Interview: Harold Budd
The LA composer recalls a rebellious youth, army buddy Albert Ayler, wooing Mark Rothko and his path to the beautiful beyond
Harold Budd’s unorthodox nature has led him into legendary collaborations and life-altering leaps of faith, his subversive spirit ultimately generating some of our universe’s most exquisite music. In this excerpt from a conversation with Frosty for Red Bull Radio’s LAndscape, the composer unpacks his lifelong quest for uncompromising beauty, recalling the deep connection to his native city of Los Angeles as well as his eternal desire to escape it.
Were you born and raised in LA?
I was, yes. I was born in 1936, I’m 80 years old. I am in LA again. No one could be more surprised than I am. I thought, at least several times, that I was leaving forever. Unforeseen circumstances, sure enough, bring me back.
Which area did you come up in?
I went to grammar school at a place called Queen Anne Place, near Crenshaw. Mid-city. I didn’t know anything east or west. I knew the beach, I knew Santa Monica, I knew Will Rogers State Park, but that’s about it. I was totally isolated and all my friends were too. We were innocent dumbbells. I thought the whole world revolved around my little milieu.
What was your little milieu?
I remember the start of World War II very clearly and that was very scary, because I didn’t really understand what was going on, except everyone around me was scared to death. I remember listening to Franklin Roosevelt declare war on Japan on the radio. We lived in an area that was white working class. We had a Japanese gardener who worked the whole neighborhood, but he was sent away. Of course, he had no choice. I was three years old, I think. I remember my mother putting oilcloth up on the windows at night before we could light candles because the Japanese were going to bomb us at any moment.
You still see the remnants of that fear, like the rusting air raid sirens around town. Was that countered by something else that exhilarated you? What were the first things that you started to connect with musically or artistically in LA?
My mother played keyboard and specifically it was a 100 year old harmonium, made out of rosewood. It was, looking back now, a gorgeous instrument. She played Protestant hymns, that’s the only music I knew anything about. She came from a family from rural West Virginia so she was very conservative. Her family were really just fanatics that lived in Orange County.
I didn’t like pop music because it was all hicks. It was black culture that freed me from the stigmata of going nowhere in a hopeless culture.
When did you first connect to music beyond that?
A phonograph, a 78 record like John Philip Sousa marches, USC marching band, that sort of thing. We would occasionally have parades down Wilshire Blvd near Rampart Blvd. I do remember, remarkably, the drum chorus and the Scottish bagpipe, the drummers’ really sharp precision, wearing kilts. I was mesmerized by that.
Then you ended up going to LA High School.
That was the local high school, it was very close by. It was the first time that I was aware of black culture, which I admired enormously. It was the music in the black culture that really changed my mind. All of my buddies [and I] all agreed there were only a few geniuses in the world and one of them was Orson Welles, and the other one was Jackson Pollock, and probably Thelonious Monk. Not the fellow students, because they were all completely oblivious – they didn’t know anything. They knew pop music, which I didn’t. I didn’t like it because pop music was all hicks. It was black culture that freed me from the stigmata of going nowhere in a hopeless culture.
What were the first records or artists that blew your mind within that context?
It was a 78 recording of a 1948 concert, Jazz at the Philharmonic produced by Norman Granz. The thing that got me the most was tenor sax solos by one Flip Phillips and Illinois Jacquet. I thought both of them were absolute geniuses and they changed my mind about everything.
I’m such a naïve person and I’m not a thinker. I react very definitely with emotions going full blast, especially with art. For example my friend Mike Wattel was absolutely the hippest guy I knew, and my best friend. He introduced me to so many different things things I’d never dreamed of, never heard of. I’d never heard 12 tone music, for example, until him. I didn’t have a clue. This bowled me over. The music of Charles Ives, another one. I didn’t know anything about it. Wattel tried to interest me and what he was interested in was avant-garde jazz, which at that time had nothing to do with Albert Ayler or Ornette Coleman.
What were your thoughts when you were hearing this music? What did it strike in you?
When I first heard Lennie Tristano’s 1955 recording it’s like someone had cut a rosary and these beads started falling all over the place at random. I thought you begin connecting the beads in other places in your mind and that’s what it sounded like to me. Still does. The most amazing musician possible, absolutely without question.
