I recently went to hear Jon Hopkins perform at Brooklyn Steel, a shoebox-shaped warehouse located on the lonely north edge of Greenpoint, Brooklyn. I only caught the end of the performance, but what I saw was stellar. Hopkins played music from his latest release, Singularity, an album which aims to recreate, in a sort of self-reflexive way, the transcendent flow of experiencing a perfectly configured and calibrated EDM set. There was lighting design and visuals on a large screen behind the stage and most notably, the music was pummellingly loud. (Everyone around me was wearing earplugs, as was Hopkins, who kept adjusting them, I noticed. Is it fair to acknowledge that sound system/DJ culture has weaponized the sound of live music?) Hopkins is a significant figure in electronic music because of how he combines a composer’s sense of craftsmanship, a pop producer’s melodic and harmonic knack, and a DJ’s technical and tactile understanding of how to achieve visceral excitement. Watching him perform, you have the impression of a composer who has crashed the gates of the EDM party, figured out its sonic codes, and then re-written some of its vocabulary to suit his own ends, all the while staying true to the four-on-the-floor techno style guide. An aesthetically lean and flexible musician, Hopkins wouldn’t surprise us if someday he took a left turn into say, harp music.
Hopkins performs with two laptops running Ableton Live, several Korg Kaoss touch pad controllers, and a mixing board or two. (He might use more equipment such as CD turntables, but I couldn’t see. There are articles elsewhere online that detail this.) The most noticeable aspect of his performing is that he actually plays those Kaoss pads as effects instruments by tapping and swiping their screens to modulate various parameters of the music. Even from a hundred feet away, the audience can see the connection between Hopkins’ gestures and the resulting changes in the music, which is not something you can say about a lot of electronic musicians. Hopkins is particularly adept at transitions between sections of pieces and different songs, so that one sound is continually morphing into/onto another, or a single common tone is both the end of one part and the beginning of the next. Hopkins has stated in interviews that he loves music that is continuously changing, always on the move. In a way, his entire set is one grand morph.
The most attractive aspect of Hopkins’ music is the intricacy of its construction. Singularity is a marvel of a thousand details weighed and measured, intuited and sharpened into a jewel of repeating surprises. In this sonic world, nothing is ever as simple as it feels. The four-on-the-floor beat is skewered in myriad ways, with the timing of the hits displaced and bent so that the beat sucks and heaves the musical time instead of merely marking it. Hi hat-type parts skitter around the stereo soundscape, as if breathing. Harmonic textures and ambiances floating above the beats are glued with echo and reverb effects such that they seem to have no end—their swirling progressions can seem like M.C. Escher staircases that forever go higher and higher and lower and lower while somehow staying in the same place. And melodies are crafted out of little more than a few round tones that playfully bounce and multiply on top of the textures and ambiences before they vanish or become something else. Trying to track all of this musical action creates the sensation that the music has an epic quality—as if it’s urgently trying to lead you somewhere, or guide you on a calibrated journey. There were moments during the show where Hopkins played with extended build-ups as preludes to the inevitable (and cliched) EDM bass drop. But the build ups went to extremes—far beyond a measurable 4 or 16 or 32 beats. Some of the build ups seemed to create their own forevers and built to almost unbearable pressure levels—at one point I had the sense the music was rendering what it might feel like if Brooklyn Steel itself imploded. The rotary knob Hopkins was turning clearly had no end. It was intense.
As I watched and felt the bass tones vibrating my rib cage, I thought about what I have always considered to be the limitations of today’s DJ-oriented music. Typically, DJs play the music of others, and their creative contribution is to draw on their knowledge of recorded music to mix and match pieces that create impactful juxtapositions and guide the crowd through a groove experience. But listening to Hopkins’ set reminded me of the value of the composer’s craft. Hopkins was playing all of his own music, which he recorded himself using the same technologies he was performing it with. Rather than simply mixing together a series of tempo-synced beats from the tracks of others, he had conceived and constructed a unique world of rhythms, ambiances, and effects processes. This is what I mean when I said he’s like a composer who has crashed the EDM party gates. But I figuratively dance around an important point. Despite their contributions to the past fifty years of popular music history, most DJs aren’t composers in the sense that most of them work with previously recorded music they didn’t write themselves. Mixing and remixing isn’t quite composing–although it can be deeply creative–and relying on beats can, to my ear, come at the expense of other musical elements. All this to say that sometimes I miss the composer. Hearing Hopkins improvise his own music reassures me that there are ways to bring the rigors of composition into the fluidities of electronic music production.
