Harold Budd’s 1976 recording, featuring saxophonist Marion Brown, is still strangely beautiful and unlike other ambient music recorded since.
by Marshall Bowden
When people hear of the death of composer and musician Harold Budd, his name will be linked, in the media and in the minds of many readers, with the term ‘ambient.’ But Budd himself rejected the term. In the mid-1960s he was a minimalist composer, and he composed quite a few pieces for solo piano. This period seems to have crested with a composition for solo gong, after which Budd fell silent for some time. There is no question he was pursuing something different and as early as 1972 he was working on pieces of the music that became The Pavilion of Dreams.
The Pavilion of Dreams, the suite of music that comprised Budd’s second recording, was recorded in 1976, but not released until 1978. It arrived on a new music scene that was aesthetically very different from Budd’s vision. Budd felt that with Brian Eno and the musicians who worked with him on this recording, that he had found his musical tribe. Eno produced The Pavilion of Dreams while still developing his own work around the idea of ambient music. Two collaborations with Robert Fripp and his own Discreet Music were pointing the way but Eno himself wouldn’t release Ambient 1: Music For Airports until 1978. Budd felt a kinship with Eno as well as Richard Bernas and Michael Nyman but didn’t think that they comprised a movement. But the term ambient caught on, sometimes lazily used by writers who couldn’t bother to differentiate the goal or aesthetic style of various pieces or composers.
The Pavilion of Dreams is completely unlike most of the avant-garde music that was being made at the time, a direction that Budd had thoroughly rejected: “It had taken ten 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.”
While Budd says that The Pavilion of Dreams is meant to say “This is only pretty. Don’t look for meaning” it’s not quite true that the work is, as he suggested, “existentially pretty, mindless, shallow, and utterly devastating.” The delicacy of Budd’s music often suggests that its cathedral-like construction and its sometimes ostentatious beauty are defenses against its frailty and reinforce its ability to keep pangs of sadness and loss at bay. All of which is a way of saying that Budd’s music covers a much more complex emotional territory than its placid surface might suggest.
Though The Pavilion of Dreams is produced by Brian Eno, his hand is not so readily apparent on this work as it became on most of the Eno/Budd collaborations that followed. Instead it is the other musician collaborators on The Pavilion of Dreams that help stake its claim in the realm of serious modern compositional music. Not least of these is the American free jazz saxophonist Marion Brown.
Marion Brown was instrumental in helping establish a link between free jazz and African music. He believed that free jazz, distanced from Western European musical ideas of time, harmony, and even instrumental technique, was a closer cousin to African music than swing or bebop, and he advanced these ideas in conversations with writers like Amiri Baraka and musicians that included Pharoah Sanders and Ornette Coleman. Brown was also interested in modern visual art, becoming friends with Mark Rothko and creating his own paintings.
The connections between the music of the minimalist composer and that of the jazz alto saxophonist and ethnomusicologist are several. There is the willful turning away from the prevailing tendency of many of their contemporaries to create music that is frequently manic and harsh and the determination to build a musical universe that belongs to them. Budd utilizes a group that sparkles with the combined sounds of electric piano, celeste, piano, harp, glockenspiel, and marimba to create what feels like a completely different sonic world than we are accustomed to. Brown’s alto saxophone is so restrained and concentrated, his tone and technique together create the sound of sheer beauty personified.
By the time The Pavilion of Dreams was recorded Brown had already released several albums that stand out in a very prolific recording career. 1971’s Afternoon of a Georgia Faun created music that relied heavily on an assortment of small percussion instruments, an approach that was also being utilized by Art Ensemble of Chicago. The album’s second side, “Djinji’s Corner” sounds a bit more like typical free jazz. The record features Chick Corea, Anthony Braxton, Andrew Cyrille, Jeanne Lee, and Bennie Maupin. Geechee Recollections an Impulse! recording featuring trumpet player Leo Smith and drummer Steve McCall. It’s a really great free blowing session that finds Brown coming into a more relaxed tone that is fully his own. His follow-up album Sweet Earth Flying features Muhal Richard Abrams and Paul Bley playing keyboards on various tracks.
It’s a very beautiful album and it’s quite likely that Budd and Brown already felt a considerable degree of simpatico, and Brown was invited to record the track on Budd’s album.
The album Vista features bassist Reggie Workman and drummer Ed Blackwell, both fixtures in the jazz avant-garde, as well as keyboard work from Stanley Cowell, Anthony Davis, and Bill Braynon. Brown does a version of Budd’s “Bismillahi ‘Rahmani ‘Rrahim” the same composition that opens The Pavilion of Dreams, and Budd plays celeste and gong on the track. It’s a very deep, beautiful vision of the track, and by the album Vista, it’s worth noticing that Brown’s playing had become more serene.
From Eartrip Magazine comes this very thoughtful look at Marion Brown and his most famous recording in jazz circles, Afternoon of a Georgia Faun. Reading this article made me want to listen to more of Brown’s work and it gives a lot of insight into how Brown’s Georgia roots influenced his playing and his personality deeply.
Brown’s focus on free form, abstract music that was nonetheless constructed and deliberately created put a kink in the critical tendency to consider such music created by Black musicians to be a form of primitivism, supporting “the idea that black people, if not in fact incapable of abstraction, tend to shy away from it in the direction of the immediate, the physical, the athletic, the performative.” [Nathaniel Mackey, ‘Interview by Edward Foster’, in ‘Paracritical Hinge: Essays, Talks, Notes, Interviews’ (Madison; University of Wisconsin Press, 2005), p.279]
Brown became more involved with the visual arts during the 1980s, but he still performed for small audiences. Budd moved on to work directly with Brian Eno on manipulating the sounds he created into soundscapes. But the paths of these two visionary musicians crossed with The Pavilion of Dreams, a record that still sounds like nothing else that was being done at the time and not a lot that has been done since.