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Harold Budd: American Vision

Recording The Luxa Album By Paul Tingen
Published January 1997

Harold Budd at his piano.

Despite having waited eight years to create the follow‑up to his 1988 solo album, experimental composer Harold Budd composed and recorded the new album, Luxa, in just 11 days.

Since the late '70s, it has become a habit for recording artists to take longer and longer to write and record their music. Peter Gabriel, most famously, may take several years to record an album. At the other end of the spectrum, there are still a few bands and artists who will write and record an album in a matter of weeks.

And then there's Harold Budd. The American ex‑minimalist, ex‑college lecturer, experimental ambient composer, solo artist and bon viveur may have taken eight years to release Luxa, his first solo studio album since The White Arcades (1988), but the speed and working methods with which he created his new album beggar belief. Luxa is a full 62 minutes and 32 seconds long, contains 16 pieces, and the music on it was written, played, recorded and mixed in just 11 days. On top of this, Budd still had time, according to engineer Michael Coleman (who recorded the album at his Orangewood Studios in Mesa, Arizona — see 'Engineering For Harold Budd' box), to "come into the studio some mornings, decide that he didn't feel inspired at all, and call it a day". At other times, Budd would spend hours trawling through synth sounds, trying to find a sound he liked, yet all Coleman would hear, in response to every sound that Budd tried, was: "Hate it... hate it... hate it... hate it... hate it... hate it..." But, adds Coleman: "When he's 'on', he's really on and it's fascinating to watch him work. He's a really nice guy, very laid back, very easy‑going, yet when he's inspired he just explodes creatively. He knows exactly what he wants and knows how to get the sounds he wants, and he works really, really quickly."

Don't get sucked into distractions, don't listen to the siren chorus about this keyboard that has a billion sounds in it.

Budd must indeed work very quickly, for although the music on Luxa falls clearly into ambient territory, its 62 minutes are not filled with endless repetitions, nor with basic musical ideas stretched beyond breaking point. Instead, every piece on Luxa is based on a clear idea, has a beginning, a middle, and an end, and, although they're low on melody and high on atmospheric synthesizer pads and piano improvisations, there's a definite and captivating musical structure that runs through each. It's all held together by Budd's relaxed timing and infallible use of space.

Despite its spaciousness, however, Luxa is musically richer than The White Arcades. The latter album consisted largely of slow‑moving, warm and sleepy atmospheric synthesizer parts, whereas Luxa is harsher and starker, features much more solo piano, and employs more rhythmic devices, largely courtesy of Budd's huge collection of ethnic rattles, shakers, gourds and bells. In short, Luxa is a minor masterpiece that demonstrates that there's still life in ambient music, and that it's still possible to make a meditative musical work that's neither New Age kitsch, nor weighed down by the numbing repetitiveness and sterile conceptualism that's hampered the minimalist and ambient genres for so long. Inhabiting an aesthetic universe all its own, Luxa also demonstrates that it's still possible to forge a recognisable musical identity with the use of modern keyboards.

Pretty Revolting

This 60‑year old former classical avant‑garde composer and college professor, with a general dislike for samples and digital keyboards, manages to give many younger artists a run for their money when it comes to creating character with modern music technology. To understand how he does it, it's necessary to assess where he's coming from and go back in time for a moment to retrace a few of his most relevant steps. Born in 1936 in Los Angeles, Budd graduated in music composition in 1966, and taught at the California Institute of Arts between 1970 and 1976. As a classical composer living in California during the '60s, it was inevitable that he would be strongly influenced by the radical American composers of the day. These included the original and most radical of avant‑gardists, John Cage, who tore all musical conventions to shreds. LaMonte Young, Terry Riley, Philip Glass and Steve Reich, who tried to find a way out of the cul‑de‑sac of total freedom and total chaos through the tonal repetition of minimalism, were also influences.

