Various Artists - Lost in the Humming Air [Oktaf - 2012]Harold Budd supposedly retired in 2005. His farewell performance was a lavish event held on a beautifully balmy day in Brighton England. As it transpired Harold wasn’t yet ready to close the piano lid on his forty plus year career, and since then has produced over half a dozen releases, including three volume collaborations with both Robin Guthrie and Clive Wright. His influence on what came to be known broadly as ambient music is well known. Few musicians working in electronic music will be untouched by his work, either through his own huge back catalogue or via the numerous collaborators (most notably Brian Eno) who have taken his minimal aesthetic into every corner of contemporary composition. To my mind the pieces on his first ‘proper’ album The Pavilion of Dreams - recorded in the early 1970s - still stand as some of finest modern composition ever committed to tape. It’s somewhat surprising then given all this that Lost in the Humming Air is the first tribute album dedicated to the master of the minimal that I’ve ever encountered.
The musicians involved represent a fairly narrow cross section of modern electronic music, mostly those circulating around the Type, Touch and 12K labels. Perhaps unsurprisingly then all the contributors emphasise the soundscape and drone aspect of Budd’s oeuvre rather than the sparse solo piano or chamber works. Deaf Center’s Plateaux opens the set with their characteristic mix of reverb drenched melodrama and Nordic valley darkness. Erik K Skodvin’s bowed strings seep out between murky piano refrains and plucked guitar strings. It’s perhaps exactly how you’d imagine Budd’s music to sound if he had grown up in Oslo rather than the Mojave desert. Loscil continues where the Norwegians left off, layering minor chords over looped scales while some nice organ like synth swells are applied liberally.
John Xela, head honcho at the aforementioned Type records makes a rare compilation appearance on a track affectionately titled The Only Rose. Perhaps a reference to Madrigals of the Rose Angel, one of Budd’s most enduring early compositions originally scored for harp, electric piano, celeste, percussion and chorus. Xela highlights the fact that this is a compilation of music inspired by Budd rather than covers of his work by applying his own distinctive treatment to Budd like atmospherics. Small repetitive pieces of half heard melody glide through a low throbbing drone before being submerged beneath. As the low end is turned up a simple oscillating synth rises above the haze to be left twinkling as the drone begins to recedes.
Not every tracks has a distinctive flavour; the efforts of Marsen Jules and Andrew Thomas are difficult to distinguish from the legions of ambient and shoegaze producers releasing consistently competent but less than memorable music. Perhaps this is part of the problem with doing a Budd tribute album; his music is so finely balanced between the spectral and incidental, and yet as listeners recognise is also thoroughly distinctive, it thus becomes very difficult to produce a homage without falling into cliché or mere plagiarism.
Taylor Deupree’s piece is another standout, taking bells and subtle harmonic textures to recall some of Budd’s finest work on The Room. Some barely audible field recordings may also be present amid the complex rising and falling of layers, all worked together by a producer who‘s quality and range sometimes draws comparison with Budd himself. Rafael Anton Irisarri and Porn Sword Tobacco’s efforts deserve a mention; the former for a superb marriage of his distinctive shoegaze minimal electronic style with Buddesque piano work. This style is perhaps a natural fit for Irisarri given his majestic reinterpretation of Arvo Part’s Fur Alina a couple of years back. Porn Sword Tobacco (still one of the worst names in electronic music) falls into the indistinguishable synth miasma category and offers probably the most generic of the pieces here.
In all the record is a success and a long overdue tribute to a composer whose influence while everyone acknowledges is seldom openly praised. It would perhaps benefit from a few pieces covering Budd’s string and chamber work but that’s a minor gripe. It seems given his recent output that the man himself wont be passing on the mantle quite yet, but given the array of talent on display here his legacy will undoubtedly be well preserved.Duncan Simpson