This was, I’m imagining, on record as opposed to being on the radio?
Absolutely, yes. The only time I have an imagination about the radio was, once again, I was with my friend Wattel. We didn’t go to school, We went to Santa Monica instead to the beach during summer. There was a black disc jockey by the name of Joe Adams, and he played mostly doo-wop. I don’t know how he allowed it to happen but he played a record, Prestige of Stan Getz. It was, “Indian Summer,” circa 1950.
This angelic sound came on the radio. I looked at my friend and I said, “What in the hell was that?” He looked at me disgusted like, “Oh man, are you kidding? That’s Stan Getz.” I thought to myself, “Jesus Christ. I can’t believe someone makes a sound like that.” Boy, did that change things for me. No more Flip Phillips, no more Illinois Jacquet, none of that. This was even before Tristano, but it was because of that that I moved over to discovering the most revolutionary left-wing part of jazz, which was extremely cerebral, unemotional, very cold. Cool jazz, very cold but captivating in its authenticity. It was absolutely real.
My music education was really started and nourished at Wallichs Music City at Sunset and Vine, that’s the only place you could find Stan Getz let alone Thelonious Monk or Miles Davis, which became much more available later on. The first time I heard Aaron Copland and Charles Ives [records was] because they were sitting out there lonely and I just picked it up and listened to it in a booth. I couldn’t compare it to anything. I’m like, “This is brand new to me.”
Once I discovered that I was going to be a dumbbell all my life if I didn’t go to school, I enrolled in LACC. Anyone could go there. I didn’t have a high school education, they didn’t care. That’s where I first heard the most amazing music, Weber, Stockhausen, Velez. They were music theory classes. I didn’t know anything. I started to learn. I was learning a world that I didn’t even imagine existed. Of course, not only did it exist, it ruled the world. Quite a two years, that one.
What kind of music were you starting to write?
I would like to say there’s no such thing as a style at [that] level of development. I was just learning, just trying. I had to find out that instruments were tuned in different keys and I didn’t know that until I started reading scores all by myself, teaching myself how to read. I [started with] “The Rite of Spring” by Stravinsky, which is easy to listen to, looking at it and trying to figure out, “What in the hell?” The opening of the bassoon solo is written in alto clef and I never saw that in my life.
While in the Army I played drums with Albert Ayler. That was an amazing education and for things other than just music, in spite of everything else. Join the Army, learn about art. Ridiculous.
What was the first step where you felt like you came into your own as far as making something that felt like yours?
While in the Army I played drums with Albert Ayler. That was an amazing education and for things other than just music, in spite of everything else. You toot your horn, you play your drum and you do it right, otherwise you’re going to go and shoot guns. The only art I could see was published in books and there were plenty of artists, painter types who were in the Army band and they tooted just well enough but their real life was Marcel Duchamp or God knows what else. Join the Army, learn about art. Ridiculous.
After two months of shooting guns and getting shot at, being beat up, going through it, I remember last day in basic training I had pneumonia, but I couldn’t not stand in line because otherwise you’d have to go to the hospital and then you’d have to do basic training all over again. Standing in the big fog and this really deliciously handsome soldier, very gay, came down the street with a paper in his hand, and he’s whispering to the sergeant. The sergeant calls me over, pulls me out. He said, “You’re not going to Fort Underwood after all Budd, you’re going to the Army band.” Phew.
This guy brought me over to the band and he told me privately, “Don’t do any of this ’Yessir’ shit. We don’t hear any of that around the band.” He said, “You’re free.” I turned in my gun, and followed him, and lay down in bed for a full week getting over pneumonia, and that was it. I couldn’t be more safe and I was an angel, I just loved it. Even the Army food was fantastic.
There was a guy named Bill Purdy, it fit him perfectly. Another handsome gay man. He studied composition with Darius Milhaud and he was really skillful, he knew how to write, he knew everything. He showed me how to space chords, how to orchestrate in the traditional way of spacing, combination of instruments, all of that, which I had never gotten before. Along with Ayler and Bill Purdy I had a fucking wonderful education.
Where did you return to when you came to Los Angeles?
