Harold Budd: Budd in May

The composer Harold Budd reckons he is in the autumn of his career. Indeed, he shortly proposes to retire altogether, once he's made a valedictory appearance at the Brighton Festival. So William Shaw met him for minimalist soup in his hometown, Los Angeles, to sip at the overspill of an unusual life - then sought the views of some of Budd's biggest British fans and collaborators
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The score for Harold Budd's Madrigals for the Rose Angel includes an unusual instruction; it is scored for piano, harp, celeste, lights and "topless choir."

The score for Harold Budd's Madrigals for the Rose Angel includes an unusual instruction; it is scored for piano, harp, celeste, lights and "topless choir."

When the former Roxy Music star Brian Eno produced the first studio recording of Madrigals back in 1978 the ensemble included two of Harold Budd's earliest fans, Michael Nyman and Gavin Briars, both among the most audacious and innovative modern new composers in Britain. Briars recalls spotting the instruction on the score, written originally for a choir of Budd's Californian students. He glanced quickly at the doughty British females gathered for the occasion and pointed out the footnote to the celeste player Richard Bernas who was conducting. Sotto voce: "Maybe we'll keep quiet about this, shall we?"

The bright, sun-filled music of the Californian composer Harold arrived in London in the immediate aftermath of punk rock. In this era of after-dinner chill out music, it's hard to remember just how incongruous and strange Budd's music sounded in that darker era. The album they were recording was Pavilion of Dreams to be released on Eno's suitably-titled Obscure label. It was an act of nose-thumbingly outrageous beauty.

At 42, the composer Harold Budd was approaching middle age. He was an unknown who had struggled unrewardingly in the avant-garde for more than a decade. That recording was in many ways the start of Budd's extraordinary career. And though it helped earn him the unwanted soubriquet "the godfather of ambient music", a description which to this day provokes an indulgent sigh from Budd, it was also the start of the Californian's long love affair with this country and its rock musicians. On 21 May - after 27 years - that relationship draws to an end when Budd returns here to play what he says will be his last ever concert as one of the centrepieces of this year's Brighton Festival, three days before his 69th birthday.

Working with Budd has become a late-career anointing for many a British rock musician; in return Britain's rock musicians are queuing up to appear at this swansong concert. The bill at Brighton includes Eno, John Foxx (the founder of Ultravox), one-time Public Image bassist Jah Wobble, erstwhile-Be Bop Deluxe guitarist Bill Nelson and Cocteau Twin Robin Guthrie. Guy Morley, the festival's music director, who persuaded Budd to return here one last time, likens the event to a football testimonial match. "So many musicians have just said yes."

Smiling, Budd greets me for brunch at Pentimento, a café at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, off Wilshire Boulevard. "It's my local," he explains in an act of jovial anglophilia. Since his first trip to London to meet Eno, he fell in love with the place and lived there until a second marriage brought him home.

He orders our first bottle of Pinot Noir. In this increasingly puritanical town ordering wine at 11.30am is an act that's as heretical as the hedonism of Pavilion of Dreams must have been 30 years ago. "This city," he scowls, "is one of the worst in the world. I dislike it intensely."

Harold Budd was born in this city he dislikes so much. "My childhood was absolutely the worst place I've ever been," he announces. "It was terrible." If he writes music of delicate beauty, it's a lot to do with a childhood he sees as relentlessly ugly. He bristles at the "ambient" tag that has sat with him since his association with Brian Eno. It's true his music, based around his delicate piano improvisations, is frequently pretty, spacious and meditative. But if there's an ostentatious beauty about Budd's work it always suggests an ugliness, held at bay.

"Yes. That's right!" says Budd, delightedly over the smallest bowl of soup that anyone's ever called lunch. He's a slight, wiry man with tousled grey hair who blinks with puppyish energy behind the tinted glasses he wears against the California sun. "Absolutely correct! It isn't all about happiness. In fact it's very little happiness, I think. It's an emotional landscape that's very complicated... uh... gosh. I don't know what else to say about it."

His father was a salesman, a domineering New England patrician; his mother was a much younger under-educated rural girl from the hills of West Virginia - "An easy mark for a salesman on the make," he says bitterly. His father died when he was 14. By then a young Harold had been packed off to live with some family friends in the far-flung town of Victorville in the Mojave Desert. Fanciful critics have assumed that something of the empty minimalism of his music must have stemmed from that desert upbringing. Harold giggles at the thought. "Wrong," he says. He never felt any sense he belonged there. The people whom he describes as his "second family" were stolid, blue-collar workers who expected him to become a farmer, or a miner, like them. The thought terrified Harold.

In his later teens, Harold returned to Los Angeles. His mother, brother and he lived in a house at Redondo and Adams in the heart of the new African-American ghetto. Too poor to move, the Budd family remained the last white family in their neighbourhood. Failing at school, Harold turned to an inner world of art and music.

Some time around 1953 - he must have been 16 - he remembers bunking off school and driving to the coast with some friends listening to AM radio. One track stood out.

