Harold Budd: Avalon Sutra

With the release of Avalon Sutra, minimalist composer and pianist Harold Budd bids adieu with a final recording. Having decided that he has expressed himself fully, Budd completes three decades of musical activity with a glorious exeunt that crystallizes his body of work into a singular, majestic statement. Even if he is still most widely known for his work and association with Brian Eno (including 1980's Ambient 2: Plateaux of Mirror as well as Pavilion of Dreams and The Pearl), Avalon Sutra is the crowning peak. The music is graceful, heartfelt, and poignant, the mood elegiac, deepened by themes of remembrance and loss; autumnal sadness pervades the work—especially its second half—but not depressingly so; instead, Avalon Sutra exudes an aura of becalmed surrender.

Budd's a minimalist but of a decidedly inviting sort and, while his pieces are rigorously composed, they're more impressionistic than coolly systems-based. The first disc includes fourteen elegant settings: solo piano pieces, four duets spotlighting John Gibson's woodwinds, and four with strings. Budd plays alone in meditative outings like “Porcelain Ginger” and “Faraon” but duets with himself on “A Walk In The Park With Nancy (In Memory)” where his piano is joined by Rhodes touches that resonate so strongly they resembles vibes; the aural sculpture “Rue Casimir Delavigne (For Daniel Lentz)” likewise layers pensive piano playing and Rhodes chords onto a drifting cushion of mist and, in “Little Heart,” Budd adds soft chimes and tinkling bell patterns to a call-and-response dialogue of sparkling chords and piano.

The ambient glow of the piano contrasts with the piercing clarity of the sax in the three ruminative “Arabesque” pieces. Coloured by the trill of Gibson's sopranino, the opening “Arabesque 3” is much like a meditation over an underlying drone, while in “How Vacantly You Stare At Me,” Gibson adds reflective bass flute to Budd's minimal accompaniment. Naturally, contrast permeates the lovely piano-strings pieces, with all four typically pairing lush string passages with minimal piano clusters. The first disc's dreamy collection is enhanced by the sequencing: sax and string pieces intermingle, even if the string pieces are presented in an uninterrupted group.

The closing piece on disc one, “As Long As I Can Hold My Breath,” offers a brief foretaste of the seventy-minute remix by Akira Rabelais (whose own recent spellewauerynsherde is spellbinding too) that occupies the second disc. The majestic tapestry “As Long As I Can Hold My Breath (By Night)” is dominated by see-sawing waves of strings, cascading piano ripples, and electronic glimmers. The piece is spine-tingling and transporting, with Budd's minimal interjections all the more potent for being sparsely distributed. The drone-like work expands panoramically in diametric contrast to the evanescent miniatures of the first half, yet both of the album's dimensions captivate. It would be difficult to imagine another artist's final work matching the sublimity of Budd's parting gesture; if Avalon Sutra is a valediction, it's clearly one of triumph, not defeat.

December 2004