It's during a beautiful, sunny, early Autumn day in London that Budd leans over a pint of beer in a West London pub and thinks back to his musical roots: "In the very early '60s, John Cage had an enormous impact on me — but I must say more through his writings and the example of his lifestyle than through his music. He showed us that it was possible to be an artist without selling out to the academy, and to go directly into art itself. That was an important heroic posture for almost all American artists at that time. But by the early '70s I had shifted my position and had become aggressively against the avant‑garde. I felt that it had pretty much run its course, that it was self‑congratulatory, and that if you couldn't tell the difference any more between the pieces of one avant‑gardist and another, it had become sterile and pointless. There were no yardsticks any more to measure the quality of a piece. Anything went, and that had a deadly effect on the movement. And I'm not even talking about the European avant‑garde here, of people like Stockhausen and Boulez, because my generation detested that with an almost militaristic anger. The European avant‑garde came directly out of the institutions, was therefore the mother of all evil [laughs], and had to be overthrown by a radical revolution."

A studio gives you the freedom to do everything, and to me everything is a tyranny.

Like many American composers, Budd saw the answer to the problems of "sterile" avant‑garde music in the tight structures of minimalism, and he started to bring his music back to bare and tonal essentials. However, the direction he took was different to other minimalists. Firstly he steered clear of the 'pattern music' of Reich and Glass, and secondly he became "fascinated by old‑fashioned music, like mediaeval and Renaissance music. I found delights and wonder in a musical language that was really uncool, that was really unhip and had nothing to do with avant‑garde, and that was also different from the starkness of much minimalistic music. When I made my break from avant‑garde in 1970, both psychologically and aesthetically, I pretty much rejected everything I had done until then, but didn't quite know which direction to go in. But once I hit on my interest in older music, I found a new direction, in which I purposely tried to create music that was so sweet and pretty and decorative that it would positively upset and revolt the avant‑garde, whose ugly sounds had by now become a new orthodoxy. Hard as is it is to imagine now, the prettiness of my music was very much a political statement at the time."

The Tyranny Of Everything

Budd made more political statements, some of which seem rather dated now, such as his Madrigal Of The Rose Angel (1972), for harp, celeste, percussion, lights and a topless chorus of female singers. It's a work which he now calls, with a big grin, "blatantly sexist", and which was very much rooted in its time. But with his new‑found emphasis on beauty, tonality, simple but clear and often old‑fashioned‑sounding harmonic developments and atmospheric textures, Budd had laid the foundations for a style he is still exploring today, and of which Luxa is only the latest manifestation. There were, however, two more ingredients that were to radically shape and transform his music and his way of composing. These were both introduced to him by Brian Eno, who produced the recording of Budd's composition Pavilion of Dreams, in 1978. The two ingredients were the use of the recording studio as a musical and compositional instrument, and the synthesizer, with which he developed a powerful love‑hate relationship. Budd: "Eno totally showed me the studio world. You start with an idea and then you use the studio as your palette. To me, that's much more interesting than writing a string quartet, having it performed correctly and making a documentary of that. I have no interest in that whatsoever any more, even though I, unfortunately, think that Pavilion of Dreams, which was done in the 'old' way, is still my best album. But the thing is that using the studio as an instrument, and using synthesizers, just works — even though I don't actually like those damned electronic keyboards."

In 1978, then, Budd effectively stopped being a 'classical composer' and became a recording artist, for whom "recording and composition became equal members of the creative process" , rather than two separate entities. Switching to a more 'rock music' approach to making music also meant that Budd became embedded in the rock music world from a social and cultural point of view, and gained himself a rock audience. One other result was that, as well as working on the various solo albums he's has released over the years, he became heavily involved in collaborations with rock music artists such as Brian Eno (The Plateaux Of Mirror, 1980; The Pearl, 1984), The Cocteau Twins (The Moon and The Melodies, 1986), XTC's Andy Partridge (Through The Hill, 1994) and Hector Zazou (Glyph, 1995). What also becomes clear, however, is that despite his association with the rock music world, Budd has managed to avoid many of its trappings. We've already seen that he's stayed clear of the rock habit of spending years and hundreds of thousands of pounds on making a record. And an inkling of how he manages that comes when it emerges that he's also stayed entirely out of the equipment rat‑race that can be so distracting when it comes to making music. The amazing fact is that not only does Budd not have his own recording facility, he actually doesn't own any musical instruments whatsoever.

