The Sound of Homecoming: The Complete Collaborations of Harold Budd and John Foxx

2018 has been a year of great personal development and growth, and as such, I’ve found myself time and again seeking warm, familiar tonalities rather than venturing into the unfamiliar and novel territories I’d explored in the years prior. I found it comforting to revisit long-standing favorite composers who created a sense of returning home each time I revisited their catalogs. That is precisely what made this latest discovery such a joy for me at this point in my life.

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Harold Budd is unquestionably one of the foremost veterans in the field of ambient composition. His trademark soft-pedal technique is instantly captivating and calming, and while he may not be breaking any new ground in the genre, that’s not what his listeners are seeking. Budd commands a mastery of his craft seldom matched in his field, and he’s consistently delivered quality contemplative soundscapes for nearly fifty years.

At 81 years of age, Harold Budd has shown no sign of slowing down. He’s collaborated with numerous artists, including Brian Eno, Robin Guthrie, The Cocteau Twins, Clive Wright, Eraldo Bernocchi, Bill Nelson, Andy Partridge, Daniel Lentz, Fila Brazilla, & U2. Budd retired briefly in 2005 but quickly returned to composition and released ten more albums and this magnificent new acquisition in the years that followed. I’d always wanted a vinyl keepsake of Budd’s music, but much of his catalog was limited to compact disc, including the Budd Box seven-disc set. That what made this discovery an exciting addition to my library.

From the original VinylFactory announcement in September:

Translucence, Drift Music and Nighthawks are being released on limited edition 3xLP by Demon Music for the first time.

Translucence / Drift Music is a 2003 double studio album from ex-Ultravox frontman John Foxx and ambient composer Harold Budd. Minimalist composer Ruben Garcia joined the duo to feature on their third album Nighthawks.

The triple vinyl package also features artwork by Jonathan Barnbrook, the graphic designer who created the Grammy-winning art for David Bowie’s Blackstar.

This box set features the complete Budd/Foxx recordings – seminal collaborations of the ambient genre. Nighthawks is dedicated to Garcia, who sadly passed away in 2013. At the announcement of the box set, Popmatters.com noted that, at the album’s 142-minute runtime, you’re going to need a lot of candles. They called the set, “lovely and provocative” with occasional chromatics and discord. “The City Stops for Snow” was described as “painting a picture of urban stillness” with its interplay of tiny overtones over top the many sustains and echoes.

This is the first time these recordings have been available on vinyl, and Demon Records did an exquisite job. The discs are 180g heavyweight vinyl, housed in a rigid slipcase. This release also comes with a limited print signed by John Foxx.

Harold Budd & John Foxx - Translucence Drift Music Nighthawks Box Set

Rateyourmusic user, dvd offered some valuable insight about the impact of this music on the listener:

It is very strange: after I listen I find it really difficult to recall any more specific details of the music itself. … The music is so transparent, like there is nothing to grab onto, and it just sort of drifts in and out on the edge of consciousness on its own. Maybe this is not a bad thing for ambient music, and likely part of what the creators were going for based on the title(s). For all its subtleties, the music still feels like it has some power over my mental state, as if it puts me in sort of a weird trance: something that’s vaguely serene and beautiful.

Paste Magazine shared similar remarks about the tranquil calm of this set, calling it “almost unbearably beautiful.” The impressionistic nature of the soundscapes was described as evoking images of “silhouettes of birds cutting across an early evening sky or slowly floating on a quiet, still body of water” and “tramping through a blanket of white on a quiet boulevard.” This is precisely the sort of contemplative music which brings me that feeling of homecoming.

I discovered Budd’s compositions early in my musical journey, initially through his collaborations with Brian Eno. The Pearl and The Plateaux of Mirror were albums I instantly knew I needed to have on vinyl, and they were followed shortly thereafter by an original pressing of his critically-acclaimed collaboration with Cocteau Twins for The Moon and The Melodies. But other than the aforementioned titles and a pressing of The Serpent in Quicksilver, I’d never been able to find a release on vinyl that truly felt like it celebrated and showcased Budd’s best work. And sadly the Budd Box has only been issued on CD. So imagine my excitement at discovering this recently-issued collection of the complete Budd & Foxx recordings!

