WIND IN LONELY FENCES, A NEWLY ISSUED COMPILATION, SPANS OVER FOUR DECADES OF WORK FROM INFLUENTIAL AVANT-GARDE COMPOSER HAROLD BUDD.
Also released on All Saints is the BUDDBOX, which collects together seven of his hard-to-find albums.
In a new interview Budd talks from his home in California, discussing his many collaborations with the likes of Bill Nelson, Robin Guthrie, Andy Partridge and, of course, Brian Eno. He reveals how, in the late 1970s, Eno introduced him to a group of sympathetic English minimalists, including Michael Nyman and Gavin Bryars, and that it was David Sylvian who finally encouraged him to come out of a self-imposed retirement during the mid-2000s.
HOW MUCH IS THE PIANO AN EXTENSION OF YOURSELF?
I’m not a proper musician – I can’t play. I play keyboard because it’s so convenient – I’m not a pianist by no stretch of the imagination. When I was teaching at California Institute of the Arts, they needed to place a piano in somebody’s house, like a student or a teacher. So I volunteered my house. I introduced myself, as it were, to the piano. Slowly and surely I developed enough of a technique in a certain restricted way to take advantage of it. I never really thought of myself at that time as anything other than a composer. I’ve never considered myself to be a pianist or an instrumentalist at all. I just have those skills. They are very modest. I never work at it on a daily basis.
SO HOW HAS YOUR RELATIONSHIP WITH THE INSTRUMENT DEVELOPED AND EVOLVED?
I don’t have a piano at all. I don’t like them. In fact, when my son was born, around fifteen years ago, I had a piano – the last piano I had. I’d rented it. It was always temporary. It was a very good piano, very nice. It was fun playing it. In fact, I could play it well enough to enjoy doing it. But it was such an ugly thing. I mean that the piano is a physically ugly construction. I decided to get rid of it – and I have never regretted that for a second. In fact when I got rid of it I put a Navajo rug down where it was. Every morning I’d get up for my cup of tea at breakfast time and look over at the Navajo rug and think to myself “Thank god that goddamn piano isn’t there”.
COMPOSER DANIEL LENTZ AND YOURSELF WERE MEMBERS OF THE CONCEPTUAL ENSEMBLE CALIFORNIA TIME MACHINE BACK IN THE 1960s. YOU SEEM TO HAVE FOLLOWED PARALLEL COMPOSITIONAL PATHS, DEVELOPING AN AESTHETIC WHICH IS UNDERPINNED BY AN ALMOST NEO-IMPRESSIONISTIC NOTION OF BEAUTY COUPLED WITH A CLEAR TONAL FOCUS.
I confess to you very easily, Daniel was a very huge influence. We were both finding our language. I can tell you that the reaction among my academic peers was very negative. I felt very isolated. Daniel and I met in 1969. I found someone just by accident who shared the same ideas that I had arrived at independently. I think we both set on that interaction. In fact to a very large extent that’s still true today. Daniel remains my closest friend. We don’t really have to discuss music. It’s pointless – we already understand each other perfectly. It frees a person up from having to explain what they’re doing. If explaining is necessary. I’m sure it is, sometimes. I’m not an academic. I really don’t feel the pressure to do that.
HOW DID YOUR HARMONIC LANGUAGE ORIGINATE? WHAT WERE ITS SOURCES AND INFLUENCES, AND TO WHAT DEGREE WAS IT A REACTION TO THE PREVAILING COMPOSITIONAL AESTHETIC OF THE DAY?
If I look back on it now, I can tell you that I had a very high regard for the music that Pharoah Sanders was doing at that time – and that seemed to me to kind of allude to a very undisguised tonal music. It was exactly what it was. It was that note at that time and it was the right one. I loved that idea. To a large extent I confess that I was influenced by that more than I can really say… though I’m not analysing it.
