Composer Harold Budd Isn’t Afraid to Make Pretty Music

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Harold Budd
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At 77, Harold Budd’s career has taken him from bebop to avant-garde minimalism to the lush, atmospheric soundscapes he’s become famous for. Critics call Budd “the godfather of ambient music,” an honorific he rejects. “My reaction is very visceral and immediate,” Budd tells Kurt Andersen. “Maybe it’s just being called something — anything — that annoys the hell out of me.” But the label he absolutely cannot abide: “I used to go into record stores — when there was such a thing — and complain, ‘Get me out of New Age!’”

A new compilation, Wind in Lonely Fences 1970-2011, is the first retrospective look at Budd’s career. But his musical life began as a teenager in Los Angeles, when Budd “fell in love with jazz. To be honest with you, I think that was largely a product of my rebellion against my family, my background. And I fell in love with black culture, especially bebop. And that pretty much set me off in this direction of ‘otherness.’”

From playing drums in jazz groups, Budd moved on to the piano. In the late 1960s and early 70s, he embraced avant-garde minimalism and electronic music. He created “The Oak of the Golden Dreams,” an 18-minute drone using a Buchla synthesizer, while teaching at CalArts in 1970. Back then, Budd explains, “I was looking. I hadn’t found my own voice at all.”

Ultimately, he got fed up with avant-garde music. “It was so self-congratulatory and so insular and so boring and I just didn’t want to participate in that world anymore and so I stopped.”

When Budd returned to music a few years later, his sound was radically different: ethereal, using long sustained tones on the piano, unafraid of major keys. (Budd calls it “existentially pretty.”) That caught the attention of Brian Eno and they went on to make Budd’s 1978 breakthrough Pavilion of Dreams. “Boy did that change my life,” Budd says. Through his collaborations with Eno and the Cocteau Twins, Budd defined a new genre of music.

Ten years ago, Budd insisted that he was retiring. “What a dumb thing to have done,” Budd tells Kurt, half a dozen records later. “Even when I said it publicly, I thought to myself, ‘Jesus Christ, Harold, you’re making a real mistake. You haven’t thought this through.’” He promises not to make the same mistake again.

Music Playlist

  1. Subtext

    Artist: John Foxx and Harold Budd
    Album: Nighthawks, Translucence and Drift Music
    Label: Edsel
  2. The Oak of The Golden Dreams

    Artist: Harold Budd
    Album: Wind in Lonely Fences
    Label: All Saints
  3. The Pearl

    Artist: Harold Budd And Brian Eno
    Album: The Pearl
    Label: Virgin Catalogue