“What you hear in music is just a hunch”: Musical Lessons From Harold Budd

Harold Budd, one of my favorite musicians, passed away last week. Budd began his career as a jazz drummer, and then began composing avant garde classical music. Finding influence in the work of painter Mark Rothko, composer John Cage, as well as medieval and renaissance musics, Budd turned away from the complexities of the avant grade and evolved a unique way of playing piano and keyboards to make a simple, clear, and floating style of music. The New York Times recently described this ambient sound as “soft-pedaled, sustained and suspended in a corona of reverberation and drone.” From the late 1970s onwards, Budd made recordings that sounded like no one else. This post is about four lessons I have learned from him. 

1. Besides the piano, Budd wasn’t overly interested in musical instruments per se, but rather what he could do with what he was using at the moment. When asked in 2014 if he had a piano at home, he said no, and added: “I think they’re ugly things. Architecturally speaking, and in other ways. So to actually live with a piano? Well, that would really insult my aesthetic sense.” Budd loved the piano, but for him a musical instrument was merely a vehicle for expression. 

2. Budd’s compositional strategy in the studio was to use whatever was at hand and find everything in it that makes musical sense. In one interview, he explained how he would settle on a single synthesizer patch and then limit himself to using just that sound and exploring all of its potentials. This constraint has helped me in my own work: as soon as I find/make a sound I like, I start working with it.

3. Budd played off of processing effects. For instance, in his collaborations with Brian Eno, Eno would effect Budd’s piano playing with reverb and other “treatments” and Budd would respond to the treatments in real time–such as allowing the long reverb tails to shape the sense of space in his playing. 

4. Finally, Budd, who was self-taught on the piano, evolved a distinctive musical style. His music managed to proceed without reliance on stylistic cliches—that is, without trying to sound jazzy, New Agey, or pop–yet remain supremely listenable and most of all, consonant. In a 1987 interview he said: 

“There’s a whole world fraught with possibilities in consonant music…In Beethoven, a consonant chord had a function, but in my music the focus has shifted to consonance as a thing in itself. It’s completely free, complete anarchy. What you hear in the music is just a hunch. It’s intuition telling me that this works and this doesn’t. I hear an absolute whole life in consonant chords.”

Resonant Thoughts: Alessandro Baricco’s “The Game” (2020)

“There is a deep-rooted suspicion that the perception of the world that has been shaped by new technology is missing a whole segment of reality, perhaps the best part: the one that pulsates under the surface of things, where only patient, laborious, and sophisticated attention will lead. This is a place for which a word was coined in the past that has now become a totem: PROFUNDITY. It gave form to the conviction that—hidden somewhere, at an almost inaccessible depth—things had meaning. It is undeniable that our new techniques for reading the world appear to be specially made to make it impossible to plummet into those depths and almost obligatory to hover over the surface of things with swift, inconclusive movements. What will happen to these human beings who no longer know how to delve down to the roots of things or go to their source? How will their skill at jumping from branch to branch or navigating in the slipstream at full speed be useful to them? Are we all evaporating into a frivolous nothingness? Will this be our last performance?” [italics added]

“On the surface, floating right under your nose, was chaos or—in a best-case scenario—the treacherous trap of superficial perceptions. The game at the time was to get past them with the help of teachers selected for that purpose. Following a path that needed hard work, application, and patience, what was required was to go down in depth where, like an inverse pyramid, the complex articulation of reality would slowly reveal itself, first in the clarity of a few elements, and later in the blinding epilogue of true essence. This deep core was where the AUTHENTIC MEANING OF THINGS was preserved. We used to call the moment we gained access to the hallowed hall EXPERIENCE. It was rare, and almost impossible, without some form of mediation: from high priests such as professors, from books or travel, or sometimes from suffering. Whatever it was, it implied dedication and sacrifice. The idea that it might be a game, or that it could be simple, was not contemplated. In this sense, EXPERIENCE was seen as a rare luxury or as a reward for the privileged few. In any case, it was always the legacy of a caste of high priests. It was, nonetheless, a glittering prize that was highly sought after in the weary emptiness of our lives.”

“It was something more important, buried somewhere deep within our collective psyche like the memory of a vibration. It was irritating to think about, but I kept on going back to it: WE WERE LOSING THE MEMORY OF A CERTAIN VIBRATION. I don’t know how else to describe it” (…)

“The conflict was harsh: the digitals marched forward, looking back scornfully at the analogicals, who were shaking their heads while shooting their last few miles of film and proclaiming that the end of cinema was nigh. It was not just a matter of taste or pixels, you see. The debate centered around the filmmaker’s craft: the digital technique, they complained, changed the lighting, the weight of the movie camera, the time it took to shoot, the cost—everything. Generally speaking, it appeared to simplify things but—and it was a big but—the old artisan filmmakers knew that digital photography killed much of the beauty, the magic, what some might call the soul of cinema. Which brings us to the core of the question” (…)

“The edge of the screen was wavy. Not very wavy, just a little. Like a vibration. He went on to screen the digital version. ‘Look at the edge,’ he said. Stationary.”

“I will always remember that circular movement of my photography director’s hand, and now I know that what we miss in every digital device, and more in general in the digital world, is that breathing, that waviness, that irregularity. Like a vibration. Was that vibration what we used to call a soul? It’s hard to say, but if, like me, you keep on looking for answers, this is the answer that comes to me: a vibration is a movement that makes reality ring true; it is an unfocused image where reality breathes in meaning; it is a delay where reality produces mystery. It is, therefore, the only depository of real experience. There is no real experience without a vibration of this kind.”

