Though he rejected the label outright, Harold Budd was one of the towering figures of ambient music. Much like Jon Hassell, he was pulled into the orbit of Brian Eno and accordingly was understood in the popular imagination as a card-carrying member of the scene. Even if Budd was reluctant to take on the mantle of 'ambient composer', he made no bones about Eno’s profound impact on his career: 'I owe Eno everything, ok? That's the end of that... I was plucked from the tree, and suddenly I had flowered. I was just waiting. I couldn't do it on my own. I didn't know anything.' Such was the man's focus on the music itself, rather than the trappings of fame, ego, or any of the pretensions that often come prepackaged with experimental music.
Appropriately enough, Harold Budd grew up in the Mojave Desert. After a brief stint in the military, he actually got his start as an avant garde composer, influenced by the likes of John Cage and Mark Rothko. During this period, he taught at the California Institute Of Technology, and even recorded The Oak Of The Golden Dreams, his de facto debut album. However, he quickly grew disillusioned with the 'academic pyrotechnics' of the avant garde and swore off composing altogether. However, the pull of music remained strong enough that he returned to composing in 1972, when he set about recording a series of four songs that grew naturally out of his new, more intuitive methodology.
The story goes that Gavin Bryars passed a recording of one of these tunes (
Madrigals Of The Rose Angel) to Eno, who wound up flying Harold Budd out to London to record for his fledgling Obscure imprint. The result was The Pavilion Of Dreams, a gorgeous melding of crystalline minimalism and ambient jazz, its pellucid, shifting surfaces one of the purest examples of Ocean Of Sound music ever recorded. Featuring fellow Obscure artists Gavin Bryars and Michael Nyman, it's one of undeniable the highlights in the label's storied (albeit brief) discography. In stark relief with respect to its peers on the label, one of the record's biggest surprises is its strong jazz aspect, a calling card that sets it apart from the other minimalists of the era.
In a sense, it's the sister record to Jon Hassell’s Earthquake Island, in that it's an abstract record that manages to overlap with the more atmospheric strains of jazz's contemporary drift. It's fascinating to note that during his time in the military, Budd played alongside none other than Albert Ayler in a regimental army band, which led to him joining Ayler in various gigs after their eventual discharge. In a further jazz-related twist, Marion Brown plays alto sax on
Bismillahi 'Rrahman 'Rrahim, which he'd included on his own Vista LP (released on Impulse! in 1975, a whole year before The Pavilion Of Dreams). Budd himself plays gong and celesta on the track (how's that for jazz credibility!?). Post-In A Silent Way abstract jazz running parallel to ECM’s contemporary output, Vista is a great album in its own right.
Although it was recorded in 1976, The Pavilion Of Dreams didn't see release until 1978. Two years later, Budd recorded his follow up in direct collaboration with Brian Eno. The second entry in Eno’s 'Ambient' series, Ambient 2: The Plateaux Of Mirror is essentially a set of 'sonic environments' set up by Eno for Budd to perform within. It's a quietly stunning showcase of Budd’s 'soft-pedal' approach to piano, where sustained notes stretch out into infinity, haunting Eno’s carefully constructed soundscapes. It's arguably the best of the four LPs in the Ambient collection, even prefiguring the general atmosphere of Eno’s final entry in the series (Ambient 4: On Land), not to mention the duo's next collaboration four years later.
That collaboration resulted in The Pearl, which is quite simply atmospheric perfection and one of the greatest ambient records ever. Defined by Harold Budd’s soft-pedal technique, the album also incorporates environmental sounds into its sprawling sonic landscapes. At turns wistful and mysterious — sometimes in the space of a single track — it transcends labels like 'ambient' and 'minimalism' to stand in the tradition of classical impressionists like Erik Satie and Claude Debussy. It's sound evidence of Budd’s singular vision, and a perfect reflection of Brian Eno’s oft-quoted statement that Budd was 'a great abstract painter trapped in the body of a musician.' Notably, Daniel Lanois is present as co-producer here, which (at least partially) recreates the dynamic of Apollo: Atmospheres & Soundtracks.
After Eno, Budd’s most frequent collaborator was Robin Guthrie of the Cocteau Twins. The Moon And The Melodies is actually a four way collaboration between Budd, Guthrie and the other two Twins, Simon Raymonde and — of course — the great Elizabeth Fraser. Although it's billed to the four individual players (much like the Passengers record, come to think of it), in many ways it's the lost Cocteau Twins LP, stuck somewhere between the crashing drumscapes of Treasure and the more pastoral sprawl of Victorialand. The crucial factor here is undeniably Budd’s bucolic touch, and the very best tracks here —
The Ghost Has No Home and
Why Do You Love Me? — are as sublimely atmospheric as The Pearl. You can certainly hear the roots of the Cocteaus’ deep-chill expansiveness on Victorialand laid out here. Budd’s soundscapes the perfect foil for the Twins’ foundational dream pop vision.
In the end, whether he was running with the post punks, rubbing shoulders with jazzmen, or even flirting with the academy, Harold Budd’s work was marked by a shifting, mercurial soulfulness and imbued with an otherworldly warmth. His music was at once comforting and mysterious, as if he'd captured the shifting spirit of the Mojave Desert of his youth at the fall of dusk, when the sprawling landscape slowly springs to life beneath the glow of a full moon's light. It's the sound of quiet discovery, searching the vast, unchanging landscape to find a whole world hidden within. It's the sound of Harold Budd, the atmospheric man.