Defining specific genres or movements in music – like in any art form – makes it easier to talk about and I suppose, easier to sell. I’ve always felt that for something to be fine art, it needs to be, to some degree, open-ended, resisting strict definition.
Personally, I’ve never liked being “labeled,” being put into any kind of box. No matter what the label, it feels limiting. I would guess musician/composer Harold Budd feels the same way.
Born in Los Angeles, then raised in Victorville, California, Budd grew up by the Mojave Desert, where it’s said his musical aesthetic was inspired by listening to the buzz of telephone wires. He served in the army and joined the regimental band where he played drums. Saxophonist Albert Ayler, who was drafted at the same time as Budd and would go on to become a notable avant-garde jazz musician, was also a member of the band. Budd joined Ayler in gigs around the Monterey area.
Budd went on to become a respected musician/composer in the minimalist/avant-garde scene of Southern California in the late 60s, and developed a style of playing piano that he called “soft pedal,” which can be described as slow and sustained.
Depending on which discography of his you reference, Harold Budd’s 1978 album The Pavilion of Dreams is either his debut or his second album.1 On the back cover of the original pressing, it is described as “an extended cycle of works begun in 1972.” The album was recorded in 1976 but not released until 1978 on experimental musician/producer Brian Eno’s label, Obscure Records. It was then re-released on E.G. Records in 1981.
Obscure Records was a UK label created and curated by Brian Eno that existed only from 1975 to 1978. Ten albums were issued in a series, each with virtually the same cover art – a darkened photograph of buildings with different areas of the image emphasized by lightened squares, the artist’s name and album title in the upper left. Eno’s own album, Discreet Music (1975), was released third in this series (Obscure no. 3); Michael Nyman’s Decay Music (1976) was sixth (Obscure no. 6) and Budd’s The Pavilion of Dreams, the tenth and last (Obscure OBS-10).
When E.G. Records re-released Pavilion, as well as some other titles from Eno’s “Obscure 10,” there was a new cover design template – a flat color filling the majority of the cover (black for Eno’s Discreet, yellow for Nyman’s Decay, and pink for Budd’s Pavilion), a rectangular photo box on the right side with varying images of city skylines with clouds and the artist’s name and album title on the upper right, above the image. A notable difference on Pavilion’s new cover was the insertion of the words “produced by Brian Eno” between the album title and photo.
When I picked up the album on compact disc one summer afternoon, in the Little Five Points neighborhood Atlanta, Georgia, I didn’t know any of this. It was the mid-90s and I was down visiting a friend who lived in Virginia–Highland, another neighborhood of Atlanta. We’d been out the night before and I was probably a little hungover. He drove us to Little Five Points for brunch. There was a wait but luckily, a record shop next door. My only experience with Budd at that point was his collaborative album with Cocteau Twins, 1986’s The Moon and the Melodies (credited to Harold Budd and the Cocteaus’ band members, Elizabeth Fraser, Robin Guthrie and Simon Raymonde).
The CD cover – the only version of the album’s cover I knew at the time – was the same as the E.G. Records release, except the pink had turned black, linking it visually to Eno’s album. That, plus Eno’s additional production credit on the cover (it is worth noting here that Nyman’s Decay was also produced by Eno but this is not mentioned on his cover), made Pavilion seem like an extension of Discreet Music and firmly places Budd under the expansive umbrella of Eno – a dick-move on somebody’s part, somewhere.
Regardless, I didn’t listen to it until I’d driven back to Indiana. It was about an 8 to 9 hour drive between Atlanta to Bloomington. I can’t imagine voluntarily making a drive like that now, but I did it a handful of times over the space of a few years then in my little Plymouth Champ (which my friend referred to as a “possessed go-kart”). When I got home, I was beat. I remember putting my bags down, getting the disc out, putting it in my stereo, and stretching out on my bed. There aren’t that many times in life one feels truly transported by a work of art, but this was one of them, and its effect has never diminished for me over the years.
With just the first few gentle notes of ‘Bismillahi ‘Rrahman ‘Rrahim,’ the album’s first piece, I am disarmed and unlocked. The composition seems to materialize – almost visually – as it carefully builds. The instrumentation features harp, glockenspiel, marimba, celesta (or bell-piano), electric piano, played by Budd, and alto saxophone by the prolific avant-garde jazz musician/composer Marion Brown (Budd’s composition had first appeared on Brown’s album Vista from 1975, a year before Pavilion’s recording). The otherworldly beauty here sets the tone for the rest of the album, which proceeds to ebb, flow, and float.
Two linked songs follow: ‘Let Us Go into the House of the Lord / Butterfly Sunday,’ both featuring harp and the wordless singing of mezzo-soprano Lynda Richardson. The album’s opener set a spiritual tone; ‘Let Us Go into the House of the Lord’ turns things positively church-y but if this is church, it is church on Mars…or Pluto? The instrumentation and use of voice here is reminiscent of some old Science Fiction soundtracks, either real or imagined – like if the Starship Enterprise ever discovered the Garden of Eden, pre-serpent, the episode might sound a bit like this.
