Still Centers: On Harold Budd’s Piano Music

by Thomas Brett

“I realized I had minimalized myself out of a career. It had taken ten years to reduce my language to zero but I loved the process of seeing it occur and not knowing when the end would come. By then I had opted out of avant-garde music generally; it seemed self-congratulatory and risk-free and my solution as to what to do next was to do nothing, to stop completely.”- Harold Budd

Born in Los Angeles in 1936 and raised in the Mojave Desert where he found early musical inspiration in the humming tones caused by wind blowing through telephone wires, Harold Budd is a singular American ambient composer who makes spacious and meditative music. In the four and a half-minute piece “Haru Spring” from his recent recording In The Mist (Darla 2011) we hear Budd arpeggiate wide open five-note chords and let them ring very, very long. The space between chords ranges from five to over fifteen seconds and this isn’t really silence per se, but rather the sound of the piano slowly diminishing and fading to almost nothing. Listening to Budd you’re reminded of the famous Rorschach ink-blot test

where you stare at it and see what comes to your mind’s eye. With a piece like Budd’s “Haru Spring” something similar happens to your mind’s ear as you listen to one chord decay and wonder when the next one will appear and where it might go. In that space of wonder various non-musical thoughts and impressions come to the foreground and then recede like images triggered by an ink-blot.

The fact that Budd’s music can trigger this kind of perceptual experience is part of what makes it so good. It’s a kind of music that hides its musicality–making you forget it’s composed/improvised out of just a few tones. In doing this it reminds you that one of the very best things music can be is not a demonstration of a particular technique or theory but a realization of a special kind of affective space, a conjurer of mood.

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