Budd Makes His Own Kind of Music : He expresses himself like never before in his new album, ‘By the Dawn’s Early Light’

<i> Steve Appleford writes regularly about music for Westside/Valley Calendar</i>

Harold Budd has a name for his brand of music, even if critics and fans alike are often at a loss to describe its mix of ethereal electronics and acoustics. “Call it American art music,” Budd said of a genre he regularly shares with Brian Eno. “That’s what it is. Everything else is just a thickheaded marketing scheme.”

The Los Angeles composer-musician has long been concerned with the accurate use of language, convinced that even a bad title can ruin an otherwise worthwhile piece of music. This concern is emphasized like never before on his new “By the Dawn’s Early Light” album, which opens unexpectedly with Budd reading a surreal poem titled “Aztec Hotel.”

A full third of the record’s 18 tracks spotlight Budd’s new poetry, including a “quasi-song” called “Saint’s Name Spoken” and the possibly autobiographical “Boy About 10.” The remainder of the album follows the instrumental tradition of his eight earlier albums, which have included collaborations with Eno and the Cocteau Twins. But he insists that the new emphasis on words is actually nothing new.

“I’ve used words as an integral part of my work for the past two decades,” Budd said. “This time I just decided to formalize it.”

He explained that his instrumental works were often inspired by an intriguing combination of words, mostly of his own creation but occasionally also culled from the works of author William S. Burroughs. Budd cited the title of his 1981 release, “A Serpent (In Quicksilver),” as an example.


“It doesn’t mean anything, except that it’s fecund with all kinds of ideas,” Budd said of the title. “And some of them are not particularly pleasant, perhaps.”

The new album, to be released Saturday by Opal/Warner Bros. Records, also marks a return to a broader range of aural textures than could be recorded with synthesizers by Budd alone in a studio. “For the past decade I’ve been entertaining the notion of going into a studio, purposely ‘unprepared,’ and finding everything inside the studio, using the studio as a compositional tool,” he said.

With “By the Dawn’s Early Light,” Budd has gone back to a more orthodox fashion of composing, bringing in outside musicians to enact his musical ideas. He wanted to work with an ensemble again, he said, creating odd instrumental combinations by mixing classically trained musicians with self-taught players who cannot read music. Budd, who plays keyboards, is joined on the record by guitarist and Be-Bop Deluxe founder Bill Nelson, pedal steel guitarist B. J. Cole, violist Mabel Wong and harpist Susan Allen.

Budd’s interest in experimental music and the avant-garde sprung from an early fascination with be-bop jazz during the 1950s, which led to his membership in a high school jazz band as its drummer. “It seemed to me the best jazz was the least likely to come to terms with mainstream society,” he said of those days. “At the time it was a badge of courage.”

Looking to expand his musical knowledge, Budd enrolled in a musical theory course at Los Angeles City College that introduced him to the radical 20th-Century composers, including Charles Ives, Anton Webern and Arnold Schoenberg. “It was absolutely liberating,” he said.

After a two-year stint in the Army, he landed in the early 1960s at San Fernando Valley State College, which evolved into Cal State Northridge. Avant-garde composer John Cage was hired to speak at the school during Budd’s first semester. The first speech, Budd said, was titled “Where Are We Going and What Are We Doing?”

“It was fantastically good,” he remembered. “I had never heard anything like it at all.” But Cage was fired immediately for what Budd suspects was too radical a message, and Budd worked to graduate as soon as possible from a music department he has never forgiven.

Budd later earned a graduate degree from USC and taught for six years at CalArts in the 1970s. All along Budd wrote, recorded and staged original musical compositions, beginning as an active member of California’s minimalist avant-garde movement of the ‘60s. Among those works was “Lirio,” a 24-hour work for solo gong.

The composer said he wasn’t sure what directions his upcoming works might take, or even whether the spoken word would continue as an integral part of his recordings. He is considering a work that he is tentatively calling “1,000 Chords,” scored for either large instrumental or vocal ensembles, moving delicately from one isolated chord to another.

He will also continue to pursue a deepening interest in words by editing a series of limited-edition books, spotlighting artists in various genres who use words in some way other than lyrics. The first boxed set of loose pages, set for release by mid-August, will feature a series of 10 poems by Budd. Later volumes will focus on other artists.

“Edward Ruscha says he’s a soldier for art,” Budd said, quoting the famed painter. “I like that idea.”

INTO THE GREAT WIDE OPEN: Country singer-songwriter Hoyt Axton will find a fittingly rural setting for his outdoor performance Saturday at the Theatricum Botanicum in Topanga. The country music veteran, whose songs have been recorded by Waylon Jennings, Joan Baez, Johnny Cash and others, headlines a concert that will also feature the Doo-Wah Riders and Pam Loe.

The concert, presented from noon to 5 p.m., is part of a series of shows organized by Canyon Entertainment. Flutist Susan Tang performs with piano and guitar accompaniment Aug. 17. And “The Sixth Annual Reggae Festival--The Struggle Goes On,” featuring Joe Higgs, is offered Aug. 31.

The Theatricum Botanicum is located at 1419 N. Topanga Canyon Blvd. Tickets for the Axton concert are $14. For more information, call (213) 480-3232. NEW SENSATIONS: A decade-long tradition of spotlighting mostly heavy metal acts will be broken in campy style Thursday when local cabaret rock band Celebrity Skin headlines a show at Gazzarri’s On-The-Strip in West Hollywood.

Founder Bill Gazzarri, who died in March at 66, liked to claim that famed musical acts such as the Doors, the Byrds, Tina Turner, Guns N’ Roses, Van Halen, Sonny and Cher, Poison and Motley Crue launched their careers from his stage. But recent years had seen the club limiting its scope almost exclusively to heavy metal.