I was told to enroll at the brand-new San Fernando Valley State College [because of] two really good composers there. One of them was Gerald Strang. I had heard his percussion piece on one of the records at Wallichs Music City. So happily I enrolled there. I met a Cuban composer who was an aficionado of Velez, Stockhausen, the post-serial modernism. His name was Aurelio de la Vega and he was a very, very successful composer outside of the academy. He was a wonderful teacher.
Looking beyond that college degree did you have a vision of, “If I can only get back in the Army?”
It wasn’t an alien thought. I thought for sure I was going to be screwed badly by having to teach in a public school, but I thought, “Well OK, it’s better than where I came from.” I came from real shit poverty and I would put a gun to my head before I would go back there.
That was the motivating factor?
Absolutely. Before I graduated from that college I heard Morton Feldman for the first time and saw his scores and that was revelatory to me. The scores didn’t have music paper, same with John Cage. I was just enthralled with those two guys.
It sounds like every step of the way you were thrilled by people who broke open the possibilities of what you imagined. Was there something in you that you always had this curiosity?
There must’ve been. I went in that direction, I had to. I looked at Feldman composition and thought, “This is amazing. I’m going to try doing a graph piece using colored pencils.” I remember I called it “Structures.”
Aurelio told me along the line, “You know? You’ve got to get a Masters degree otherwise you’re screwed. It’s not going to work for you. You don’t want to live that life.” I said, “Yes, you’re right.” He said, “Why don’t you try USC?” I tried USC and I said, ” I have no money.” They said, “You have to get a scholarship. You have to pass a test.” That’s what I did. I showed them that graph piece among other things and they never saw anything like it. I never paid a dime. I was there for three years getting my Masters.
Were you finding kindred spirits there?
Yeah, I had a great teacher, his name was Ingolf Dahl. He was a conservative composer but he told me that I’m going somewhere that he doesn’t know or understand, but he knows it’s interesting and good. He said, “I’m going to let you do whatever you want."
You started this with the “Structures” piece. Where were you at the end of the experience?
I was writing traditional music in the traditional way, scores that looked like they were real scores. I bought a book that had a painting that really rung my bell, by Mark Rothko. I thought to myself, “The Rothko really turned me on, why don’t I start writing music like that?” I did it and naïvely I sent it to Rothko care of his Marlborough gallery in New York City. I never heard from him and I thought, “Well, I’m going to write again.” I wrote and said, “Did you receive it?” with my address in Silver Lake. He wrote back immediately and said, “Yes. And I showed it to my friend Morton Feldman and he said, ‘There’s no way in the world I can play this for you on the piano. It’s not that kind of piece.’"
I got a chance to go meet Feldman in New York City. He said, “You know? That piece that you sent Rothko really moved him a lot.” I said, “I think we should go over and meet him.” He said, “Well, hold on.” He went to the phone and this is the conversation. “Mark? Mort. Harold Budd is here,” and he goes,"Okay,” and they hang up. He said, “We’re going.” I spent the rest of the day with Rothko and Feldman and he was painting the Rothko Chapel, smoking Camel cigarettes, drinking scotch straight.
After that you’re back in LA and post-USC?
Yeah, one shit job after another, then USC hired me as a teacher of composition and theory for people who weren’t going to ever do that, but I thought they were the most interesting of all. Mostly, they were painters or artists and then a cello player and a soprano singer. Horribly sweet people but really utterly lacking any artistic motivation at all.
I had felt, for several years, that avant-garde music was a spent bullet, and it was dull beyond belief, it wasn’t going anywhere, and it wasn’t vital, had no life at all.
Was there something that as a teacher, you felt most important to pass along to these people?
Absolutely. Don’t believe them. It’s not true. That was the only thing of any importance I ever had to say to them. [Then] I got a job at CalArts.
Who called you into this circle and had you heard any murmurings of what this might become?
Ingolf Dahl talked to Mel Powell and Mel called me. He was the original big-time composer. The other one was [Morton] Subotnick and then the lesser lights like me and Jim Tenney. My expectation is exactly what happened: It was total chaos, total confusion. No one knew anything, including me.
