouds. A foreboding quality keens at the edges of some tracks, and it’s to the fore on ‘The Gunfighter’ and ‘Gypsy Violin’: these compositions are more complex and textured than Budd’s earlier, piano led work. The White Arcades (1988) saw a label switch from EG to All Saints, though these two albums feel like companion pieces. Again, there’s a sense that this is music designed for exploration; for crossing timelines, and forging new connections.  

Budd has composed for gallery spaces: clearly he is someone who understands the higher function of architecture, and how that corresponds to spiritual awakening. Imagine you have a choice between meditating at home, or within the marble antechamber of a renaissance church. Imagine also that your home hovers at the lower end of the hoarding spectrum. It’s a no brainer. Released in 2000, The Room (nothing to do with the Tommy Wiseau film) saw Budd taking inspiration from two diverse sources: firstly, an ICA show by Tony Bevan, a painter who creates psychologically charged art focusing on people at the fringes of society; and secondly, from a visit to the Museo Marino Marini in Florence. 

‘The museum was empty’, writes Budd, ‘the space was central: stairs to nowhere, dead-end alcoves, clerestory windows that slowed no light.’ The 13 tracks have titles like ‘The Room of Ancillary Dreams’, ‘The Room of Accidental Geometry’, and ‘The Room of Forgotten Children.’ It would be good to listen to this album whilst engaged in yoga or the practice of mindfulness. It’s easily the most reverent record of this composer’s career. 

The Plateaux of Mirror

This brings us to the collaborations. Budd has worked with some respected artists like Gavin Bryars, John Foxx, Andy Partridge (of XTC) and Brian Eno. Arguably it was Eno who introduced Budd to a wider audience, the pair first collaborating on The Plateaux of Mirror (maybe the greatest album title ever) and later The Pearl. Guests on Desert Island Discs get eight tracks to take with them, eventually being forced – at metaphorical gunpoint – to choose only one. If I was on that island, I wouldn’t last long, but would probably gasp my last breath listening to the track ‘Lost in the Humming Air.’ I’ve listened to The Pearl more than any other album in my collection – hundreds of times, I expect. With this record, Budd and Eno created the musical equivalent of a warm winter coat.

This is music as medicine; a dream pop balm to fill the hole in the heart

Harold Budd’s most mainstream association was with late 80’s Cocteau Twins, then in their Top of the Pops prime. Some of his contributions to the album The Moon and the Melodies are hard to discern, being swamped by guitars. Far more satisfying are the subsequent albums made with Cocteau king, Robin Guthrie, including a pair of movie soundtracks for film director Greg Araaki – White Bird in a Blizzard and Mysterious Skin. I discovered the latter album years before I got round to watching the actual film: a fantastical but gruelling story about the consequences of childhood sexual abuse. The Mysterious Skin score has transcended its source, and easily succeeds as a separate entity (it’s positively criminal that so few people know it exists). A random YouTube comment noted the wonderful soothing qualities of Budd and Guthrie’s soundtrack. This is music as medicine; a dream pop balm to fill the hole in the heart.

There’s a famous quote, sometimes attributed to Frank Zappa, sometimes Elvis Costello: ‘writing about music is like dancing about architecture.’ In many ways it’s true. I have a love of music but no ability. I have no idea how music is composed, played or arranged. Octaves and quavers mean nothing to me. All I can do is make a case for the way it makes me feel, which is what I have endeavoured to do here. I hope the work of Harold Budd affects you as much as it does me. 

I never went to Patagonia by the way. I lost my deposit. I’m okay with that.

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