I always try to get started on something that doesn't bring up any problems; then you can move on to the more problematic works and you and the engineer will have faith that you'll find successful solutions.

Budd explains: "I'll tell you why... There's a quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson, something to the effect of: 'if you can't be free, then be as free as you can be'. And I like the arbitrary restrictions that one places on oneself, so that you don't get scatterbrained and don't reach for everything that's available. Keep your focus very narrow: just this and nothing more, and make that absolutely exquisite and don't get sucked into distractions, don't listen to the siren chorus singing across the waves about this keyboard that has a billion sounds in it. I couldn't care less about things like that. They just get in the way. I'm not bragging, but the way I work is that I focus entirely on a small thing and try to milk that for all it's worth, to find everything in it that makes musical sense. A studio gives you the freedom to do that, but it also gives you the freedom to do everything, and to me everything is a tyranny. What's the point? So for me it's a conscious choice to work in a studio when I want and need to, but not to own a studio. It's the same with owning instruments. All I have is an old, worthless Casio 202, which I don't even use any more, and the shakers and bells. I don't even have a piano any more."

Breaking The Ice

This may sound extreme, and it is, but when Budd describes the creative process that led to Luxa, it starts to make sense, and at least enables you to understand how he manages to work so quickly. The secret, it appears, lies in at least five working methods and approaches.

Harold Budd: Luxa album coverFirst, it turns out that Budd works long and hard in his mind at getting a clear concept and focus for a work. Second, he chooses both studio and engineer carefully. Third, he limits the number of instruments he uses. Fourth, he takes advantage of a few psychological tricks that get the creative juices flowing. And fifth, he knows when to stop and when not to even start. Budd elaborates on these points: "Even though it's true that the writing and recording of Luxa took only 10 days, it actually took me six months to prepare the album. I prepared the sequence of the works, the structures, the titles, the ambience, the mood, and so on. I analysed all that very carefully. Part of this work centres on the titles of the pieces, which are of great importance to me, and in the case of Luxa, one concept was to work around the names of artists I admire — for example, 'Niki D' stands for the French sculptress Niki De Saint‑Phalle. I always have loads of titles with me, and even though I agree with Michael Coleman, that the relationship between music and title may not be obvious in my work, I do believe that a bad title can ruin an otherwise very nice piece. And the title of the album clearly relates to its contents. Luxa is a non‑existent word that I derived from the Latin word 'lux', which means light, and I agree that Luxa has a great deal of light and buoyancy, as well as long, sombre moods, as a contrast to the light‑filled pieces."

So when Budd entered Michael Coleman's Orangewood Studios on June 3rd 1996, did he have any idea of what the music would sound like? "Oh, no, of course not. I'm pretty sure of the direction I'm going in, but many things in the studio happen because of circumstances. Especially with this album, the music was the very last thing that I thought about. It's also the easiest thing. Getting the concept of the whole suite of pieces together beforehand is a very difficult process that takes a lot of thinking and planning. But the music just takes care of itself once I'm in the studio. The only piece I had a musical idea for was 'Serge Poliakoff'. I knew pretty much what that would sound like. It is possible that that piece was a germination point for the music on the rest of the album. That makes pretty good sense, now that you ask that question. I hadn't thought of it, but it's true that it's kind of glittery and has a carnival‑like atmosphere to it, as well as a somewhat decayed, decadent mood. I like that feel very much and wanted to go into that direction."

Running down the other aspects of the Budd recording method, the composer explains that he had worked with Coleman before on an album called Walking To My Voice: American Beat Poetry, on which Budd recites 33 American beat poems against his own musical backdrop, and which was recently released in Italy only. Budd liked Coleman, liked the unassuming small studio in idyllic rural Arizona, and liked the simplicity of Coleman's setup, which featured, at the time, only a 1‑inch Tascam 16‑track analogue tape recorder, Trident Series 65 desk, Tannoy Gold monitors and a collection of Coleman's keyboards — of which Budd only used a few.

