“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.”

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