Mike Powell of Pitchfork fittingly described Harold Budd’s characteristic sound as existing “in that misty place between ambient, new age, and minimalist composition, where everything is gentle and nothing lasts for long.” Powell described Budd’s quietly recognizable style as “intimate and intuitive; fragile but warm; seductive but just a little bit mysterious, like the soft tinkling of a presence in the next room.”

But perhaps the most fitting description comes from the set’s designer Jonathan Barnbrook who explains:

These are pieces that I return to again and again. Separate from his (John Foxx) more electronic work, they have a humanity and serenity that only comes with a great musician working in collaboration with others greats in an empathetic, understanding style. The music has a delicate, reflective quality – of human beings that have lived life and realise the beauty of it all, the joy and the suffering. They ask us to stop and consider, and that despite it all we should never desire to change a moment of it.

TheQuietus published a wonderful interview with John Foxx at the launch of this box set. His remarks revealed much about the albums’ composition and his thoughts about their collaboration. Foxx stated that he, “especially wanted to extend the harmonics of the piano strings resonance and sonic decay and use that as a live, real-time expansion of the sound.“ He went so far as to call Budd “a modern-day Satie.”

And describing the production process, Foxx said:

We also used another completely unique property of recording – reversed time. By reversing sounds and recording reverbs, then playing them forward and applying further layers of reverberation, you can enrich the already extended harmonics. You also have the miracle of reverberations moving simultaneously forward and backwards in time, and a truly complex interplay and texture going on between them. We took all this layering and multiplying as far as we possibly could, while still observing the delicacy and emotional tone of the pieces. All you have to do is listen and feel.

Allmusic.com summarized Budd’s sound as “distinctively dreamy, often extraordinary and occasionally ominous” and likens his technique to that of Erik Satie and Claude Debussy. Budd’s slowly morphing reverberant and shimmering atmospherics certainly have an impressionistic quality, and the parallels drawn to these greats are not inapt.

To those who might precipitously dismiss these works as simple new age music, I’d offer this closing remark from The Brighton Festival’s Guy Morley who said, “I think the impact of Harold is yet to be realised. Tonally, Harold has always come from a very deep and instinctive place. You don’t need a degree in composition. Its simplicity belies its originality.”

By any measure, this box set is a fantastic keepsake for anyone who enjoys the godfathers of ambient music.

Tracklist:

LP 1 / Translucence

1.Subtext
2.Spoken Roses
3.Momentary Architecture
4.Adult
5. Long Light
6. A Change In The Weather
7. Here And Now
8. Almost Overlooked
9. Implicit
10. Raindust
11.Missing Person
12. You Again

LP 2 / Drift Music

1. Sunlit Silhouette
2. The Other Room
3. Some Way Through All The Cities
4. Stepping Sideways
5 A Delicate Romance
6. Linger
7. Curtains Blowing
8. Weather Patterns
9. Coming Into Focus
10. After All This Time
11. Someone Almost There
12. Resonant Frequency
13. Avenue Of Trees
14. Underwater Flowers
15. Arriving

LP 3 / Nighthawks

1. Down A Windy Street
2. Now That I’ve Forgotten You
3. The Invisible Man
4. Fugitive Desire
5. From Then To Now
6. When The City Stops For Snow
7. The Shadow Of Her Former Self
8. Music For Swimmers
9. Lovedust
10. Nighthawks

Unexpected Musical Magic

This evening’s musical discovery was entirely unexpected but has transformed my night.  An album was featured in a community I frequent and my eyes went wide at its summary. Free improvisational kosmische progressive electronic drone music? Sign me up! The album was Automaginary – a 2015 collaborative effort from two Chicago artists, Bitchin Bajas and Natural Information Society.

It was an absolute delight to be introduced to a quality release which encompasses a trifecta of my favorite musical styles. From the first note, this triumph embodies all of the elements I enjoy in a composition.

