I’ve come to the simple conclusion that I can, and probably should, only listen to Harold Budd’s music in short doses. Notice I said “listen,” not “stand.” There’s a subtle difference. Budd’s music, with its lush, riverine piano lines, largely improvised structures, and delicate string and horn arrangements, is lovelier than lovely, and I have no problem listening to it in almost any (quiet or decently subdued) occasion.
However, the loose, dreamlike nature of Budd’s compositions means that they A) often lapse into the backdrop as soon as something even slightly more insistent comes across the listener’s awareness (which means this album should probably only be listened to in big, empty houses, preferably by candlelight), and B) sometimes veer a bit too far into “New Age” territory, and as such, the drifting compositions just, well, drift on by, with little lasting impact.
I suspect that much of that is due to circumstance, and given the right circumstances, the whole of Avalon Sutra is, undoubtedly, mighty affecting. But in reality, such perfect listening circumstances are hard to come by, which has the unfortunate result of rendering much of the album aural wallpaper. Mighty lovely wallpaper with intricate and exquisite detail, but wallpaper nonetheless.
However, listening to Avalon Sutra (or any of Budd’s music, for that matter) in shorter doses has another benefit aside from preventing the music to drift away from you. It highlights and emphasizes its most interesting and arresting quality; its illusory, ephemeral nature. Short snippets bring you to the gates of Budd’s musical world and give you tantalizing glimpses of the beauties contained therein, but the music isn’t given long enough of a time to wear out its welcome or fade too far into the backdrop.
Not surprisingly, the album’s shortest songs are its most captivating moments. If they stretch much past the four-minute mark, they slowly begin to lose momentum, and it’s easier for the listener, however unwillingly, to lose interest. But around the two or three minute mark, that’s just about right — enough time to fully envelope you, and when it’s over, leave you wanting just a few seconds longer in that strangely exotic, twilit place of longing and nostalgia. A place that is probably best seen only in fragments and glimpses.
“Arabesque 3” quickly sets the mood, with Jon Gibson’s sax calling out plaintively against the dark, slumbering backdrop that Budd conjures up with his piano filigrees. Adding additional intimacy are the imperfections — you can hear the clatter of the instrument’s valves, the puffs as Gibson takes a breath.
“It’s Steeper Near the Roses [For David Sylvian]” is barely longer than a minute, but the way the piano’s graceful ripples hint at so many more depths, it’s long enough. “How Vacantly You Stare at Me” recalls Last Life in the Universe’s atmospheric soundtrack, which was so important to that movie’s beautiful picture of alienation, longing, regret, and brief moments of connection and intimacy. That, like Budd’s music, are all the more stirring for their briefness.
“As Long as I Can Hold My Breath” seems to be composed of more reverb and echo than piano, again adding to the ephemeral, barely there-ness that makes Budd’s music so lovely. The last half or so of the song doesn’t even seem to feature Budd playing, but is instead seems composed of all of the sounds Budd has played throughout the album echoing back to him, ghost-like and dripping with nostalgia and memory. Audible and present, but forever out of reach.
Avalon Sutra is actually a two-disc release, with the second disc consisting of only one track: a 69-minute “remix” of “As Long as I Can Hold My Breath” by Budd’s labelmate, Akira Rabelais. Which, while lovely and never intrusive or offensive, is also never arresting enough to justify such a length. Again, proof that Budd’s simple, lush music just can’t support or withstand long existences. They are fragile, tender, ephemeral things… and they are best experienced and celebrated as such.