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Remembering Harold Budd

“Upon hearing The Pearl, I was transfixed, taken away from the hussle, bustle and drudgery of everyday life that exists outside our flat in London. I wasn’t listening to conformity, in fact very little seemed to conform to what I regarded as music at all, but its effect was to remove all those aspects that create a world that conforms and allows you to breathe fresh air.”

This is an excerpt from a piece I wrote for a magazine 15 years ago, when I first discovered the work of Harold Budd whose life was taken from us through Covid-19 on the 8th December 2020. He was 84 years old. An ever present performer whose music seemed to sit in the background during that period in my life, that sums up the way I personally related to his music. His music was evocative, thought provoking and used during times where I needed to, well, chill out. But still, despite my collection containing many artists performing ‘ambient’ music (a term he didn’t associate with), Harold Budd stood out high above and beyond the rest. Each key of his piano was touched with such precision it was as if he knew the response that particular note would resonate through you. This was more than music for lifts or music to drink wine by. These compositions were worthy of classic piano tunes, but more accessible and influential. Why he wasn’t more famous, his death not even getting a mention on the radio or TV news, is beyond me.

Born in Los Angeles, California, in May 1936, and raised in the heated heartland of the dusty Mojave Desert, he started his career after being drafted into the army and joining the regimental band. After leaving, and being influenced by jazz performers like Chet Baker, he started a career as a composer in 1962, his work gaining certain notoriety amongst the local avant-garde community. He studied music at the University Of Southern California, the work he created being mainly minimalist drone music influenced by John Cage and the abstract artist Mark Rothko.

His first release was The Oak Of The Golden Dreams in 1970, which was followed by four individual pieces that came under the title of The Pavilion Of Dreams. Still influenced by jazz and the avant-garde he was introduced to Brian Eno via the composer Gavin Bryars (creator of the Mercury Music Prize nominated Jesus Blood Never Failed Me Yet).

Under Eno’s guidance, he released The Pavilion Of Dreams in 1978 followed by their collaborations The Plateux Of Mirrors in 1980 and The Pearl in 1984, which established his trademark atmospheric piano style where he used his ‘soft pedal’ slow, sustained note technique. An electronic texture element was featured on his next release Lovely Thunder while his eighth solo release in 2000, The Room, went back to a more minimalistic approach.

Budd continued on, establishing a number of long-term collaborations with artists including John Foxx (Nighthawks/Translucence/Drift Music), Andy Partridge of XTC (Through The Hill), Clive Wright (A Song For Lost Blossoms/Candylion/Little Windows), Hector Zazou (Glyph) and Jah Wobble (Solaris). He also made many guest appearances on other artists’ records, including the instrumentation on the track Cedars Of Lebanon from the album No Line On The Horizon by U2.

But it was his collaboration with Robin Guthrie of the Cocteau Twins that created the most notable and sustained body of work. Initially releasing a Harold Budd/Simon Raymonde/Robin Guthrie/Elizabeth Frazer album The Moon And The Melodies (credited under their individual names, not Cocteau Twins featuring Harold Budd) and after the demise of the sorely missed Cocteau Twins, Budd & Guthrie went on to produce a further seven albums together, including After The Night Falls and Before The Day Breaks (both 2007) as well as two soundtracks for the Greg Araki films Mysterious Skin (2004) and White Bird In A Blizzard (2014). The last collaboration, Another Flower, was released four days before Budd’s death in 2020.

Understated, quiet and hidden away from the popular music gaze, Harold Budd’s influence touched many people. He released 16 albums of solo music in his life-time and created a further 22 albums as both collaborations or soundtracks, a catalogue of music that highlights the depth which his soft piano style wove into. I used his music as a form of escapism, a dreamscape where gentle plains are touched by soft light of a beautiful natural world, stress relief from today’s pandemic controlled world. A quiet genius who shall be missed.

Listen to Harold Budd's music here.

All After Midnight links here.

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