I’m always working to refine my response to the dreaded, “so what kind of music do you listen to?”, and in the past, I’d been unable to summarize in fewer than 286 words for those unfortunate enough to pose the question. My most recent revision resulted in an abbreviated, (albeit painfully incomplete) explanation of my listening tastes clocking in at a mere 73 words, which coincidentally nearly describes the music of this fantastic recording to a “T”. I said:

“I particularly enjoy minimalist music – compositions which employ static harmony, quasi-geometric transformational linearity and repetition, gradual additive or permutational processes, phase-shifting, and static instrumentation. I am captivated by the metamusical properties which are revealed as a result of strictly carried-out processes. Many of these recordings explore non-Western concepts like pure tuning, (e.g. pure frequency ratios and resonant intervals outside the 12-pitch piano scale), unmetered melodies like those of Carnatic ragas, and drones.”

Nearly all of those concepts are employed exquisitely on Automaginary, with the additional beauty of sparse electronic and organic atonal treatments which expand the transcendental atmospheric listening space even further. There are distinct nods to many of the greats here – La Monte Young, Riley, Conrad, Ravi Shankar, in addition to hints of inspiration from Coleman, early krautrockers, and even 1960s psychoacoustic recordings. While there is nothing terribly novel about this particular album, it is a magnificent execution of the post-minimal drone ethos and a wonderfully immersive listening experience.

Tune in!

Reflective Music – Learning How To Listen All Over Again

It began with a revisitation to Morton Feldman’s Rothko Chapel / Why Patterns? album. Headphones fit cozily around my ears, I’d decided to disappear from my office environment one Sunday afternoon and explore the more thoughtful headspace afforded by Feldman’s tranquil piano melodies. I was instantly transported, and the record prepared me for some reflective and solemn music to while away the hours at my desk. Resultantly, I soon found myself compiling a list of essential listening I was keen to either revisit or to explore for the first time in the spirit of that mood.

Rothko Chapel

Morton Feldman – Rothko Chapel / Why Patterns?

The list would be a survey of key recordings of German ambient music both classic and contemporary. Berliner ambient essentials including:

  • Nils Frahm – Wintermusik and the post-minimalist Felt LP
  • Nils Frahm and Ólafur Arnalds collaborative work, Trance Frendz
  • British-German composer Max Richter’s 8.5-hour post-minimal ambient opus, Sleep, as well as his critically-acclaimed Memoryhouse and The Blue Notebooks LPs
  • Thomas Köner (a member of Porter Ricks and Kontakt der Jünglinge) – Permafrost
  • Cluster & Eno’s self-titled 1977 album recorded in Cologne
  • Eno/Moebius/Roedelius – After the Heat, featuring the haunting album-closers, “The Belldog”  and “Tzima N’Arki”  
  • Alva Noto – Xerrox Vols I & II (the sound of desolation, itself)
  • Highlights from Wolfgang Voigt’s recordings under the Gas moniker – Pop, Königsforst, Zauberberg, and his triumphant latest effort, Narkopop
  • Popol Vuh’s choral classic, Hosianna Mantra
  • Klaus Schulze’s space music debut epic, Irrlicht from 1972
  • Hans Zimmer’s score to Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar
  • Favorites from Tangerine Dream – the albums Zeit and Phaedra
  • And for a taste of ambient darkjazz, Bohren & der Club of Gore’s Black Earth LP

I was awestruck by the listening experience of the first three recordings, so much in fact that I remained with them for the duration of the week. I spent days and nights immersed in Richter’s Sleep, never tiring of the fundamentally succinct central theme which carries throughout the entire opus. And even now, six days later, I am still reveling in the gentle elegance of Frahm and Arnalds’ pastoral melodies.

But more importantly, I found that I was not engaging these works as I had so often approached 20th-century music. I confess that I’ve routinely engaged recordings in an overtly-academic fashion. I obsessed over structure, form, and socio-cultural context. I preoccupied my mind with where each composition fell in relationship to the artist’s other works. I examined music so critically, that I failed to experience it emotionally.

There were notable exceptions to this standard – particularly those ambient recordings I chose to engage through music meditation. When consuming specific works of consequence for the first time, (and again thereafter if they became beloved favorites), I would don my circumaural cans, swaddle myself in blankets, extinguish all lamps, lay still in bed, and let the music fill me. The most recent album to receive this treatment was Brian Eno’s monumentally intimate album, The Ship from 2016.

