“When I told people 25 years ago that my idea was to make music that was as devastatingly pretty as possible, it was out-and-out politics,” says ambient pioneer Harold Budd. “I was giving the middle finger to the entrenched academic avant-garde that had completely captivated the Western world — the whole ‘you've got to be tough’ school.”
From this first act of defiance, Budd helped give rise to a new school of moody ambient minimalism; his droning 1970 piece for the Buchla Electronic Music System, The Oak of the Golden Dreams, is a direct precursor of Brian Eno's landmark Music for Films. Furthermore, Budd's transparent texturalism — from his 1980 landmark collaboration with Eno, The Plateaux of Mirrors (EG), to last year's concept album, The Room (Atlantic) — has influenced hundreds of electronic bands and artists including Aphex Twin, Seefeel, and Scanner. Budd may be the original chill-out chancellor.
The Southern California composer and pianist has maintained his music's defiantly decorative and soothing sensibilities even as he's sidestepped the shallow pitfalls of the new-age genre with which listeners often associate him. Ironically, he has perhaps even less in common with academic minimalists like Steve Reich and John Adams.
“I mean for my music to be pretty and decorative,” Budd avers, “but I don't think it's safe. It's the safety part of minimalism or decorative art or new age that still frosts me. It's continually reassuring and nonthreatening, and I seriously have to question whether you're dealing with art at all in that case. There is an element of art that is confrontational, and I'm right there with it. My problem with most avant-garde art is that, apart from its confrontational aspect, its focus is so narrow that it only touches on proscribed issues agreed upon by a small circle of people. Difficult art is a bunch of shit.”
As a music and visual-art student in the early '60s, Budd fell under the spell of John Cage's lexicon-smashing philosophies and Morton Feldman's postserialist compositional style. But it was the visual artists, notably the great Mark Rothko, who pointed Budd to the spare, minimalist approach that would become his trademark. “The Southern California school of artists were all dealing with light and slick surfaces,” he remembers. “In a way, it was aesthetically shallow as hell, but I found it very liberating. And I'm really still there; I'm just a lot smarter.”
Sure enough, The Room — a sharp set of 13 pieces with titles like “The Room of Stairs” and “The Room of Forgotten Children” — also works with light and texture, as it sets chorused grand piano against humming analog synths and Hammond church organ in reverb chambers of varying dimensions. The music, built from simple piano modal motifs that suggest Erik Satie or Claude Debussy, is imagistic and haunting. Though it can provide a sanctuary from the noisy hubbub of modern life, The Room is likely to stimulate feelings much darker than those you'd get listening to a CD of Jacuzzi jazz.
“Sometimes you have to throw the devil into the machinery and see what gets spit out,” Budd smiles. “Although it's very natural to just follow your creative tendencies, sometimes you need to let something else happen, and your task then becomes to try to live with it.”