When Budd started work at Coleman's place, he made sure that he wasn't starting, so to speak, with a blank sheet of paper, immediately beginning work on the two covers that feature on the album: Marion Brown's 'Sweet Earth Flying', and Steve Brown's 'Pleasure'. Budd: "'Sweet Earth Flying' was recorded and mixed in an hour, just piano and a very quiet, treated sample of a girls' choir from some ancient Roland, I can't remember which one [an MKS70, according to Coleman]. But the whole reason for starting with the covers was that when you go into a studio, the first and most important thing is to break the ice, to get things flowing, and get the engineer familiar and comfortable with what you're doing. I always try to get started on something that doesn't bring up any problems; then you can move on to the more problematic works and you and the engineer will have faith that you'll find successful solutions. It's a psychological way of breaking down barriers as soon as possible, so you can work more efficiently and with better results."

No Waving Flags

On to the instruments that Budd used, and his love‑hate relationship with music technology as a whole. For a start, there's no sequencing on Luxa — everything was played live by Budd and overdubbed. And even though Budd always started with a click track, he hardly ever followed it slavishly, and appeared to use it more like the way he uses titles: as a spark to get him going. And when Budd is asked about the exact keyboards he used, he starts to fidget: "They just bore the shit of out of me. I couldn't care less. I borrowed a brand‑new Ensoniq synth from Ruben Garcia and I never used it. It has 20,000 sounds in it and was just too intimidating. I could spend a whole day with it and still find nothing I liked. When I was going through the sounds and saying 'hate it' every time a sound came up, I was not talking about the instrument but about the process of having to find good sounds on that keyboard. I think that the sounds that keyboard makes are terribly boring, and I hate to say that, because I think that Ensoniq are generally one of the better synth companies. I did use an old Ensoniq Mirage sampler with floppy disk a lot, which is great, and an old analogue Roland SH3, which I particularly used on Steve Brown's piece. Then there was a little bit of a Proteus module that I borrowed from the guy that cleans my house, and the ancient Roland [MKS70], and that's about it, apart from Michael's piano, of course."

The very limited set of sound sources that Budd used on Luxa may well be one of the main reasons why the album inhabits a sonic and aesthetic universe of its own. But there are clearly other reasons too. It wasn't easy to keep Budd's attention on the subject at hand, but he did manage to explain that most of his sound shaping work goes into studio treatments, rather than playing around with the program parameters on the sound sources: "I actually don't care whether I use analogue or digital keyboards or samplers. I just go in there and try to find something that sounds good, and if changing the sound parameters in the keyboard isn't too offensive, I'll deal with it. But I never think about how I do it. All the hard work goes into simply doing it and making sure it comes out alright, and I couldn't care less about what the actual parameters of the instrument I'm using are, or whether I'm using it correctly. For example, on the piece called 'Chet' — which is a reference to Chet Baker — there's a sound like someone slamming a door way off in the distance. It's a sound that happens on one of the Ensoniq Mirage's presets. I found that when I pushed one of the notes down really carefully and slowly, the first sound that came out was this splash sound. No actual musical sound came because I hadn't pressed the key hard enough. So I used that sound only, maybe four or five times in a seven‑minute piece. It's this kind of use of keyboards that interests me.

I'm not a pro. I couldn't play covers. I'm actually hopeless at music, except for this narrow niche.

"But Michael and I spent much more time and energy on treatments and processing. Much of the processing is very simple — just ordinary harmoniser and chorus effects. 'Anish Kapoor' has more elaborate processing. It's one of the few pieces for which I had actually written out the piano part, and once it was recorded I suggested that we listen to it harmonised, slightly sharp, move it up to where it's slightly out of tune with itself, then chorus that and take it back through the harmoniser, and this time make it slightly flat, put that through the board with standard reverb, now EQ it and get only the highs and lows... and so on. I'm actually making this up, improvising as I talk, but it was a process like this. We ended up with a sound that took a lot of work and that sounds good, and yet we would only use a teeny‑weeny bit of it. It's only there as a kind of shadow, or backlit sunlight behind the real piano. Almost all of the pieces had something like this, but these treatments aren't there as waving flags. They're more an unconscious influence. If you can point out exactly where they are, I would be really interested, because I don't even hear them myself any more. But it nevertheless gives the whole piece a kind of boost that would not be there if everything was competely dry."