‘Butterfly Sunday’ ends the first side of the LP and is the only composition on the album not by Budd; it’s an adaptation of a composition by venerated avant-garde/free jazz saxophonist John Coltrane. Those who know only Budd’s later work, and nothing of what was going on in jazz (an overly general term encompassing decades of subgenres and movements) at the time, may have a hard time making “sense” of this. In fact, Budd’s roots are in jazz, and he and his work were much more akin to figures like Marion Brown at the time then musicians and genres he would go on to play and experiment with (though Brown would enter once more in Budd’s discography, appearing on his 1996 album Luxa, before passing away in 2010).
Musical “purists” who know and love Budd for his later, more specifically “Ambient,” recordings (of which there are many) are challenged by this – “too much sax,” my friend complains – but every element on this record, sax included, is natural and organic to him and his work at that time and place. Budd himself has emphatically declared that he’s not an Ambient artist and feels he was “kidnapped” into the category.
I started getting into jazz in middle school, after buying a copy of Miles Davis’ Someday My Prince Will Come on LP at a yard sale – my love and research grew from there. My musical geek-dom is relatively unrestricted. This tendency to overlook jazz when focusing on the avant-garde in general seems potentially racist to me, or at the very least limited. And I believe it is largely the jazz elements on Pavilion that cause it to be somewhat negated, overlooked, underappreciated in Budd’s body of work.
The LP’s flipside begins with poetically named ‘Madrigals of the Rose Angel: Rossetti Noise / The Crystal Garden and a Coda,’ continuing with its united chorus (Richardson plus eight others, conducted by Budd), the feeling of ‘Two Songs’ but even quieter, more subdued. “Juno” completes the side and the album. The simplest in presentation – no soprano, no sax – and the most like the music he would continue to make throughout his lengthy career.
“The road from my first colored graph piece in 1962 to my renunciation of composing in 1970 to my resurfacing as a composer in 1972 was a process of trying out an idea and when it was obviously successful abandoning it… In 1970 with the ‘Candy-Apple Revision’ (unspecified D-flat major) and ‘Lirio’ (solo gong “for a long duration”) I realized I had minimalized myself out of a career. It had taken 10 years to reduce my language to zero but I loved the process of seeing it occur and not knowing when the end would come. By then I had opted out of avant-garde music generally; it seemed self-congratulatory and risk-free and my solution as to what to do next was to do nothing, to stop completely… I resurfaced as an artist in 1972 with ‘Madrigals of the Rose Angel,’ the first of what would be a cycle of works under the collective title, The Pavilion Of Dreams. ‘Madrigals’ refused to accommodate or even acknowledge any issues in new music. The entire aesthetic was an existential prettiness; not the Platonic ‘to Kalon,’ but simply pretty: mindless, shallow and utterly devastating. Female chorus, harp and percussion seemed like a beautiful start.” – Harold Budd
“Devastating” is right – devastatingly beautiful. Dave Connolly writes about the album for AllMusic Guide: “Mixing ethereal melodies communicated by voice or saxophone with glissando accompaniment, Harold Budd creates a series of siren songs on The Pavilion of Dreams that shimmer like light reflected on the water’s surface.”
I’m thrilled by the interconnectivity of music – how genres, movements overlap and change. Marion Brown’s Vista, which includes the first appearance of Budd’s ‘Bismillahi ‘Rrahman ‘Rrahim,’ also includes a cover of Stevie Wonder’s ‘Visions,’ from Wonder’s 1973’s album Innervisions. Budd played celeste and gong on Brown’s album. Michael Nyman, who would go on to great success composing film scores, played marimba and added his voice to the unified chorus on Pavilion. Innervisions and Vista share some space, as do Vista and Pavilion, while Innervisions and Pavilon appear to have nothing in common – yet they are only two, relatively small, steps away.
The Pavilion of Dreams is a record to be listened to alone. It’s a personal journey. The word “meditation” comes to mind, but I don’t know that it’s the right word – to meditate, you need to be able to empty your mind and in spite of Budd’s insistence of the contrary, there seems to be more content here than “mindless” prettiness, even if it is existential. I love the idea that the ancient Egyptians, in their Golden Age, knew how to use sound for healing purposes. That is closer to what Pavilion does for me. It is not an everyday album, but when the moment presents itself, I put it on and am mesmerized all over again.
– Aaron Tilford
1 Budd released his first LP, most often called Oak of the Golden Dreams (after the composition on side A) though only his name appeared on the front cover, on Advanced Recordings in 1971. Advanced released the album on cassette in 1988 using both composition titles (one per side) on the front and spine: Oak of the Golden Dreams / Coeur D’Orr. ‘Oak of the Golden Dreams’ is a composition of his from 1970 and is described as “the last in a series of pieces named for California places and was realized on the Buchla Electronic Music System at California Institute for the Arts.” ‘Coeur D’Orr’ is a composition of his from 1969 was “designed” (his word) for sculptor Eric Orr. Charles Orena, who premiered the work, is featured on the soprano saxophone.