WITH PIECES SUCH AS BUTTERFLY SUNDAY, WHICH DATES FROM 1973, THERE APPEARS FOR THE FIRST TIME A DIRECT SPIRITUAL REFERENCE ON THE FRONTISPIECE OF THE SCORE – A VERSE QUOTATION FROM THE SONG OF SOLOMON. TO WHAT DEGREE DOES SPIRITUALITY UNDERPIN YOUR OUTPUT IN TERMS OF MUSICAL VOCABULARY AND THE RELATIONSHIP YOU MIGHT BE TRYING TO ESTABLISH BETWEEN COMPOSER, PERFORMER AND LISTENER? HAS THAT SPIRITUAL STRAND REMAINED CONSTANT OVER THE YEARS?
I think it’s completely overblown – and that’s my fault. Let’s look at it from a totally different perspective. At the time avant-garde music was very dead and the prevailing ethic was one of technique. To use phrases like ‘spirituality’ and stuff like that was a kind of ‘political’ ploy because it was so uncool. It was ‘political’ in the sense of “don’t take it too seriously”. It was thumbing my nose at the worst aspects of avant-garde music.
THE PAVILION OF DREAMS (1978) WAS ISSUED ON BRIAN ENO’S LABEL OBSCURE, AND APPEARS TO BE THE FIRST STAGE IN YOUR COLLABORATIVE RELATIONSHIP WITH HIM. THE LIST OF MUSICIANS TO FEATURE ON IT IS A VERITABLE ROLL CALL OF BRITISH MINIMALISTS ASSOCIATED WITH THE EXPERIMENTAL MUSIC SCENE OF THAT ERA: JOHN WHITE, GAVIN BRYARS AND MICHAEL NYMAN, AMONGST OTHERS. WHY THESE MUSICIANS IN THE UK?
That was completely accidental. I’d never even heard of him when he got hold of me. Imagine my surprise finding that language coming from a person I knew nothing about. I discovered, through Eno, Gavin and Michael, musicians who agreed with me, who I felt were ‘in my camp’. We all agreed: “This is music and this is the kind of music we do”. I’d landed in a camp that I completely agreed with.
WHAT CAUSED YOU TO MOVE AWAY FROM WRITING PIECES FOR OTHERS TO PERFORM TO THE STUDIO-BASED WORK IN WHICH YOU WERE BOTH COMPOSER AND PERFORMER?
I got bored. I didn’t think what I was doing was very vital. I discovered that I had a language at the keyboard which I had not really explored. Mostly, it’s convenient. But it has no real meaning beyond that. If I was a guitarist I suppose that I would be a strummer. I wouldn’t be a soloist like Bill Nelson.
SINCE WORKING WITH BRIAN ENO YOU’VE ENGAGED WITH A VARIED RANGE OF COLLABORATORS, INCLUDING JOHN FOXX, XTC’s ANDY PARTRIDGE, BILL NELSON AND ROBIN GUTHRIE (FORMERLY OF COCTEAU TWINS). WHAT IS IT THAT DRAWS YOU INTO PARTNERSHIPS – AND HOW WOULD YOU DESCRIBE THE NATURE OF SUBSEQUENT CREATIVE PROCESSES?
Friendship. All of these people are still my fondest friends. They were doing music I loved and had an attitude about life. A way of thinking about yourself and your families and stuff like that…
IN 2004 YOU RECORDED THE DOUBLE ALBUM AVALON SUTRA / AS LONG AS I CAN HOLD MY BREATH. AT THE TIME YOU DESCRIBED IT AS BEING YOUR LAST ALBUM…
That decision to say that I quit was very rash and very silly. It’s very simple… I was living alone in the Mojave desert and nothing was happening with my own career and I felt very very sorry for myself. I’m embarrassed to say that – it’s true. I had a very hard time. I started to run away and pack my bags and catch a train or something. AVALON SUTRA was already recorded when I was let go by Atlantic Records. I had a record and I couldn’t give it away. No-one wanted it in America – which re-fuelled my real distaste for the music business in this country.
WHAT WERE THE CIRCUMSTANCES THAT CAUSED YOU TO CHANGE YOUR DECISION?