What I found so arresting about these contemporary releases from the top of my list was that they explored the ambient genre differently than by their vintage predecessors. I quickly surveyed the albums and discovered that I had developed an affinity for post-minimalism. Borne of a reactionary movement to the impersonality of minimalist works in the 1960s, these artists aimed to resolve minimalism’s often cold and over-intellectual nature by introducing more expressive qualities, often evoking the body and aspects of sexuality. The resulting works are intimately affecting, soothing, and serene with more organic sonic textures than the mechanics of traditional minimalism.

It was that very quality which inspired in me such a novel and emotional response. Frahm’s Felt LP exquisitely embraced these organic elements, captured in its unique compositional process.

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From the ErasedTapes label’s website:

Having recorded his last album live in a large, reverberant church, Nils Frahm now invites you to put on your headphones and dive into a world of microscopic and delicate sounds – so intimate that you could be sitting beside him.

Recorded late at night in the reflective solitude and silence of his studio in Berlin, Frahm uncovers a new sound and source of inspiration within these peaceful moments:

Originally I wanted to do my neighbours a favour by damping the sound of my piano. If I want to play piano during the quiet of the night, the only respectful way is by layering thick felt in front of the strings and using very gentle fingers. It was then that I discovered that my piano sounds beautiful with the damper.

Captivated by this sonic exposition, he placed the microphones so deep inside the piano that they were almost touching the strings. This brought a host of external sounds to the recordings which most producers would try their hardest to hide:

I hear myself breathing and panting, the scraping sound of the piano’s action and the creaking of my wooden floorboards – all equally as loud as the music. The music becomes a contingency, a chance, an accident within all this rustling. My heart opens and I wonder what exactly it is that makes me feel so happy.

It is his emphasis of those very sounds, which in traditional recording would be trimmed away as nuisance rather than beauty, which make Felt such an intimate and captivating listen. To quote a card from Eno’s Oblique Strategies deck – “Emphasise the flaws.” I found myself holding my breath so as not to miss the curious “non-musical” sounds present in the recording. I permitted the music to create a space for pure experience, rather than considered analysis, which I found immeasurably rewarding and satisfying.

And it is that exemption from quantification – the absence of left-brained cognitive study which freed my mind to just enjoy the music.

I don’t feel compelled to pore over academic texts examining post-minimalism. I feel no urge to read critical papers from music journalists on the merit or inferiority of works of this musical category. I just want to experience it. And that is wonderful.

 

The sound of a kick drum… miles away… buried deep within the earth.

Wolfgang Voigt’s Gas Box 10LP +4CD set has just arrived. Of Voigt’s countless one-off side project monikers, it is his work as Gas which has gained the most critical acclaim. And for good reason – this is some of the finest dark ambient minimal techno you could ever hope to find. And after sixteen years of various abridged and modified reissues, Voigt has presented the albums Zauberberg, Königsforst, and Pop in their entirety, along with a bonus disc featuring “Tal 90”, (previously released in Various – Pop Ambient 2002) and “Oktember B” from the Oktember EP from 1999.

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The set is housed in a sturdy slipcase with embossed jackets for each release. The discs are contained in glossy black paper sleeves with GAS logo printed on both sides. The accompanying hardcover 12″ x 12″ art book with digital images of the Königsforst also contains four CDs of the music from the set.

Inspired by Voigt’s youthful LSD experiences in the Königsforst (a German forest situated near his hometown of Köln), served as the inspiration behind these releases. Voigt claimed that he wanted to “bring the forest to the disco, or vice-versa”.

Wikipedia offers an excellent description of the Gas sound:

Each album consisting of several long tracks of dense, hypnotic, atmospheric sound. All Gas material shares a characteristic sound, consisting of an ambient wash of drones and loops, usually accompanied by a repetitive four-on-the-floor kick drum underneath the multiple layers of music. Occasionally a song will just drift on its own ambience.

