The music of Harold Budd is steeped in mystery. It bubbles up from deep silences and softly reverberant spaces, insinuating itself like some sort of pleasant, mind-altering soma. His music has been variously dubbed ambient, minimalist, avant-garde, neo-classical, even new age (gasp!), but none of those quite captures it. His piano and keyboard melodies float in the either like beautiful hallucinations, at once calming and yet strangely compelling. Though a native of L.A. (where he still lives), Budd has long enjoyed a greater following in Europe than America, in part because he first came to prominence at the wing of Brian Eno — the two made the landmark late-’70s ambient album The Plateau of Mirrors together and later cut the superb record The Pearl. Budd has also worked with such intriguing, forward-thinking European musicians as the Cocteau Twins, XTC’s Andy Partridge and Hector Zazou.
Intriguing as these collaborations are, it is Budd’s solo works that are most inviting to me. Album after album since his EG Records debut in 1978, The Pavilion of Dreams, Budd has carefully painted sonic landscapes of often breathtaking beauty, allure and aural poetry. Eno summed it up best when he noted, “Harold works with simplicity, clarity and sensuality. He’s a great abstract painter trapped in the body of a musician.” His tools are relatively simple — usually just a few keyboards and processors. And there’s nothing flashy about his playing; he’s the first to admit he’s not a virtuoso pianist. But he is a great conceptualist. He works in mysterious ways, as they say, and he has become quite adept at using the recording studio to his advantage.
Budd’s latest album, The Room (on Atlantic Records), offers a fascinating glimpse into the working methods of this singular artist. As is often the case with Budd’s work, the CD’s 13 pieces (one hesitates to call them “songs”) began as titles — though the inspiration actually goes back much further, first to a painting Budd saw in the late ’80s called “The Room,” and then to a more recent visit to the Museo Marino Marini, which is situated in a medieval church in Florence: “The architects had left a lot of things,” Budd explains, “like stairs that just end, going nowhere. Pillars that don’t hold anything up. It was completely renovated and modernized, but they kept the spirit of the old alive. I thought it was quite remarkable. I loved the interior — it was haunting, striking, dark, brooding, and just out and out weird. I thought, ‘If I take “The Room” as a base and begin exploring the aspects of what rooms can be, then I have an almost inexhaustible source to begin working from.’” For this series of pieces, titles of finished pieces include “The Room of Ancillary Dreams,” “The Room of Stairs,” “The Room of Corners,” “The Room Alight,” “The Room of Forgotten Children,” “The Room of Accidental Geometry” and “The Flowered Room.”
From there, Budd’s process involved writing copious notes about the qualities and characteristics of these rooms. Some were musical ideas, some specific sonic notions, but there were also impressionistic literary conceptualization and free association. “I’m sitting at my desk with titles and concepts and ideas and writing them down in longhand,” he explains. “Sometimes I write them down in musical notation as a trigger to remind me about certain directions to go. Or I can be specific about a sound I’m looking for. I remember that for ‘The Room Upstairs,’ I wrote down to myself, ‘Remember, there is a treated windbell track on one of my earlier CDs that’s on tape at the studio where I’m going to be. Be sure to drop that on and see if it works.’” To Budd, this stage of the process is every bit as important as the piece that eventually flowers in the studio. The art is in the act of creation as well as the result.
It’s noteworthy that, from start to finish, the album took three years to make, but only a small part of it was actual recording time. When it came time to make the CD, Budd returned to a studio that’s been his recording refuge for the past several years, Orangewood Recording in Mesa, Ariz. The L.A.-based Budd discovered the studio on a trip to Arizona to visit his musician friend Daniel Lenz. The pair decided they wanted to make a CD of music and poetry, a project that became Walk Into My Voice: American Beat Poetry. It was recorded at Orangewood with owner/engineer Michael Coleman handling the technical end, and Budd says, “I just loved the atmosphere there, and I loved working with Mike.” Orangewood is equipped with a Trident Series 65 console and, important for this project, a Yamaha concert grand piano. “The room is like the rest of Mesa, Arizona — dead,” Budd says with a laugh. “But that’s fine, because I like to have control of the ambience. So, all of the echo-type effects were digitally produced, not spatially produced.” The CD was recorded to ADAT, with most cuts requiring fewer than a dozen tracks. Piano was captured with two AKG 461 mics. The Hammond M-3 was recorded in stereo, as well, while electronic keyboards — such as his “primitive analog piece of crap Casio 202 that I adore,” an “ancient” Ensoniq digital and a couple of Rolands — were cut direct. Chas Smith contributed a pedal steel guitar line to one piece, and Budd’s son Terrence played acoustic guitar on another.
