Harold Budd, a modern poet of the piano, has been playing music since his teens, yet it was not until his late 30s that he found his true voice as a composer. And it was only in 1978, with the release of "The Pavilion of Dreams", his first record, that the work of this genial Californian began to find an international audience.
At 15, Budd was an apprentice drummer in love with jazz and bebop, with ambitions to tour with John Coltrane. At 21, he decided to get himself an education and enrolled at Los Angeles Community College for a course in music theory. "From that moment on," he recalls, "I had an insatiable appetite. Harmony, counterpoint, Renaissance music: I really heard it for the first time."
Later, drafted into the army, he played drums in an army band with jazz saxophonist Albert Ayler. Resuming his studies at the University of Southern California, he discovered the abstract expressionist paintings of Mark Rothko. These "brilliant blasts of color that simply engulfed you" held an enormous significance for Budd, but the ability to translate such sensations into musical terms still eluded him.
In the early 60s, under the spell of John Cage amd Morton Feldman, he produced an indeterminate, improvisatory music, moving on, as the decade progressed, to a much more spare and minimalistic style: pieces consisted of quiet drones or simple instructions to the performers.
As the 70s began, Budd ground to an 18-month halt: "I really minimalized myself out of a career" he says now. The turning point came with "Madrigals of the Rose Angel" in 1972, a gently hypnotic work for harp, electric piano, celeste, percussion and lulling, angelic chorus—"my favorite instuments"—which he wrote for a university festival. Unable at that time to play the piano, Budd decided to learn so he could perform his own keyboard parts, and he has since gone on to develop his own uniquely improvisational, soft pedal style. "I had a vocabulary in which there was an infinite amount of material to draw upon" he says. Brian Eno heard a tape of "Madrigals" and offered Budd the chance to record this and other pieces from the hour-long "Pavilion of Dreams" cycle of Obscure Records. In 1980, the two collaborated on "The Plateaux of Mirror", the second record in Eno's Ambient series: Budd provided the electric and acoustic piano parts and Eno the crystalline studio treatments. This was followed in 1981 by "The Serpent (In Quicksilver)", a piano-based, solo mini-album, and in 1984 by "Abandoned Cities", two brooding side-long pieces, originally written for an art gallery installation, in which Budd revealed the darker side of his musical temperament. The same year, Budd and Eno worked together on "The Pearl", refining their approach on "Plateaux" with 13 poetically titled and exquisitely crafted glimpses of enchanted landscapes and underwater domains.
In 1986, Budd attracted well-deserved attention for his collaboration with The Cocteau Twins on "The Moon and the Melodies". It was followed by the acclaimed "Lovely Thunder" and his Opal Records debut, "The White Arcades". With "By the Dawn's Early Light" in 1991, Budd introduced spoken poetry into his music. While 1992's "Music for 3 Pianos" (with Ruben Garcia and Daniel Lentz) is again only instrumental, 1994's "She Is a Phantom" continues the music and poetry direction of "Dawn's" and marks a return to composing for ensemble. Released at nearly the same time as "She Is a Phantom", "Through the Hill" was a first-time collaboration with Andy Partridge of XTC, which Budd says "sounds like strangers who spent the afternoon together."
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