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The Guardian DECEMBER 15, 2015 - by Martin Longley
HAROLD BUDD: THE AMBIENT MUSIC MASTER FLOATS AGAIN
Returning to New York for a rare concert, the composer, whose work with Brian Eno helped shape ambient music, explains he's not scared to sound pretty.
Typically for a native of Los Angeles, composer and pianist Harold Budd is in his car when I call, so he swiftly pulls over for a leisurely conversation. Around a decade ago, this kingpin of ambient music returned from a lengthy European sojourn to the LA suburb of South Pasadena. Yesterday, he flew to New York City, where he'll be performing on Tuesday at The Kitchen, a long-established home for adventurous art.
This will be Budd's first gig in NYC for five years; the gap prior to that last appearance was a frustrating sixteen years. He last played at The Kitchen around three decades ago, when it was in its Soho location.
"It'll be a live reading by my friend Jane Maru," Budd says of the show. "Of fifty-nine poems that I've written during the last eighteen months, and my colleague Brad Ellis and I will be playing music in the background, as she reads. We're like an installation, with living people. Immobile objects. This will be the entire programme, about ninety minutes long, without interruption."
Maru will be reading from Aurora Teardrops, Budd's seventh volume of poetry. She's chiefly known as a visual artist but will be roaming in an unfamiliar zone for the show. In 2013 and 2014, Budd released his two-part dedication to Maru and her work, Jane 1-11 and 12-21, with an accompanying DVD featuring her images. Budd and Ellis will both be playing keyboards, although it seems that the latter is more likely to be responding to the composer's melodic path, shaping processed jet contrails in Budd's wake. It's likely to be reminiscent of Brian Eno's role on his classic early collaborations with Budd in the late 1970s and early '80s, The The Pavilion Of Dreams, The Plateaux Of Mirror and The Pearl.
The performance's ninety-minute duration is the perfect length for Budd to cast his spell, his pieces almost always preferring to adopt a strolling motion, savouring slow development, peering at their gradually altering surroundings. "Jane can read the poems in sequence, she can enter when she wants. She's improvising her own role," Budd says. "The music is simply there. It doesn't refer to anything, except these two things being performed independently, but at the same time. We're just floating in that narrow world, and letting it happen."
When listening to Budd's music it's not always clear how much division exists between composition and improvisation: it sounds so spacious, natural and thoughtful. "My preferred way of working at the moment is improvisation, but not just anything," Budd says. "I want it to be grounded in something that's feasible, organic and personal. I try to direct it towards specific goals. To make it sound pretty, frankly - if I can use that word in modern music, these days."
There was a curious pause between Budd's first recorded work in 1970 and his Eno-produced Pavilion album of 1978. The Oak Of The Golden Dreams was a piece that had an electronic ruggedness suggesting an affinity with minimalist founder Terry Riley, sounding completely on its own when set beside Budd's subsequent work. "At that time, I was searching, and I didn't know where I was, but I knew where I wasn't: I didn't want to be in the middle of modern music any more, especially of the academic sort. I consciously broke away from that world, completely. It occurred to me at some point that I didn't want to be a minimalist, much as I admired the work of, for example, Terry Riley. I had to get away from that."
Even so, in 1978 the Pavilion recording boasted a band line-up that included those future stars of British minimalism, Michael Nyman, Gavin Bryars and John White. These composers were part of a "brotherhood of agreeable, like-minded artists", as Budd describes them.
Budd essentially wanted to develop his own style and made his reputation by being aligned with Eno and the blooming ambient scene. "Suddenly, having accepted that challenge, it became very simple. I just worked in that direction." Eno heard a tape of Madrigals Of The Rose Angel, which was eventually included on Pavilion. He called up to say how much he liked it and that he'd never heard anything quite like it before. "I said, yes, this is what I do," Budd remembers. "This is the way I'm going to go. I can see the future, and this is my role in it. So he invited me to London to record."
This marked the beginning of a highly fertile period, as Budd found an accepting audience that had eluded him in his homeland. I suggest that this was something of a Hendrix effect, of being re-imported to his own country following discovery elsewhere. "That is precisely what happened," Budd agrees. "In America I was completely isolated, and in many ways, I still am, I suppose. I had to leave my own country in order to make a living, and I loved being away. I didn't think that I'd be coming back to America at all. I was so pleased with the life I was leading in Europe, where I wasn't up against any hostility".
Back in LA, Budd found that the arts scene had changed quite considerably. He also fell in love and fathered a third child, Hugo, who's now fifteen years old; Budd will be eighty next month. "It was the nicest thing that ever happened to me. I was able to continue my own life, on my own terms, with a family that I loved. That made it easier for me to return to America."
Indeed, in the decade since Budd announced his retirement, his recording run has been remarkably prolific. However, his live appearances have been sporadic. "When I lived in England, in the late 1980s and early '90s, I travelled all the time, to Japan and Hong Kong, but primarily continental Europe. I don't any more, because I'm living in California, first of all, and further, I broke my hip in an accident a year and a half ago, which has kept me housebound for all of that time. These performances that are coming up now, with my little ensemble, are after eighteen months of not doing much of anything."
Budd has frequently dismissed his own presence in the ambient pantheon, but this just seems like a continuation of the restlessness that forced his escape from the realms of minimalism. It seems that being an uncategorisable individual is what drives a strong inclination to avoid genre entrapment. "It's a bunch of hogwash! It's not real," he says, referring to record store category bins. "That's not the way the world is. I felt kidnapped. Well, that's not me, I just don't belong there."
Even so, Budd has the greatest respect for the musicians that he's collaborated with down the decades, most of them also finding themselves submerged in the ambient depths. Even here, Budd is cautious: "It's like cooking. If you like chocolate, and if you double up on it, well, you've had a lot of chocolate!" Not that Budd's inspired collaborations with John Foxx, Robin Guthrie, Bill Nelson and Brian Eno could ever be deemed sickly. "These guys are exceptional, and they've changed my life in ways that I could never expect."
Harold Budd appears at The Kitchen in New York City on Tuesday night, and then at Vancouver's Push festival, on January 23