Essential albums: Harold Budd

The distinctively dreamy, often extraordinary and occasionally ominous music of Californian pianist Harold Budd is affecting and rich in images, and has been widely imitated by ambient composers over the years. Imitated, but never bettered.

Harold Budd

country of origin:

Ambient, impressionist, modern classical, electronic, environmental

decades active:
70's - 10's

essential releases:

  • Plateaux Of Mirror (with Brian Eno, 1980, Editions EG)
  • The Pearl (with Brian Eno, 1984, Editions EG)
  • Lovely Thunder (1986, Editions EG)
  • The White Arcades (1988, All Saints/Warner)
  • By The Dawn's Early Light (1991, All Saints/Warner)
  • Through The Hill (with Andy Partridge, 1994, All Saints)
  • The Room (2000, Atlantic)
  • Avalon Sutra (2004, Samadhi Sound)
  • Mysterious Skin soundtrack (with Robin Guthrie, 2005, Rykodisc)
  • A Song For Lost Blossoms (with Clive Wright, 2008, Darla)
  • Candylion (with Clive Wright, 2009, Darla)

Reviewed by Mike G

The distinctively dreamy, often extraordinary and occasionally ominous music of late Californian pianist Harold Budd (1936-2020) is affecting and rich in images and has been widely imitated by ambient composers over the years. Imitated, but rarely bettered.

Like fellow American Tim Story, Budd’s lyrical, emotionally subtle musings owe more than a little to the piano music of French composers Eric Satie (1866-1925) and Claude Debussy (1862-1918). In fact, Satie’s “Gymnopedies” and “Gnossiennes” were the virtual blueprint for a modern school which includes Budd, Story and a number of others. A major difference, however, is that Satie and company never had electronics and recording studios at their disposal, a tool which gives the music of their modern-day descendents a seductive air they could only have dreamed of.

Early classics

Pre-dating his welcome return to form in the 2000's and beyond, the first four albums listed above remain the pick of Budd's early output. These date from before his restless 90's period during which he made often less successful forays into ambient dance music, daft poetry and various art rock experiments.

All four of these early albums are distinguished by haunting, drifting piano melodies enhanced with tasteful washes of electronic colour. There is something deeply subconscious about this music, slightly out of focus and utterly compelling at the same time. Some persist in calling it minimalism but I disagree. Although he was involved with the Minimalist movement in the USA in the late 60's, the inherent drift of Budd's classic sound is miles away from the mathematically precise repetition of, say, Steve Reich or Philip Glass.

The two recordings with Brian Eno - The Plateaux Of Mirror (1980) and The Pearl (1984) - establish the classic Budd sound. Budd plays acoustic and electric piano while Eno creates a subtle, beautifully reflective backdrop with wisps of synthesiser and sound effects. On Lovely Thunder (1986) and The White Arcades (1988) Budd goes it mostly alone and applies some of the production lessons he learned from Eno with great finesse. On some tracks he also subtly expands is sonic palette. The 20-minute "Gypsy Violin" features long, sad phases on said instrument, bedded gently on a luminous drone that slowly morphs, rises and falls. On "Child With A Lion" and "Totem Of The Red Sleeved Warrior" he also puts the piano aside for playful synth improvisations on the former and a deeply haunting ghost choir on the latter.

The 90's

Although the 1990's were more patchy for Budd creatively, to his credit he was experimenting.

And time has been kind to Through The Hill (1994), his collaboration with guitarist Andy Partridge of British alt-pop band XTC, as well as By The Dawn's Early Light (1991) with its substantial contributions from the gifted guitarist Bill Nelson.  These efforts sit more within the realms of post-rock and modern classical and include piano, guitars, electronics and percussion in various combinations. While still subtle and contemplative, the clear and crystalline sounds make a striking contrast with the blurry sonic clouds that envelop much of Budd's 80's music.

The 2000's

Budd's The Room (2000) is a quite magnificent return to the timeless piano sound of his 80's classics. He uses a track originally from The White Arcades as the springboard for a new collection of electro-acoustic mood pieces that are by turns dark, nostalgic, sad and surreal.The double album Avalon Sutra (2004) is also a fine work and, at the time, was allegedly Budd's final release after having announced his retirement from composing and performing music. It didn't turn out to be true, but style-wise the first disc of Avalon Sutra sounds nonetheless like a summary of his entire career spanning solo piano, treated piano, synth drones and small chamber compositions. The second disc is a low-key 70-minute remix epic engineered by his friends Akira Rabelais and art rocker David Sylvian. Based on a short track from Disc One called "As Long As I Can Hold My Breath" the synthetic strings, drones and piano are looped and remixed along with added violin to create a slow-motion drift across a moonlit landscape. It's late night ambience of the most seductive kind.

In and out of retirement

Budd's "retirement" in 2004 at age 68 was over almost as soon as it began. He went on to release at least a dozen more albums up until his death in 2020, the majority of them on Californian indie label Darla Records.

The film soundtrack Mysterious Skin (2005) is the first - and best - in a series of collaborative albums with ex-Cocteau Twins guitarist Robin Guthrie. While the later ones too often get lost in meandering, reverberant atmospherics, Mysterious Skin is an outstanding success. Guthrie's chiming, shimmering electric guitar chords add a welcome dimension to Budd's core sound, not unlike some of Daniel Lanois' guitar playing with Eno in the 1980's. Like all good soundtrack albums the music has it's own life apart from the images. The mood ranges from outright pretty to achingly sad with an edge of menace, but overall it's not nearly as dark as the film's chilling theme of sexual abuse might suggest.

A sound that's also grounded in guitar and keyboards - but with rather different results - can be heard on several Budd collaborations with the young guitarist Clive Wright. Their first two releases together - A Song For Lost Blossoms (2008) and Candylion (2009) - are in fact some of the very finest recordings of Budd's career. Wright's vocabulary on the electric guitar is fantastically varied and colourful while always embracing tonality. Budd seems duly inspired by his presence and contributes piano, electric piano and synthesisers. Light drums, bells and other extras make occasional appearances. These albums are soft-edged, gently experimental mood music of the highest order and are the pick of Budd's busy late-career renaissance.

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