"Jesus Christ! What is that?"

"Stan Getz, man."

Getz's "Indian Summer" electrified him. He recalls, in some detail, the complex emotional reaction he had to the track. It wasn't just that it made him feel good. What made the music even more poignant was the sense that despite its beauty, he says, he couldn't feel good all the time.

Enthused by Getz, he took up jazz drums, playing in local go-nowhere bands. The following year he fell in love with Lenny Tristano's "Line Up" and remembers thinking, "Nothing is ever going to top this..."

His was an autodidact appetite. He wrote unsolicited letters to such artists as the Jackson Pollock precursor Mark Tobey, who, to his great delight, replied. Budd had told him of his love for his painting "The Edge Of August". Budd remembers the letter: "You may be interested to know that I carried that title around for 10 years, and then one day it fell off the tip of my brush." Living at home with a brother who refused to work and an alcoholic mother who slept all day long, such glimpses of another world thrilled him. (To this day, Budd remains fascinated with the possibilities of titles. When in 1994 he collaborated with XTC's Andy Partridge on an album called Through The Hill, the pair spent the weeks before the recording faxing each other. "We would send each other lists of titles that had no music," remembers Partridge. Says Budd proudly, "A great one we came up with was 'Ceramic Avenue'. Great title." Pause. "I have no idea what it means.")

Budd was forced to take a lowly job with Douglas Aircraft to support the family. Desperate to escape his encroaching destiny, Budd enrolled at Los Angeles Community College and took a course in architecture then another in harmony. Harmony was a new world; as with architecture, he admired the way practical structures contained beauty. "With drums I'd already discovered something beyond all this stupidity. Harmony was another world!"

His teacher at LACC was one of the first to recognise Budd's passion, and encouraged him to compose. Budd heard Webern and was thrilled. He studied Renaissance harmony. When he came across Schoenberg's Serenade he was inspired to go straight to the library and devour Ernst Krenek's Studies in Counterpoint Based On The 12 Tone Technique.

Did your mother ever understand what you were doing then, or subsequently? "No." He pauses. "In fact, my whole family haven't a clue."

Salvation from family drudgery came in the unlikely form of the draft. "It was," he says, with a twinge of guilt, "paradise."

From playing drums in the Army band - which gave him the unlikely chance to play briefly with the great free-jazz saxophonist Albert Ayler - Budd found himself conducting the army band at Forte Orde, Monterrey. Afterwards, he enrolled in college again at USC, studying music. When he saw John Cage deliver his lecture "Where Are We Going And What Are We Doing?" - a series of thoughts on music delivered by several synchronised tape recorders - he became one of California's legion of young Cage followers. "The lights came on! I got it!" recalls Budd.

Budd finished his degree in composition aged 36 and began teaching harmony at The California Institute of the Arts - which was at the time an extraordinary ferment of modern musical talent. The ideas of John Cage and Morton Feldman swept him up, and Budd joined a generation of eager composers producing minimalist pieces based on their ideas of chance and non-conventional notation.

But Cage's liberating avant-garde ideas could be quickly reduced to absurdity. Budd shudders at the memory of writing pieces where the sole instruction to players was: "D Flat Major". "I minimalised myself out of existence. It seemed like a sort of cheap thrill to me." Cage's magnificent revolution took Budd right back to the desert. Shocked by his lack of creativity, married with children, Budd simply stopped writing. "I hit a brick wall," he says.

His own counter-revolution against the avant garde began in the early Seventies. He was overwhelmed by a burst of vivid anger at the ponderousness of what had gone before; he started writing the pretty, emotionally charged music of Pavilion of Dreams. Including the instruction: "For topless choir."

"Yes," he says, contritely. "It was something I would not do now. But it was to say, 'This is only pretty. Don't look for any meaning. Let it go...'"

This new music forced Budd to become a player again. Frustrated at his inability to notate the emotionally charged pauses and phrases, and the inability of classically trained musicians to play them, he began to improvise piano parts. His style is hardly pyrotechnical; the parts he plays are careful, and sparse. They are small meditations often on only one or two basic chords. But his technical limitations become part of the beauty. It's as if you can hear him carefully considering every finger motion.

"It's such a fragile, delicate thing," agrees Andy Partridge. Self-deprecating as ever, Budd told him it's because he's often drunk when he plays. "By the time he figures out what the next chord will be a few seconds have passed."

Budd would have almost certainly been sidelined as a tiny parochial footnote in modern music when, in 1976, Brian Eno called. Gavin Briars had heard a tape of Budd's music while working in San Francisco with the American composer John Adams. He passed the tape to Eno, who was looking for musicians for his new Obscure label. Budd had never heard of Roxy Music, let alone Brian Eno.

The 1970s recording studio in which Eno thrived was a novel environment to Budd. "I was thrilled by it, really thrilled." The idea that music could be created in layers, or edited like a movie was novel. A slow trickle of albums has followed. With Eno he recorded titles like Ambient 2: The Plateaux of Mirror, and Lovely Thunder. Eno's protégé Daniel Lanois produced an album called The Pearl. Eno then put him together with the Cocteau Twins for The Moon and the Melodies.

