BUDD PLANTS HIS MUSIC FIRMLY IN THE FOREGROUND

"When I hear the words New Age, I reach for my gun."

Harold Budd is having a little fun with how people categorize his music. But in paraphrasing the classic fascist statement on culture, the critically acclaimed keyboardist and composer is also at least half-serious.

Even many of Budd's admirers tend to think of his albums--including two new ones, the solo "Lovely Thunder" and his collaboration with the Cocteau Twins, "The Moon and the Melodies"--as "environmental," "background" or "trance" music. And he doesn't like that one bit.

The avant-garde composer has some other surprises up his sleeve. He says his favorite music is "outlaw" country-Western. He's a Raiders fan. He loved bebop as a teen-ager, played drums for years, was in a band with jazz saxophonist Albert Ayler and has written music for two Korean Airlines commercials.

What's so surprising about that? Well, Budd makes what a critic for Melody Maker recently called "the most beautiful music of the 20th Century"--most often using sound-processed piano, slow tempos and a very special sense of chromatic harmony.

Those sounds are very nice for reading a book to--but don't tell Budd that.

"There are musics out there that are background music," the 50-year-old composer said. "I feel totally divorced from them. But apparently to some people I'm responsible for some styles that get labeled as 'New Age' or 'trance music.' I plead innocent, believe me."

He has a point. Budd has more in common with Erik Satie--or with his own generation of avant-garde composers: Philip Glass, La Monte Young, Terry Riley, Jon Hassell. "We're all about the same age," Budd noted, "and we came to similar conclusions at about the same time. We learned our craft--and then immediately trashed it."

Budd grew up partly in the Olympic-Crenshaw area of Los Angeles and partly in the California desert, and it's easy to hear the musical equivalents of the desert's spaciousness and subtle beauty in his compositions. But as a boy, his musical tastes went in a wholly different direction.

"Maybe what thrilled me most was the sound of marching bands--especially the drums," said Budd during an interview at his home near the Miracle Mile, where he lives with his wife and two sons.

"And since I hung out with some guys who--well, if you didn't know who Charlie Parker was, you were nobody with us--I decided I was going to be the world's greatest jazz drummer."

Early in his career he played drums in black clubs in South Central Los Angeles, and after being drafted he joined an Army band that included avant-garde jazz saxophonist Albert Ayler. He and Ayler would often moonlight at clubs away from the base.

"Albert taught me the lesson that the music didn't have to be any particular time signature, it didn't have to be bebop, that anything that happens is quite OK. So we were into a John Cage philosophy before I'd even heard of Cage."

After leaving the Army, Budd studied music seriously at Los Angeles City College and elsewhere. He eventually began working out some of his minimalist ideas on piano. "In fact," he said, "I got to the point around 1970 where I minimalized myself out of a career for a while. I completely stopped composing for about 20 months."

When Budd returned to the piano he had a revised approach, and the music he composed became "The Pavilion of Dreams," which he put on tape. One of the people who eventually heard it was English musician Brian Eno, whose desire to create and sponsor "ambient" music jibed with Budd's methods.

"He called the same week I'd quit teaching (at CalArts)," recalled Budd. "He wanted to know if I could come over to London to record 'Pavilion.' 'Are you free?' he asked. I didn't tell him how free I was."

"Pavilion" was released in 1977, and Budd went on to record two collaborations with Eno ("The Plateaux of Mirror" and "The Pearl") and two solo albums in the early '80s. Last December, "Lovely Thunder" and "The Moon and the Melodies" (billed under the participants' individual names: Budd, Elizabeth Fraser, Robin Guthrie and Simon Raymonde) followed. He's extremely happy with both.

"The Cocteau Twins told me how much they liked my music and asked if I might like to do something with them. I said, 'Well, yes,' but it was a bit embarrassing: I had heard of them but I'd never actually heard their music! So a friend made me a compilation tape of their music and it was just wonderful.

"So I met them backstage when they came to L.A. to play the Palace. I think they were afraid they might find I was the kind of composer who demanded that people read music and who wanted to score everything out.

"I said, 'No, not at all.' Then I asked them how they worked. And they said, 'Well, we just go into the studio and start making sounds and if it starts to work we follow it.' And I thought, 'Thank God'--because that was exactly the way I had worked with Eno. I was used to those ground rules--there weren't any."

Even though Budd enjoys doing concerts occasionally--he recently did two with Eno, one in an English concert hall, the other in a Canary Islands lava cave--he feels that such performances are not the best situations for his music.

"In the context of me alone for two hours, the music never quite gets to the point where I know it could if I were in (the studio). Because I don't primarily think of myself as a keyboardist. I think of myself as a composer who is forced to play the piano occasionally."

And forced to see his music thrown into the New Age bin. Still, he's not terribly unhappy that the growing number of New Age fans are buying his records. "Ten years ago I would have been thrilled if I'd had an album that sold 500 copies. Now, if one of my albums sold only 500, I'd probably slit my wrists!"

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