Notes On Curation II: Sketchbook

Each week on this blog I’ve been sharing a piece of music. Some of these tracks are finished, some in progress, some are experiments that led somewhere but no further, and some are probably done but I just don’t know it yet. The music is always at least a few weeks old, and usually several months old, because I find it helpful to let tracks sit for a while so I can forget about them. Forgetting about one’s work is important for at least two reasons:

(1) it lets us focus on what to do today (like, right now!) rather than obsess on problems with what we have already done; and  

(2) it positions us to return to our work later to assess whether or not it has potential. And by potential I mean: the work can withstand our repeated encounters with it and maintain its interestingness. 

If, after some time, a revisited track is not not boring or irritating, then I’ll try to develop it just enough so that it can be the best version of what it already is. (What’s the 20 percent thing I can do to make the work 80 percent better?

The reason I share the music then, is to make public the process of going through projects and trying to remember what it is that I’ve done, and of that material, what I might want to refine and release. This is the reason why many of the Sketchbook tracks have pretty utilitarian titles with numbers and dates: they help me organize and identify the material.

There’s also a psychological aspect of referring to a YouTube channel as a Sketchbook. When a work is just a “sketch” it takes pressure off the work’s aims and goals. Actually, every post on this blog is a sketch. Sometimes a post turns out to be prep for something else, but often it’s a wandering with its own reasons for being. Either way, sharing one’s work costs nothing, could be of interest to others, and helps us focus more on themes (literally) right under our hands we may not have otherwise noticed. In sum, all of this is a form of curation, which is about assessing, selecting, and organizing materials into a coherent whole. Sometimes we don’t recognize what we’re making until we encounter it again and go, Okay, I hear what you were trying to say.  

Curating The Week: Cancel Culture, Solitude, The Brain

An article on cancel culture.

“What cancellations offer instead is a surrogate, warped-mirror version of the judicial process, at once chaotic yet ritualized. It’s a paradox reminiscent of the mayhem in medieval Catholic traditions of carnival and misrule, wherein the church and governing bodies were lampooned and hierarchy upended — all without actually threatening the prevailing hegemony, and even reaffirming it (…)

There was a time when we lived in a moral economy, which is to say, an economy that acknowledged, if not always observed, moral concerns. The British social historian E.P. Thompson used the term as a framework for understanding food riots in 18th-century England, when, in times of dearth, people set their sights on profiteers and organized what he described as ‘a kind of ritualized hooting or groaning’ outside shops to make their displeasure known. Today we hoot and groan still, but seemingly everywhere and at everything, so that even the worthiest and most urgent causes get lost in the clamor. The many subcultures whose complaints buoy the larger, nebulous cancel culture tend to fixate on minutiae, which can distract from attempts to achieve broader change.”

An article on solitude.

“When we’re alone, all the fears and worries and anxieties come up, because we can’t distract ourselves,”

An article on the brain.

“This budgetary account of how the brain works may seem plausible when it comes to your bodily functions. It may seem less natural to view your mental life as a series of deposits and withdrawals. But your own experience is rarely a guide to your brain’s inner workings. Every thought you have, every feeling of happiness or anger or awe you experience, every kindness you extend and every insult you bear or sling is part of your brain’s calculations as it anticipates and budgets your metabolic needs.”

Notes On A Guitarist’s Tone

This week, Spotify’s algorithm sent some unusual music my way. The track was Robert Fripp’s “Music for Quiet Moments 28—Time Stands Still” from a recorded concert in 2006. Fripp is the founder of King Crimson, and also a legendary guitarist. Since the early 1970s he has developed various looping systems—from reel to to reel tape machines to digital set ups—that multiply and mutate his guitar into vast soundscapes. 

Years ago I saw Fripp perform a solo concert at the Winter Garden Atrium in New York City, where his soundscapes filled the cavernous space with unresolved tones. At one point in the concert, Fripp left the stage, while the loops kept cycling around on their own. I don’t know if he was making a point about music or the spectacle of performing, but the concert was just as enjoyable looking at an empty stage. After the show, Fripp walked out into the audience and handed out Fig Newtons. “Fig Newton? Fig Newton? he kept saying, as he walked around handing out treats and the crowd parted, puzzled and not quite sure what was going on.


Fripp’s solo performances, with their digital looping of long guitar tones, don’t quite sound like guitar: they sound synthetic. But it’s the soloing on top that sounds human, which brings me to the subject of this blog post: tone. A minute into “Music for Quiet Moments 28”—at exactly 1:09—you hear, above the looping long guitar tones, a simple and compact melody. A semi tone up, then two more tones, then a slide back down, a dip below, and back up…The phrase takes just a few seconds, and then Fripp explores a few more lines, and is done in 52 seconds. Less is more. For me, the playing articulates a glorious tone: it’s a plain electric guitar, yet the sound is pristine, singular, recognizably Frippian, and most importantly, it sings. You hear similar melodies emerge again later in the performance, at 3:57 and 6:05, each time cutting the same kind of understated shape against the long loops.

“Music for Quiet Moments 28” isn’t especially easy listening, either timbrally or structurally—it asks something of you—but you’re rewarded with an unusual sonic world whose function doesn’t easily align with ambient music’s conventional purposes. (Fripp calls the music an “ambient instrumental soundscape.”) Whatever the music is for, it’s the tone of its three brief guitar solos that have me thinking about how it is that musicians come by their sound and how they chose to express it.