Budd finds the experience of playing his hesitant, semi-scored works alongside these untrained musicians liberating. And though his previous collaborators, which include everyone from Ultravox founder John Foxx to David Sylvian of Japan, look much like a list of past-their-commercial-sell-by-date art-rock stars, Budd is delightfully oblivious to that context. He's seeking what he calls is "integrity that can be found in unexpected places.

With Jah Wobble the two based an understanding on a shared passion for the paintings of Whistler; with Andy Partridge they created music by staring at the 19th-century engravings of J G Heck, pretending that his diagrams formed some sort of score.

"I think the impact of Harold is yet to be realised," enthuses the Brighton Festival's Guy Morley. "Tonally, Harold has always come from a very deep and instinctive place. You don't need a degree in composition. Its simplicity belies its originality."

But over the last ten years Budd has started to withdraw from music. He found the recording of his 1996 album Luxa difficult. "I could have happily walked away after that." It hasn't become easier. Last year's Avalon Sutra was a collection of dizzyingly beautiful, miniatures, ideas to their purest form. Most tracks are no longer than two minutes.

Budd fears excess. Whether it's a track or his career, it's important to know when to stop. He's pleased to have created a body of work he's proud of. He doesn't see the point of adding to it. His world is pared down, too. For years he hasn't owned a piano. "I don't want that big bulky son of a bitch hanging around my room." He's sold all his books too. "I want to be free of them. They're tenacious hangers on." He's kept maybe seven or eight - all of which are books on 20th-century European art - one on Serge Poliakoff, a book Cobra Ceramics, another about André Michaux.

What next? He's unsure. His friend, the composer and sometime collaborator Daniel Lentz has given up music for painting, but that's not beckoning Budd yet. He has married again and lives with his wife and his four-year-old son. They go to a beautiful-looking modern house they own in the Joshua Tree desert, where he writes copious letters. He very rarely listens to music; the only track he ever plays is Lenny Tristano's "Line Up" for the memory of what it felt like that first time.

He finishes another glass of Pinot. He's wondering what he's going to be doing at the Brighton Festival. He's not sure what he'll be playing yet.

We have moved outside, to sit in the California spring sunshine. "Yes. Everything about the decision to stop feels very good."

Harold Budd with Bill Nelson, John Foxx, Jah Wobble, Robin Guthrie, Steve Cobby and the Balanescu Quartet: Concert Hall, Brighton Dome (01273 709709/ www.brighton-festival.org.uk), 21 May. 'Luxa' and 'Through the Hill' (with Andy Partridge) are reissued 25 July on the All Saints label

GAVIN BRIARS

"There's a certain hedonism in Harold, which is something we all aspire to. At worst his music does vacillate towards the soft-centred easy-listening territory, but at its best it does have a toughness behind this beautiful veneer. He's intelligent. He thinks about things very, very deeply, so I would never dismiss him on any level."

ANDY PARTRIDGE

In 1994, the XTC guitarist and Budd produced Through The Hill together. "I was very conscious of the fact that I might spoil what Harold was doing. It's such a fragile, delicate thing. But it's not ambient - he's vehemently opposed to the ambient thing. We decided that that if we turned down a Black Sabbath album low enough, it would probably be ambient."

JOHN FOXX

Foxx tempted Budd up to Yorkshire to produce a double album of Budd's playing, Translucence/Drift. "What he does is he just swims very gently against the tide all the time. He's been doing it all his career. I think that is what he set out to do a long time ago. When you meet him you realise he's got steel in is soul."

ROBIN GUTHRIE

The Cocteau Twins guitarist has worked with Budd on several occasions, most recently on the soundtrack to Gregg Araki's movie Mysterious Skin. "If you're going to meet him, take a bottle of wine. And don't expect the person you hear in the music. I thought he was going to be all highbrow. I'm not going to say he's the opposite - because he is very intelligent - but he is also very, very human."

JAH WOBBLE

Budd became a member of Wobble's experimental live project Solaris, which also featured Bill Laswell. "I went to see him play in Manchester. I thought he was probably very precious and difficult to work with," says Wobble. "He wasn't. I immediately liked him. We went out for dinner and ate loudly and messily. Then I saw him play and I was mesmerised. There's motivation to every note."

DAVID SYLVIAN

The former Japan front-man released Budd's last album Avalon Sutra on his Samadhisound label. "It existed as an album long before I'd created the label. Harold sent a copy to me back in 2001. He hadn't found a suitable home for the work. I offered to release the album myself. That it failed to find a home with either an independent or a major label may have played into his decision to call it quits."

BRIAN ENO

"I was handed this tape by Gavin Briars [in the mid-Seventies]; it struck something very personal in me. It was music that could seduce; if there's only a conceptual underpinning and no seduction, that doesn't make it for me. He came with this ability for making lovely minimalist music, and I was developing new techniques for making piano sounds at the point when recording studios had started to do these things well."

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