1. Dreaming the dream
I had a dream recently that I was able to play the piano, and in this dream, the tune that flowed from my fingers was Harold Budd’s Music For Swimmers. Dreams being dreams, however – with their own stretched and fluid geometry, things weren’t like real life. For one thing, the notes were really far apart as I was playing this composition. To go from one note to the next was almost a journey in itself. And the magic was in the spaces between. Like sunlight filtering through the interstices of arching trees.
There is, of course, a liminal space between the world of the conscious and the world of dreams. This is known in psychology as hypnagogia. These are the moments when the rational mind surrenders to its psychedelic twin. A great time for listening to music. Harold Budd’s music is especially useful for listening to during hypnagogia. Wordless and without a rhythm section, it allows the mind to find a state of flow.
My favourite Budd album is his collaborative record with John Foxx, Nighthawks. Named presumably for the Hopper painting of the same name*, it is also a nocturnal work. I have no idea what the artists intended here, so my thoughts are entirely subjective. For me, this work is partly about psychogeography, reading the city as if you were reading a novel – from its character deep in night time when it is peopled by the space the citizens have left behind. While the citizens themselves are out of view, but viewing all kinds of narratives themselves on the inner side of closed eyelids. Tao and Zen.
The work starts with the luminous, gliding, slightly melancholic Down A Windy Street. As a piano composition alone, it is an astounding composition. So few notes, so much hinted at. Foxx’s contribution isn’t initially what you notice here, but on further listening the psychoacoustics take it to another level. Just the right amount of reverb, plus subtle synthesiser lines that provide context for the piano rather than interact with it directly.
Nighthawks continues at not so much a slow pace as a pace outside of real time. There are patterns here, fluidity, rain on flagstones, and the occasional burst of what sounds like a robot exhaling. Interestingly, given the album’s entire avoidance of larynx use, there is an overwhelming sense of exhalation on this record. Of just breathing out. Not in a yogic sense, particularly, but maybe in an oneiric sense – dreams being pure invisible outflow, the dreamer’s dream as transparent as exhaled air in the dead of night.
Music For Swimmers – the one that found its way into my dreams – is Nighthawks’ standout track. The preceding compositions all have a sense of architecture (and perhaps, to the European psyche, Situationism), while Swimmers is pure fluidity. Gravity changes here. Foxx’s psychoacoustics on this track even make reference to the fact that sound waves travel faster underwater.
People who have drowned, and have clinically died, but who have then been revived describe the moments after the panic of drowning (when the lungs are balloons filled with water) as calm, blissful. Maybe Music For Swimmers can be taken as a metaphor for living. Music For Drowners, because living can only end one way – in death. The trick is to enjoy breathing while you still can. Exhalation equalling exaltation.
In my childhood, French cities I was taken to included Paris, Caen, Lyon, Nice, Rouen, Rennes, Tours, Béthune, Grenoble. We never went to Bordeaux. Which is a shame, since Bordeaux by Harold Budd and Robin Guthrie may or may not be a work influenced by the vibe of this city. Robin Guthrie lives in France, so it’s not unlikely that he knows the city well. Listening to this record, I wish I had a reference point of my own.
Bordeaux didn’t initially strike me as one of Harold Budd’s best LPs, but after three or four listens it started to sound properly amazing. Budd and Guthrie go back a long way in terms of collaborative work. The Moon And The Melodies was released in 1986. I had this on a 4AD cassette, and used to play it a lot. Bordeaux somehow reconnects with The Moon (even the lunar-tone sleeve) . It is almost as if the preceding Budd/ Guthrie records (Before The Day Breaks and After The Night Falls) were a healthy avoidance of its complete artistic success. Check out Sea, Swallow Me for example. And also for a handy reference point when listening to Music For Swimmers.
Bordeaux can be listened to at any time of day or night. Try listening to it in a hypnagogic state. It definitely works as an inhibitor of serotonin re-uptake, or as a serotonin booster, or both. But let’s not get bogged down in the why of the magic, here. Music is my God, music is also of biological origin. Strange cosmos. A cosmos that is also a hologram projected from an event horizon elsewhere. And Schwarze Löcher don’t even exist, according to today’s science news.
3. The hiss of the mastertape
One of the things I love most about The Plateaux of Mirror is the hiss of the master tape. Brian Eno’s production on this record isn’t something that can be copied. At least not in the way that fire or wheel or the window can be copied. It’s a whole new thing to heat things up, take you places, or see the world anew. A breakthrough.
But despite Eno’s genius work on this record, the warmth of the hiss on the master tape is what holds it together most. Misteakeism. No guru, no method, no teacher, no dogma. Just air and magnets.
*minus ‘the diner’, of course.
Recent interview with Harold Budd here: thequietus.com/harold-budd-interview