The quiet rebellion: Harold Budd at Big Ears

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Is music too loud these days? The questions rings in my mind like my ears after a gloriously loud rock concert. Many bands these days seem to give in to the temptation to turn up their music to dangerous levels, blasting out people’s ears so that their music can’t be ignored. Though this may be a tactic of capturing the audience’s attention, it also kills the music’s dynamics and damages people’s hearing. Whatever happened to the virtues of quietness?

By the end of Big Ears I couldn’t help but think about the loudness and quietness of each act, and how that affected each performance. There was such a stark contrast between the loudness of many musicians, so much so that at some shows you were afraid to move lest it disturb the music, and at others you couldn’t even hear yourself think, let alone talk to anyone else. Some, like Mercury Rev and Sons of Kemet, were absolute assaults on the ears and the senses. There was no room for anything else but the cacophony of noise emanating from the speaker stacks.

When it came to quiet music, no one rang in as low on the decibel scale as Harold Budd. At most festivals, that wouldn’t be much of an accolade. At Big Ears Festival in Knoxville, Tennessee, though, quietude is something to be cherished, to be held in your hands like a shining treasure in a world of loudness. At Church Street United Methodist on Friday afternoon, a packed crowd bustled in to listen Budd’s first concert out of three at the festival.

After an ambient piece that consisted only of a gong, Budd appeared on the stage. Without an introduction, the music began—not with a bang—but slowly, methodically, almost as if the sounds had whispered into existence without anyone knowing. Throughout the concert, Budd would play several instruments, including a Nord Stage 2 and a Roland RD-700GX (providing ambient texture), as well as a grand piano. Compared to most piano players, he did next to nothing. When he did touch a note, it came after a lengthy pause, one only interrupted for an instant by a long, sustained chord or a quick arpeggio that, even after it had disappeared into the fabric of the ambience, seemed to linger for much longer afterwards.

On Friday afternoon at Church Street he was accompanied by Nief-Norf, the Knoxville-based contemporary group, as well as Mary Lattimore, the harpist who would play right after him and shower the audience with cascades of flowering notes, layering her elevated harmonies with a loop pedal and swipe of her hand across the harp’s strings.

Though the church was packed and the people were silent, there seemed to be something inherently strange about hosting a concert of Budd’s music. His compositions don’t really seem to fit in with the usual idea of a concert. He doesn’t speak or express much emotion during his music. This music, lacking any recognizable facets of melody and structure, easily slips under the threshold of attention. In fact, it’s almost as if Budd weren’t there at all, like the music existed before him and will exist long after he has gone, as if he had merely uncovered it from the earth, dusted it off, and allowed it to seep out into the world.

Of course, Budd’s music is perfectly suited to such passive listening. Sometimes not much happens – a rapid flurry of notes rises like on hot winds into the air or a soft tone rises and falls like a ripple moving across the ocean’s surface. Budd’s music is like the ocean in this case, and his compositions float as if on a placid sea. Though there isn’t much to see on the surface but reflected water, there is a depth below the surface, a suggestion of resounding echoes of what we are not hearing. This is felt consistently throughout.

At St. John’s the next day, Harold played with the string quartet ACME, which stands for the American Contemporary Musical Ensemble. At times in the show he would disappear, as if fading into the unceasing ruminations of the strings. The quartet, aiding in his dissolution, seemed to produce notes that went on forever, our ears unable to tell when one instrument died away and another rose into the wash of sound. Eventually Budd would reappear, as silently as he disappeared, lightly touching the piano as the songs (if they can be called that) floated out of the stillness.

This curation of quiet is a revolutionary concept in our world of unceasing sound. This is the reason that John Cage sat at his piano for four minutes and thirty-three seconds a half century ago, or why some people choose to move the country. Quietness can be a rebellion against the unceasing tide of civilization, of movement, of sound, of growth.

Walking around the Harold Budd show with my camera, I saw rows of people with their phones out, their faces illuminated by the glow of the screen in front of them. I imagined that for them the music had almost ceased to exist. I resisted the idea that they were bored, mostly because it was a conclusion that came too easily, but also because I wanted to believe that this was the perfect music to forget about, in which you could flip through your phone and lose track of everything around you—the pew you sat in, the church walls that vaulted to the sky, and the very music that vibrated inside your ears. This was a realization of Eno’s words: “as ignorable as it is interesting.” At any point you can wake up, remember you are listening to music, and choose to engage, but if you don’t the music remains like a shadowy dream in the nether realms of your mind.

The merits of quietude became even more apparent on Sunday at the festival, when I woke up to my ears aching. Loud music had caused my eardrums to hurt, a pain that I walked around all day with, incredibly sensitive to the loudness of each act at the festival. There were many at Big Ears, such as Mercury Rev and Son of Goldfinger, that were so loud that my ears hurt, making me yearn again for the quiet, ignorable music of Budd.

The next week, seeking this quiet, I put on the first Harold Budd album I ever heard, 1978’s The Pavilion of Dreams. The soft croon of the sax and the delicate electric piano create what feels like an urban daydream, as if you were in a trance walking through the snowy, abandoned streets of a large, anonymous city. The feeling of silence, of immeasurable space, is permeable, stretching on like the horizon of the ocean. As the album moves into “Rosetti Noise/Chrystal Garden and A Coda,” the sacredness of these moments, of , of silence bending into something religiously evocative, is felt. Is this sense of the divine an illusion? Perhaps everything is.

When it’s time for bed, though, I close the computer and the music stops. The silence can be felt in the room, though even this silence is not complete. The hum of the heated air pumping into the space or the distant rush of cars is always present in the air. There is always some sound to break that irrevocable silence we all fear.

Even farther off I swear I can hear the distant sound of distorted guitars somewhere out in the night, though I can’t be sure of whether or not it is all in my mind.

 

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