Harold Budd, the left-field American composer whose work straddled minimalism, jazz, dream-pop and more, has died aged 84. His death was confirmed by his close collaborator Robin Guthrie of Cocteau Twins, who wrote on Facebook that he was “feeling empty, shattered lost and unprepared for this”.
Cocteau Twins wrote on Facebook: “It is with great sadness that we learned of the passing of Harold Budd. Rest in peace, poet of the piano.”
Born in 1936 to a poor family in Los Angeles, Budd’s first musical love was jazz – “black culture that freed me from the stigmata of going nowhere in a hopeless culture”, he later said – and after being drafted into the US army he played as a drummer in a regimental band alongside the saxophonist Albert Ayler, who would also go on to become an icon of avant-garde American music.
After leaving the army, Budd studied music at the University of Southern California, graduating in 1966, when he was already married with children. He composed minimalist drone works in this period partly influenced by John Cage and Morton Feldman as well as abstract expressionist painters such as Mark Rothko; one piece in this period, Lirio, is simply notated: “Under a blue light, roll very lightly on a large gong for a long duration.” He continued composing alongside teaching but suddenly became disenchanted and quit composition in 1970, having “minimalized myself out of existence”.
In 1972, he “resurfaced”, in his words, working on a body of music that would eventually become the 1978 album The Pavilion of Dreams, produced by Brian Eno and featuring calmly beautiful compositions with piano and choral vocals. Budd described it as “the birth of myself as a serious artist” in a 2014 interview with the Guardian, saying Eno had given him “absolute bravery to go in any direction”.
The pair composed together on 1980’s Ambient 2: The Plateaux of Mirror, which continued the “ambient” series that Eno had started with the landmark album Music for Airports, and 1984’s The Pearl, with Eno producing further Budd works thereafter. Budd became associated with the term “ambient” but frequently rejected it: “Being called something – anything – annoys the hell out of me,” he said in 2014.
A self-confessed Anglophile, he lived in the UK between 1986 and 1991, a period that produced some of his most high profile work. In 1986, he collaborated with Cocteau Twins, a dream-pop band, on The Moon and the Melodies, the beginning of a long-running partnership with Guthrie – their most recent album together, Another Flower, was released last week. He and Guthrie also composed the scores to two films by Gregg Araki, Mysterious Skin (2005) and White Bird in a Blizzard (2014).
He also collaborated with XTC’s Andy Partridge, Ultravox’s John Foxx, Public Image Ltd’s Jah Wobble and more. A retrospective of his work, Wind in Lonely Fences 1970-2011, was released in 2014.
Budd fathered two children from his first marriage, and later a third, Hugo, with his second wife Ellen Wirth. She died in 2012 following a six year battle with brain cancer.