Saturday, July 28, 2012

July 28: Harold Budd, "The Pearl"

Artist: Harold Budd
Album: The Pearl
Label: EG
Year: 1984

Throughout the course of music history, there are a handful of performers that have created such a unique body of work that they can only be classified as a musical institution onto themselves.  While they most certainly have their own musical roots, and can be seen as clear influences on a wide range of later performers, the reality remains that whatever genre title is given to their music, cannot be properly placed upon the work of any other artist.  Among the handful of musicians that have proven worthy of such distinction, few shine as brightly as Harold Budd, and his talents as a poet, composer, and musician are far beyond that of almost any other performer in history.  Whether one wishes to place him more in the world of classical composers or some offshoot of the avant or independent music scene, the fact remains that his sounds cross countless genres, truly defining what it means to be an outright musical genius.  Within all of his recorded work, there is a sense of mystery coming through in his amazingly imaginative, ambient textures; and it is the sort of music that once one hears it, the sounds can never be forgotten.  Though much of his catalog is certainly beyond the term "extraordinary," few will argue that any of Harold Budd's work matched the sheer brilliance of his 1984 collaboration with Brian Eno, The Pearl.

While many assume that Brian Eno simply served the role of "producer" on The Pearl, the fact is that while he did take some production credit, much like their previous collaborative work, Ambient 2: The Plateaux Of Mirror, Eno's instrumental additions are absolutely essential to the albums' overall impact.  It is the light touches of echo that one can hear throughout the album, as well as what can be seen as the most subtle and understated synthesizer work ever captured on tape.  Truth be told, one needs to often listen very closely to hear exactly "where" Brian Eno is contributing to the tracks, and yet once one hears these small touches, the massive importance of his additions becomes completely clear.  It is this rare balance, this ability to create so much from almost nothing, which not only adds to the overall stature of Brian Eno as a musician of the highest caliber, but also shows his deep understanding of the overall work that Budd was trying to create.  Yet Eno does step forward a bit more within his role as co-producer alongside Daniel Lanois.  Whether they are very slightly altering the tone of some of Budd's notes, or creating whispers and wind around the track, it is again the ability to make so much impact out of such small moves that in the end proves to be the element that vaults The Pearl to such greatness.

However, while there is no question that the contributions of Eno and Lanois are essential to making the overall work hit as hard as it does, the mastermind behind the entirety of the project is clearly Harold Budd, and his work across the record on piano is rarely anything short of breathtaking.  There may be no other performance in history that so perfectly defines the idea of the importance of "where you don't play notes," as the vast open spaces that he creates on piano often have an even greater impact than the notes he does play.  There is a strangely warm, yet somehow unsettling feel to many of the passages he creates, and it is this juxtaposition in tone that makes The Pearl all the more intriguing.  There are a number of pieces on the album that would work perfectly behind a variety of cinematic visuals, and yet it is the images that are inevitably created within the mind of the listener that are the most rewarding.  However, this is also one of the most distinctive aspects of The Pearl, as it is the sort of record that can be listened to countless times, with new feelings and images coming forth each time the record is played.  This ability to constantly reinvent itself is almost impossible to find elsewhere in music history, and it shows the true genius that lives within the compositions and playing style of Harold Budd.

Perhaps due to the completely unorthodox way in which the sounds are presented all across the album, it is virtually impossible to categorize The Pearl.  At some points the album is most akin to ambient electronica, while others might label it as "new age," and there are further passages on the record that delve into outright avant territory, as well as parts that one might see as being classical or even on the "indie rock" path.  It is this massive range in sound and creative energy that makes The Pearl such a vital part of the progression of music, as all of those genres and others can certainly point to the album as a key turning point in the development of that style.  Along with this, The Pearl is one of the rare albums that can function as both a centerpiece, as well as a background, and even when one has closely studied every nuance of the album, it can still be enjoyed as little more than simple sounds set in place to relax the mind.  To some, this ability to have importance when wanted is the most significant contribution and distinction that the album has, while others will point to its massive range in sonic diversity.  However, the truth of the matter is that it is perhaps the combination of both of these realities, along with the phenomenal performances throughout that make Harold Budd's 1984 collaboration with Brian Eno, The Pearl, one of the most outright masterful works ever captured on tape.

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