Budd’s working method in the studio usually combines some careful planning with bursts of improvisational playing and, always, an openness to serendipity. For example, on the complex track “Room of Mirrors,” which features piano, synth, M-3 and various effects, “The piano bit that starts out after a minute-and-a-half or so was planned, but where it went after that was totally improvised,” Budd explains. “I had originally planned and composed out in standard notation two pages of so-called mirror canons for celeste, and my idea was to play them all, upside-down and backward, so I would have this glittering curtain in the background that would be all mirror canons. No one would know what they were except for me. That was my idea. But when I got into the studio, I realized this curtain made it impossible for anything to happen in front of it, irrespective of how far back I put it in the mix. It just sucked up all the oxygen in the piece. So I reluctantly scrapped the idea and replaced it with little pieces [of the sound curtain instead].”
Comments engineer Coleman, “He loves to experiment. I think he comes in with some ideas in his head, but he’s certainly open to change. Usually, we’ll start a track and I’ll say, ‘You want a click on this?’ and he’ll say, ‘Yes,’ so I’ll set up a click; maybe he’ll ask for it to be a little bit slower or a little bit faster, and then he’ll start playing, and it will have absolutely nothing to do with the click! At the end he’ll say, ‘Maybe we won’t use the click.’” Adds Budd, “I always go into the studio with a very solid conceptual idea of what direction I believe I’m going to take. But I also know that in the working environment things are going to change, sometimes radically, and I take that as a given.
“Michael’s got me pegged to a T,” Budd continues. “He knows what I want, and he knows how to get to it fast. He knows that I like to play with effects, and by this point he knows what my taste is there. We like to improvise with effects, too; we get into some very, very elaborate effects, where we harmonize [sic] it, put it through another chorus, re-chorus that in another way, with no real plan. We’re just throwing it in there and seeing what we get, and then trying to fine-tune it. Like on ‘The Candied Room,’ we have some very elaborate improvised feedback and the live piano. It sounds like a zither or something, but it’s just a piano, and we messed with the sound until I got something magical on it.” Among the reverbs and delays Coleman and Budd used on the CD are Lexicon PCM 60, PCM 70, PCM 42, Yamaha SPX 90 and REV7.
“When a piece is done, I mix it before going on to any other piece,” Budd notes, “so there isn’t really ever a mixing session per se. I like to work that way to retain the freshness of the inspiration and improvisation.” Because of the degree of experimentation with effects, there is usually just one master take of each composition. Occasionally, Budd will take notes about how certain finished effects were achieved, but for the most part, these sonic events are undocumented and, perhaps, cannot be reproduced without considerable effort.
Budd performs infrequently and rarely in the U.S. He lived in England from 1986 to 1991 and says, with a touch of wistfulness in his voice, “I had a wonderful life there. I had a British version of a green card, and I traveled all over the continent and concertized a lot and had quite a professional life there. I had to get out of America to get a professional life going where I could actually make a living. I’m not complaining, mind you,” adds this warm self-effacing gentleman. “It’s just something you have to do.” These days, his concerts usually consist of him improvising on piano against a CD containing some of the electronic backdrops he has conjured in the studio.
He rarely plays when he isn’t working on a specific project; in fact, he no longer even has a piano in his L.A. digs. “I’m not really a pianist,” he says with typical humility. “I’m somebody who plays the piano… sometimes.” But when he does sit down at the keyboard, he makes the most of it, as his impressive discography from the past 25 years attests. And there’s always something interesting on the horizon. When we spoke, it was a prospective group collaboration with British guitarist/composer Bill Nelson, bassist Jah Wobble, singer/accordionist Anna Domino and several others that had the wheels spinning. He knows, more than most, that his next inspiration might be just around the corner… or in the next room.