It wasn’t until I met, by accident, David Sylvian in Los Angeles and we had lunch. He asked me somewhere along the line if I would consider putting AVALON SUTRA out on his small private label, Samahdi-Sound. I didn’t hesitate for a second. I must say that David Sylvian’s artistry and music I admire so much. Of all my contemporaries it is he who I find the most interesting.
OVER THE YEARS YOU’VE COLLABORATED WITH ROBIN GUTHRIE ON A NUMBER OF PROJECTS: THE MOON AND THE MELODIES (1986, ALSO FEATURING SIMON RAYMONDE AND LIZ FRASER); THE FILM SOUNDTRACK MYSTERIOUS SKIN (2005); AFTER THE NIGHT FALLS AND BEFORE THE DAY BREAKS (2007); AND, RECENTLY, 2011’s BORDEAUX…
I work so easily with Robin. We don’t have to rehearse. That’s the extent of how much we trust one another. We just get on with it. It’s wonderful – quite wonderful indeed. I have never really worked with musicians who could read music, and I consider that to be a blessing. It’s a very important thing to find someone with whom you would explore and discover an aspect of your art that you would have never have found on your own.
YOU’VE CITED MARK ROTHKO AS AN INFLUENCE, ALONGSIDE OTHER PAINTERS SUCH AS SERGE POLIAKOFF AND HANS HARTNUNG. TO WHAT DEGREE DOES VISUAL ART INFLUENCE YOUR WORK?
None. They are two different disciplines. There is no one-to-one relationship. I love the visual arts so much. When I love a painting or a persons body of work, I am completely immersed in their grasp… I surrender. I can tell you for a second that visual art is absolutely where my heart is. I love museums, art museums. I don’t go to concerts. I’m not really a music fan.
MANY OF YOUR PIECES HAVE RESONATED WITH A SENSE OF IMAGINARY SPACE. HOW MUCH HAVE THE PLACES IN WHICH YOU HAVE LIVED AND CREATED INFLUENCED YOUR MUSIC?
None at all. I live in a very handsome house in Joshua Tree, California, in the desert. A very beautiful house – very artistic shall we say. I’ve often been asked that I must be very interested in the desert, in the open spaces. In fact, I’m not. I’m not interested in that at all. I’m not interested in the architecture outside of it being architecture. There’s no correlation with my music at all. Not so far as I can tell, anyway.
WHERE DO YOU SEE YOUR JOURNEY AS A COMPOSER TAKING YOU IN THE FUTURE?
I don’t know. I do know what I’ve just done. I’ve finished a year long project of two albums that are designed for an artist friend of mine to do DVD’s. Her name is Jane Maru. One of them is already done. The other one she hasn’t even started on. But I finished it late last month. I started it in November 2012. It’s been a year of me doing exactly what I want to do, and having a wonderful time doing it. My rules to myself were: no microphones, no notes, no plan, no nothing. I walked into the studio and I came out with something. The rule to myself was to do a minimum of one piece a day. It has to be not ever revisited again. It’s all mixed. Everything is done. It’s ready to press onto a record by the time I walk out of the studio on that day. I can’t tell you how utterly liberating that is. I knew you could do it but I never actually did it…
THE COMPILATION WIND IN LONELY FENCES HAS JUST BEEN RELEASED, GIVING A SOLID OVERVIEW OF YOUR WORK FROM 1970 TO 2011, ALONGSIDE THE MORE EXTENSIVE BUDDBOX, WHICH COLLECTS TOGETHER SEVEN OF YOUR ‘HARD TO FIND’ ALBUMS FROM BETWEEN 1981 AND 1996…
Other than those coming out, I’m fascinated by what’s going to happen next. I’m not quite sure, especially right now, given all the things that I’ve confessed to you… I don’t know what I’m going to do. But it’ll be something. I’ve no idea what. I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s something with Robin. I think Robin is coming out here to Southern California at some point soon… and I’m sure that we will get together…