Revisiting Harold Budd’s Music

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Like many enduringly interesting things, Harold Budd’s music enriches your experience while being difficult to describe. He plays piano (and sometimes electronic keyboards) in a style that is ambient and quite gentle. It’s not jazz or new age, and certainly not pop. It doesn’t run through a series of chord changes, or variations on a hummable theme. It’s not complex enough to be deemed classical. Instead, the music just sort of glowingly hovers. Budd uses the sustain pedal a lot. He takes his time, lingering on notes and chords, letting them ring so long that sometimes you wonder what will come next. In fact, you can sort of hear him wondering himself as he plays, what comes next? That’s what I like about this music: you can hear its composer wondering as he goes along. One doesn’t often hear that, because so much music we listen to is thoroughly worked out on some level ahead of time—by a composer squirreled up somewhere with a manuscript, a producer tweaking notes on a screen, or a band choreographing their planned moves towards autopilot. Most music is airtight, through-composed, and rehearsed, as if it wants to keep its listeners outside of it as admirers of its finished-ness, not participants in its unfolding. But Budd’s music has no such conceptual armor. And in not worrying about what kind of music it might be, Budd’s playing is deeply musical. His sound has influenced me a lot.

The other day I was revisiting Budd’s solo piano album Perhaps (2013), as I do a few times a year just to check in and see if the music still sounds as good I remember it sounding. (It does. When it doesn’t, that means I need to slow down!) Walking home one quiet evening, I turned up the music fairly loud for a few moments—I wanted to hear Budd’s pedal work better, and also his touch. I wanted to hear what kinds of little details I might notice in the sounds. (Such noticing games keeps my listening focused.) What I noticed was the range of articulations Budd gets out of repeated notes played with the sustain pedal glued to the floor. Instead of relying on a sound wash to fill the time, he pays attention to every note such that there’s no exact repetition in his playing. He might repeat a phrase once or twice, but he varies it each time as if exploring how it could springboard him towards what comes next. It sounds like Budd is simply exploring the keyboard as a sounding terrain without its own long history. (So much baggage, so much repertoire, so many pieces…) That’s an accomplishment. When Budd plays, you hear someone who has figured out a relationship with an instrument as a way to modulate their thinking as they play. There’s no need to quote Debussy or Bill Evans when you have your own sound to cultivate and you can just sit down and make music.

At the end of one piece, I hear Budd take his foot of the sustain pedal, shift in his seat, and mumble something under his breath. It was a striking moment because of how it contrasted with the ethereal sounds of the past fourteen minutes. I realized I had forgotten that there was a person sitting at the piano and making the sounds. Hearing those ambient real world noises in the space where Budd was recording fired my imagination: What did the musician think of what he had just played? Did he even care, or was he done with it, now that the music was over?  

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