Pop: Like Brian Eno without the concepts

Harold Budd, ambient's forefather, has been composing for 20 years. He can't play - but that doesn't bother him. He's in it for the joy. By Matt Smith
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The Independent Culture
Sat in the corner of a west London pub, surrounded by empty pint glasses and laughing like a drain, Harold Budd is nothing like you'd anticipate. You'd be forgiven for thinking that the 60-year-old forefather of ambient or, more accurately, "discreet" music, would be, well, you know, the retiring kind. After all, this is a chap who, in the late 1960s, stipulated that one of his pieces be played in total darkness and at a volume so low only the quietest audience would even hear it.

Yet here he is, describing the antics of a friend who masturbates and defecates in front of strangers in the name of performance art. This may or may not be what we expect from one of Brian Eno's best mates.

Budd grew up on the edge of the Mojave, California, an experience that left him with a hankering for what he calls the "unspeakable gorgeous loneliness of the desert". That loneliness, so beautiful in the elegance of his piano music, was to blight his early years. Dirt poor, angry and confused, he didn't start college until he was 21 and was soon thrown out for fighting.

He was drafted into the army in 1959 and spent the next two years combatting Communism in the more pink than red Bay Area of San Francisco. Here he met and played drums with fellow conscript and soon-to-be-jazz renegade Albert Ayler, whose whacko approach Budd found liberating. On demob, he rejoined college and was introduced to the more structured pleasures of Webern and Stravinsky.

"I didn't know how to play the piano, still don't. I never took courses in how to play an instrument. I had to convince the teachers that I was a really good composer but that I couldn't play anything," he remembers.

Like many others, Budd eventually fell under the minimalist spell cast by John Cage. At his college, this went down like a Vatican student declaring that the devil really does have all the best tunes. Another exit was inevitable and the next few years were spent composing and writing to order. "I would get letters saying, `I heard one of your pieces and would you want to do something for my bassoon?' I was so poor I'd write back saying, `Yes! Yes, I would! You've asked the right man.'" In 1976, Brian Eno heard a tape of one of his pieces and brought him to London.

"It was the first time that any professional artist that I could respect had come some way to me. I'd felt isolated for so long." The piece on the tape, The Pavilion of Dreams, was re-recorded at Basing Street Studios in 1976 , heralding the start of a 13-strong album career. Along the way there have been collaborations with the Cocteau Twins, XTC's Andy Partridge and, earlier this year, Hector Zazou. While raising Budd's public profile, they've arguably added little to his legacy and have been used, one suspects, as a lesson in learning the art of compromise.

"I think composing is coming to terms with what you're prepared to live with as much as it is trying to be brilliant," he says. Meanwhile, echoes of his Eighties masterpieces The Pearl and Lovely Thunder can be heard in the blissed out bubblings of the Orb and Aphex Twin. And Andrew Weatherall is just one of many DJs who've chilled out crowds to Budd's music.

His latest CD is called Luxa, the title coming from the Latin lux for light. The extra A "looks good", he explained. It's possibly also another sign of his lapsed minimalism. Budd once composed a 24 hour-long piece for solo gong. In contrast, Luxa features gourds and bells as well as piano. Some of the tracks are named after contemporary artists including Anish Kapoor, Niki de Saint-Phalle and Paul McCarthy, the aforementioned performance artist.

"I just loved the sequence of their names on a page. For some reason, it seemed to make sense to me that they were grouped together. It's as if, were I the curator of a show, these are the artists I would choose and I haven't a clue why that would be. It's totally unanalysed. If there is a reason maybe it's just pure joy."

n `Luxa' is out on All Saints Records

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