Harold Budd (1936–2020)

December 09, 2020

Avant-garde composer Harold Budd—whose body of work spanned minimalism, dream pop, jazz, drone, and ambient music, and influenced generations of experimental composers and musicians—has died of Covid-19 at the age of eighty-four. Budd was known for his wide range of collaborations, most of all with Brian Eno, who produced his 1978 album The Pavilion of Dreams. He and Eno would go on to compose together on the landmark albums Ambient 2: The Plateau of Mirror (1980) and The Pearl (1984).

Born in Los Angeles, Budd was thirteen when the death of his father plunged the family into dire straits. In high school, he played drums in local jazz clubs and bars; upon graduation, he went to work at aircraft manufacturer Northrop to support his family. At the age of twenty-one, he enrolled in Los Angeles Community College, where a music theory class changed the course of his life. After a stint in the army, during which he played drums in a regimental band alongside avant-garde saxophonist Albert Ayler, Budd studied under Gerald Strang, a protégé of legendary Austrian composer Arnold Schönberg, at Cal State Northridge. He was awarded a scholarship to study under Ingolf Dahol at the University of Southern California, and it was there that he discovered Mark Rothko’s “brilliant blasts of color that simply engulfed you.” The Abstract Expressionist painter would greatly influence his own oeuvre, most directly as embodied by his groundbreaking 1966 orchestral work “Rothko,” which he was initially told was too rhythmically complex to be performed.

His talent soon catapulted him into the musical echelon occupied by John Cage, Morton Feldman, and Terry Riley. Influenced, like many California composers of the era, by meditative forms of music, he was additionally interested in presenting his works in a controlled environment, the parameters of which he often stipulated in compositions of this time. For example, the instructions for 1971’s “Lirio,” a twenty-four-hour solo gong piece: “under a blue light, roll very lightly on a large gong for a long duration.”

Following a brief break from composing (he felt he had “minimized himself out of existence”), during which he began teaching at the California Institute of the Arts, he returned to the practice with vigor in 1972, having become obsessed with medieval and Renaissance music, whose beauty he drew on to refute what he deemed the “sterile” and “ugly” sounds that had become typical of avant-garde music. “Hard as is it is to imagine now,” he noted later, “the prettiness of my music was very much a political statement at the time.” Shortly thereafter, Budd, now in his late thirties, learned to play the piano, whose soft-pedal sound is widely known as a hallmark of his work. 

Following the release of what he declared his “farewell” album, Avalon Sutra (2004), Budd announced his retirement, which turned out to be a break roughly as long as that he took in the early 1970s; the musician returned to create more than a dozen studio albums, with the last, Another Flower, on which he partnered with longtime collaborator Robin Guthrie of the Cocteau Twins, released just weeks before his death.

“I’m not really a musician,” he said in an interview on turning eighty. “Or insofar as I am a musician, I’m not a well-rounded one. There are very few things I can do as a musician. The one thing that I can do is pretty much what I do. Now to some people, that’s terribly restrictive I guess, but to me it [isn’t]. Oh God, I’ve only scratched the surface.”