In his diary of 1995 – A Year With Swollen Appendices – Brian Eno says something about how he gets bored of music. And that he wants instead to create a kind of aural context within which music exists rather than make music itself. I’m paraphrasing Eno here, but it’s fairly obvious what he means – that if day in and day out you work in music, then your appetite for music will move far beyond conventional forms of it.
The reason this half-remembered meditation of Eno’s has stayed with me all this time is because, eventually, you can squeeze the fun out of most records if you play them enough. Except Harold Budd’s records, that is. My LastFM account shows an unholy amount of plays for tracks off Plateaux of Mirror, The Pearl, Nighthawks, and also the Robin Guthrie collaborations. My theory regarding the infinite durability of Budd’s music is, in part, this: the notes are so far apart that your brain can’t join them up. Or at least not like it could with The Troggs’ Wild Thing, another favourite, but not something that demands to be listened to that much.
So, in some respects much of Budd’s music kind of fits what Eno said in 1995. There is so little identifiable song-shape to tracks like Music for Swimmers and Late October that they play a different game with the neural network. To the untrained ear it might sound like elevator music, but to the initiated listening to this stuff is like being placed in a landscape. The response is close to synaesthesic. This is music with colours, contours, scents, textures, temperatures.
Tellingly (I think, at least) Budd said the following in an April 2012 interview:
I don’t listen to music. I look at a lot of art.
HB also then goes on to say that “Steve Reich, and especially Philip Glass, they do come from an art-school mentality. But it’s still an art that’s based on conceptualism, and I’ve never cottoned on to that whole attitude.” Certainly, you’re never going to get an overbearing conceptual vibe from HB’s records, and his piano work could hardly be any different from Reich’s. What we have with Budd is someone who is pretty much unclassifiable. He’s also on record as saying that he doesn’t much like the term ‘ambient music’.
The latest release by the artist is Bandits of Stature, a series of 14 string quartets. This recording will in some ways be familiar to fans of Budd’s work. This assuredly is not the fluidly beautiful sound you hear in Music for Swimmers or the streams and leaves of Late October. But it is still classic Budd, minimal in form and abundant in mood. The milieu of the work is drier here, the Mojave perhaps, where Budd is said to have grown up.
It has to be said that given the nature of the string quartet format, there’s little variety on offer here. But that is surely the point. Each composition forces you inwards into the world of this music, to listen to each composition’s own melody and to concentrate on its dynamic before the next one begins.
The most immediately accessible piece here (for me anyway) is Veil of Orpheus (Cy Twombly’s). How great to name a track not just for a painting but the painting with the painter’s name in parentheses afterwards. Accessible not for the reference to Twombly’s work of abstract(ish) topography, but for the piano. Because without the piano on this track that’s placed two-thirds of the way through the set, I’d have felt a bit cheated. It also has the really interesting effect of holding the entire work together, of explaining its own absence throughout the surrounding pieces.