Indeed, most of the time there is no clear musical progression in a Gas track, as Voigt seems to be more interested in exploring depth of the stereo field, utilizing subtle shifts in sound. Because music under the Gas alias lacks any trace of orthodox melody or chord change many would not describe it as musical. However, the sources of Voigt’s samples are often of musical origin, encapsulating “old pop record stuff” as well as classical music such as Richard Wagner and Arnold Schoenberg.

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It also notes that critics have described Gas music as, “similar to hearing a band playing very far away, underwater, or from behind walls.” By any measure, this is a milestone ambient box set and an essential piece of any ambient record collection.

Playlist of the Day – Bilateral Motion: Abstract Minimal Ambient Dub Techno

Last night around 9pm I saw a post from a fellow member of a music community I follow.  It was a curious photo of an LP he was spinning at the moment with a minimal, text-only label which read, “Fluxion – Vibrant Forms.  A.”

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From the color of the label and the sans serif typeface I hypothesized that it was likely some sort of minimal electronic music, so I hopped over to Youtube and keyed it in.

I was delighted to find it was reminiscent of Wolfgang Voigt’s ambient, minimal techno under his legendary Gas moniker.  Whatever this was, I wanted to hear more!

A quick survey of the artist page on RYM revealed that it was filed under Dub Techno.  Where I’d previously exhausted all artists under the Ambient Dub heading (dominated primarily by The Orb), the highest-charting Dub Techno LPs were almost entirely new to me.  A few names were familiar, namely Woob and Yagya, but the rest were off my radar.  Jotting down the artists from the RYM top 10 LPs I went to work straight away.

The Artist Top 10 included:

  • Andy Stott
  • Deadbeat
  • Paul St. Hilaire
  • Deepchord Presents Echospace
  • Fluxion
  • Monolake
  • Porter Ricks
  • Purl
  • Woob
  • and Yagya

That evening I compiled 45 albums from these artists – a solid introductory set to the genre.

Now playing and listening intently to the new playlist – “Bilateral Motion: Abstract Minimal Ambient Dub Techno.  Fluxion’s Vibrant Forms I and II are excellent highlights from the set.

Big thanks to Vils M D for the inspiration!

Bilateral Motion: Abstract Minimal Ambient Dub Techno

New Year’s Concert – Music of Terry Riley

Ladies and gentlemen – it has been an outstanding start to the new year.

I received an invitation this morning from the Music Director of the UB Symphony Orchestra to attend a local musical Happening.

Daniel Bassin conceived and organized the event which took place this afternoon, January 1st at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Buffalo.

The Happening united a number of musicians, some natives of the city and others from around the country.  Together they performed Terry Riley’s iconic piece, “In C” in this, the 50th year since its composition.

The first recording of “In C” was produced with Riley and The Center of Creative and Performing Arts at SUNY-Buffalo in 1968 so it was a fitting selection to kick off the local Happenings series.

From Mr. Bassin’s event summary:

Part composition, part improvisation, never the same twice, and beautiful to experience in person in a fine acoustic like our church’s sanctuary, this piece was composed in 1964 and first recorded by the composer alongside Buffalo’s Creative Associates in 1968.

“In C” consists of 53 composed musical melodies and gestures which players are to perform sequentially with one another, but each individual only moves on from melody to melody on their own, thus creating musical textures which are alternatingly delicate and dense, lush and hypnotic.

In the spirit of the original Happenings of the 1960s, audience participation was encouraged, and several children in attendance enthusiastically manned tambourines and standing drums adding a free and youthful energy to the performance.

Terry Riley In C Daniel Bassin Buffalo NY

Children were happy to lend a hand!

The UUCB was a fantastic acoustic space for the event, and Bassin encouraged listeners to roam freely about the church to experience the various changes in sound perspectives.  One guest was delighted to discover an inviting bass-pocket sensation by hanging her head between the church’s pews.

Overall the Happening was a great success.  We joined the performers for lunch following the event and discussed Bassin’s plans for future Happenings, one of which will feature the music of Karlheinz Stockhausen.

I am honored to have been a part of the first of what I’m sure will be many successful performances.  Mr. Bassin is providing a valuable contribution to the local music scene and I can’t wait to see what else 2015 will bring.

Happy new year everyone!