Did people have the feeling like, “Wow, we’re getting away with something,” or “We’re pulling the greatest prank”?
There was some of that. Mostly, the good artists were serious. There were a lot of hangers-on, they weren’t going anywhere, and sure enough they fulfilled their purpose. Horrible.
Can you tell us a bit about Jim Tenney and maybe your relationship with Jim?
We had a mutual friend in Daniel Lentz. Daniel was a very important composer, still is. He’s the one who first named the place I thought I was going to have to go, where I wanted to go. I had felt, for several years, that avant-garde music was a spent bullet, and it was dull beyond belief, it wasn’t going anywhere, and it wasn’t vital, had no life at all. Daniel put a word to it, it was “post avant-garde music.”
One time I drove a friend of mine, Barney Childs, to a conference at UC Santa Barbara. Barney went into this academic thing and I just hung around outside having a sandwich. There was a guy there who was looking over these academic composers and just looking around. Barney came out and I asked him, “Do you know who that guy is?” and he said, “That’s Daniel Lentz." I knew Daniel Lentz because we had both just been published for the first time in our lives in Source Magazine: Music of the Avant-Garde, and I think Pauline Oliveros was in there as well.
I introduced myself. I said, “You’re Daniel Lentz and I’m Harold Budd.” He said, “Wow, somebody I know about.” He invited me over for dinner that night. He remains my closest friend, and he has since 1969. I think he’s the smartest man I know.
Beyond you two, who were on the same wavelength, did it seem like everybody else was keeping up this façade of self-importance?
Daniel and I were completely isolated and even, in my case, laughed at [for] the style of music that I was intent on pursuing. That’s how I met Brian Eno. A student of mine sent Gavin Bryars a piece of mine, “Madrigals of the Rose Angel.” Gavin sent it immediately to Brian Eno and Eno called me up out of the clear blue sky. One of the things he asked was, “Is this the sort of music you always write?” I said, “Well, yes.” He said, “I want to bring you to London to record.” I said, “Well, OK.” That was it.
I had just given a concert with Marion Brown. Marion was on the road with an academic avant-garde composer of really dull music. A very sweet man but really not happening. Marion said to me, “You played with Albert Ayler,” and I said, “Yes.” He said, “I’ve read about that, are you still there?” I said, “Oh no, no. I left that ages ago.” He said, “Well, what do you do,” and I played him “Madrigals of the Rose Angel.”
At the end, he said, “Would you please write a piece for my horn?” I promised I would and, by God, I did. After he had heard a performance of that piece at Wesleyan University, Eno said, “We have a saxophonist who is really good,” and I said, “Well, I’m sorry. I wrote this for Marion and it really belongs to him.” He said, “Oh yes, OK, I understand. We’ll bring Marion.” That was it. We showed up and recorded for three or four days in Basing Street Studio in London. Full ensemble, six female singers, and cellist, and percussion and harp. It was amazing. I was so jazzed with London that I eventually moved there. Not only could I not make a living in America, I couldn’t get any performances. I couldn’t get any respect. I was happy to get the hell out of there.
Were you frequently performing publicly when you were in London?
No, I had to adopt that aspect of my life out of necessity because I was asked to travel all the time. I would perform with other people for a long time until I felt that I sufficiently had enough chops to actually do it myself. Then I took the plunge.
I remember there was a performance conducted by Lukas Foss in America. I naïvely thought, “Well, it’s written down, just go and do it. You read it.” When I heard the tape of that performance I was so appalled that I decided that the only way I can protect myself was to take complete responsibility for it myself. That meant learning to play the part that everyone else was fucking up horribly. I had a piano in my living room on loan – I didn’t own it – but I began to sit down and learn how to do it, in my own way, of course. I’m not a pianist, any piano player will tell you that. That was the start of a change. Just take responsibility, it’s your piece, do it, play it, period, that’s it.
That worked for years until, for some reason, I had this job, a very nice appearance at Oxford University. Halfway through this performance – large audience, really nice lovely people, as English people are – I decided, “This is boring the shit out of me. I cannot stand this another second.” Somehow I got through it without letting on that I hated being here, and I never did it again, that was the ending. It wasn’t enough. I was going onto something else. I didn’t know what it was, still don’t.