This is clearly not Budd's favourite topic, and he concludes by saying that he only got involved in the studio with the simple hands‑on stuff, like levels, fade‑ins and fade‑outs, leaving the rest to Michael Coleman. "I'm a kind of old‑fashioned Luddite with equipment. I'm not that interested in it."

As for the future, apart from his ongoing touring, solo or with Hector Zazou, Budd is currently working on an album with John Foxx, and exploring the possibilities of a new project with Andy Partridge. He's also still working on a huge piece called '1000 Chords', which is literally that, already five years in the making. Finally, I ask him whether he's a meditative person, given the nature of his music. After a moment of silence, he muses: "I don't meditate. I know that my music is very introverted, but to be honest, it's all I can do. I can't do any other type of music. I'm not a pro. I couldn't play covers. I'm actually hopeless at music, except for this narrow niche. And so that's all I do. It simply comes out that way, I can't help it."

Budd grins apologetically. When I declare in response that it's time to stop and have another drink, his smile widens and he has a short, unequivocal comment: "Cool!"

Michael Coleman: Engineering For Harold Budd

Michael Coleman is a 36‑year old American keyboard player and songwriter who became involved in recording in 1983, when he started Orangewood Studios on the outskirts of the small town of Mesa, near Phoenix, Arizona. His studio has since turned into a full‑time venture, mainly catering for local musicians — Harold Budd is his first internationally‑known client.

Most clients appear to be attracted to the unique, rural location of the studio, and Coleman's no‑nonsense attitude to recording and equipment: "I prefer to stay out of the whole new equipment rat‑race. I've just purchased three ADAT XT machines with BRC, purely because I was running out of tracks with my Tascam MM1 16‑track. But the ADATs are the first major new equipment I bought since 1987. I think a lot of the new equipment sounds so sterile it's pitiful. So I don't see the point of spending money on things that I don't think are as good as the things I have, and if people call me asking for the latest of the latest, I tell them that there are several other studios in the valley they can go to."

Apart from the Tascam 16‑track, Coleman used a small selection of gear for Luxa, including a Trident Series 65 desk ("I love the sound of it. It's far better than anything else in its class."), Tannoy Gold monitors, Lexicon PCM70 for delays and harmonising, Lexicon PCM60 as the main reverb, with a Yamaha REV7 as a stand‑by reverb, and a PCM42 as a digital delay. His piano is a Yamaha Conservatory six‑foot Grand, which he recorded with a Neumann U89 on the top end and a U87 for the bottom end, placed above the strings under the wing. Luxa was assembled on a Mac running Digidesign software, and after level adjustment, topping and tailing and fades, it was mastered to a Tascam DA30 DAT. Coleman: "The mastering engineer didn't do anything to that tape during mastering, which is an indication of how accurate I can record things here."

From talking to Coleman, it's clear that working with Harold Budd was quite an experience: "When he's on he's really blowing. He knows exactly what he wants, knows how to get the sound he wants, but he's very open to hear my ideas. This means that it's really great working with him. It's also fascinating. For most of the pieces, he asked me to put on a click of some sort, but that seemed more to set a mood or something, because 99% of the time he didn't play to it. Titles are very important to him, and he usually would start a piece with a title, but I must say that I don't know what the relationship was between a title and the music that he came up with. I don't think they had anything to do with each other. A lot of the music was improvised; he didn't have any charts, and nothing was written down, apart from one small chart for some idea that he wanted to remember, and one for the piece by Marion Brown. He divides his time pretty equally between piano and synth, but it's the piano that's clearly his real love. He's really into creating things that sound new and different, which is why he hates digital synthesizers so much, because they sound so predictable, and which is why he uses so many treatments, even on acoustic piano."