In the micro moments
when no one notices
where nothing matters
and how can anything possibly happen
your playing is accidental
focus not busyness
sound caring for a minute—
that’s where things begin.
“There’s little actual logic in good writing.
There’s a current of thoughts and ideas and observations.
Some may be linked by evidence.
One point may substantiate or corroborate another.
But what passes for logic or argument is usually little more than a succession of ideas
Connected mostly by proximity and analogy.
Writing doesn’t prove anything.
And it only rarely persuades.
It does something much better.
It shares your interest in what you’ve noticed.
It reports on the nature of your attention.
It suggests the possibilities of the world around you.
The evidence of the world as it presents itself to you.
Proof is for mathematicians.
Logic is for philosophers.
We have testimony.”
– Verlyn Klinkenborg, Several short sentences about writing (2013), p. 117.
Tom: Thanks for talking with me today Harold.
T: I’ve been enjoying your keyboard music for many years and I’m curious to know how you came to your way of playing. You once said in a Red Bull interview,
“I’m not a pianist, any piano player will tell you that…Just take responsibility,
it’s your piece, do it, play it, period, that’s it.”
What did you mean by that?
Budd: Yeah. Well, I’m not a trained pianist in any conventional sense. And in the second part of that quote I was referring to a performance some time ago, conducted by Lukas Foss, for which I played piano. I listened to a tape of the performance and was so appalled by what I heard—my playing was so bad! I then decided to sit down and learn how to properly play the piano part.
T: To take responsibility.
Budd: Exactly. As I said in an interview for L.A. Record, I decided, after a spell of playing avant-garde music, that I wanted to be responsible “for music that would change your life.”
T: That’s bold and kind of inspiring.
Budd: And true too.
T: I also read in an interview you did with The Guardian that you don’t particularly care for the piano, nor do you have any urge to make music.
Budd: Right, I did say that.
T: I found that refreshing, yet also a shocking thing for someone who makes beautiful-sounding music “that would change your life” to say.
Budd: I can’t say if my music sounds beautiful, it just sort of is. The main thing is that it’s the only sound I can make. I will say though, that there’s nothing wrong with wanting to make music that sounds attractive. There’s nothing bad about consonance.
Why would anyone want to make unattractive music, anyway?
T: To show their sophistication? I don’t know.
Budd: It makes no sense.
T: Well, I like your music. It’s a beautiful kind of ambient minimalism.
Budd: I’ve never liked that term minimalism either. It puts musics into a stylistic box. But I will admit that I once said about myself, “I’m so minimal, I’m not even minimalist.” Which is still true.
T: So, back to your distaste for music and for the piano.
Budd: Right. I’m not much of a music fan and I don’t listen to music at all. And the piano is rather ugly. Who would want one in their house anyway? It’s so huge and takes up so much space. My first love was the drums—I wanted to be like Max Roach and Kenny Clarke.
T: I didn’t know you were also a drummer. So what were your influences—specifically the things that lead you to your piano sound?
Budd: I don’t know if my kind of piano playing has any clear sources, but after jazz—my number one influence—another inspiration was Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Rosetti was a nineteenth-century British painter and poet (1828-1882) who found it difficult to choose between a career in poetry or painting. Another influence was Brian Eno.
T: Eno has influenced a lot of musicians. I’ve consulted his Oblique Strategies from time to time. He gets you thinking about what you’re doing and thinking differently.
How did Eno influence you?
Budd: He influenced me through his bravery. He’ll go in any direction a project takes him and he lets the material completely dictate the path. He’s fearless that way: it takes strength to get out of one’s own way like that. A third influence was the painter Robert Motherwell. Motherwell once said something that inspired me. He said “Art without risk is pointless.”
T: How did that idea manifest itself in your music?
Budd: In the sense that every time I sit down to play I have no idea what will happen. It could be terrible! (Laughs) That sense of risk is what compels me to go places I would not otherwise have a reason to go.
T: One last question. Do you have any advice for aspiring musicians?
Budd: Yes I do. First, think beyond the walls of a formal musical education, if you had one. If you did have one, you may have missed out on a lot of stuff. Second, get to know an instrument on terms that make sense to you rather than to someone else. Third, be open to influences coming from anywhere. You never know how something can compel you until it does. And my final bit of advice is: stay out of your own way.
T: Thanks for taking the time Harold.
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?
We were talking tech
about the Jetsons watch
that takes calls and your pulse
and a tablet with glass touchscreen
then I remembered my old computer
in the 90s with black and white graphics
and a MIDI connection
beloved for simulating music
I said I’m astonished
by digital’s latest
and do you think maybe
one day our minds will catch up?