A Problem of Identity

Part of the research I’m going to present at next September’s Minimalism Conference is a comparison of the recording and a performance of Harold Budd’s Children on a Hill, a piece for piano electronically modified by a harmonizer. Budd fans will remember the piece from a 1981 recording, The Serpent (in Quicksilver) – a Cantil vinyl disc, rereleased in 1992 on an All Saints CD. I’m comparing this with a tape of the performance Budd gave at New Music America in Chicago in 1982; I’ve transcribed one and am still working on the other. The piece was completely improvised; Harold (with whom I’ve been in contact) says he may have had a cheat sheet for performance at the time, but is “helpless” to give me any information now. 

Differences between the two versions are rather spectacular. The Cantil version is five minutes long, the NMA version 23 minutes. The Cantil version begins like this:


The live version begins like this:

Notice that the germinal motive of the recorded version is B-D#-E; that of the NMA version is D#-E-G#. The second motive is, of course, the inversion of the first. The Cantil version stays entirely within the B major scale, without a single accidental. The live version keeps shifting among major scales on B, D, and C#. In addition, the live version has a 12-minute middle section completely lacking in the recorded version, wildly rhapsodic with lots of arpeggios, and moving among major ninth chords on B, Db, D, Eb, E, F, and Gb, never jumping more than a minor third in root movement. This fast section is the hard part to transcribe, but I’m determined I can do it. The recorded version ends in G# natural minor, the live version in C#. On Cantil the lowest note is G# at the bottom of the bass clef, and the highest goes into the piano’s top octave. The live version descends to the lowest A# on the piano, but doesn’t venture as high.

In two diverse recordings of a jazz composition, we know what the identity of the piece consists of: the chord changes, perhaps a head melody. But in what does the identity of an improvised piece like Children on the Hill consist? The two versions have the following things in common: 1. Each begins and ends using a scale bounded by a B-major key signature. 2. Each revolves around a repeating motive of a major third adjacent to a half-step. 3. Each emphasizes repetitions on the F# and G# above middle C, with tonality directed to G# by an A#-B-G# motive. 4. Each climaxes melodically by leaping up to high D#s and G#s. 5. Each employs a consistent quarter-note and 8th-note momentum, except for the middle section of the live version, which is much freer. 6. Each employs different modes within the major scale by emphasizing certain drone notes: sometimes Aeolian, sometimes Lydian, sometimes Phrygian. And certain melodic motives recur in both renditions. Other than that, the identity of the piece can only be more felt than specified: a mood, a texture, an approach.

The recorded version has approximately the same weight, charm, and texture as Cage’s Dream or In a Landscape, and is worthy of them. The live version has all the gravity and formal ingenuity of a Beethoven sonata. I remember it was the first piece played at Navy Pier at the Chicago festival, and I (working as administrative assistant for the festival) arrived at the concert a couple of minutes late. I walked in, heard Budd playing, and stood in the doorway transfixed, as I’m still transfixed by the piece today. The texture looks a little thin on paper, but the harmonizer sustained all the piano tones and blurred them into a resonant wash. And in the fast arpeggio section, the music increasingly introduces melodies bitonally in the wrong key and resolves them by changing chord, a haunting effect. Budd was a tremendous influence on young West-Coast composers like Peter Garland and Michael Byron, and, through his recordings and from a greater distance, also on me. I hope this paper will demonstrate that the complexity and subtlety of not only his music, but his very conception of music, make him one of those minimalist composers who cannot possibly be shrugged off as simplistic. 



  1. Bob Gilmore says

    Great work, maestro.
    I love Harold Budd’s early 1980s output especially – a good time for him, with a body of music that is really haunting (a cliché, I know, but it seems the right word in his case) and quite unlike that of anybody else. Thank the Lord somebody is studying this music, it deserves it.

  2. Daniel Wolf says

    Perhaps the identity of this work lies less in the tonal materials than in the technical set-up, which would make it akin to the circuitry in a Mumma or Tudor piece, or, perhaps to the percussion set-ups used by Budd in his earlier career as virtuoso new music percussionist.
    I agree entirely on Budd’s importance and wish to note his connection to an earlier wave of west coast radical music, via Barney Childs, who was not only important to the Cold Blue circle but to his student Joseph Byrd.
    New Music in Southern California has suffered from some insularity connected to the great physical distances — the freeways are a fact of life, not a metaphor in LA — as well as to real historical discontinuities. We all know about pianist Richard Buhlig and tuning scholar/harpsichordist Wesley Kuhnle from their early connections to Cage and Cowell, and though they were a presence in Southern California for most of the 20th century, they were local and forgotten. The Monday Evening Concerts were important, for a time, as well, but perhaps most notable now for their exclusion of much of the most exciting local activity. There was a moment, for example, in the early 60s, in which the radical music in LA was a couple of grad students at USC (Budd and David Cope) and Barney Childs, then Dean of Deep Springs College, watching alfafa grow. That scene evaporated and a few years later, Leedy was struggling at UCLA, Lentz at Santa Barbara, and Oliveros at UCSD to get some movement, with only Oliveros able to establish a presence. Things then quieted down again until CalArts opened, with Budd and Subotnick and Tenney, it happened in some uproar, but building the campus so far out of the city center ultimately created its own isolation, ending only recently with Redcat downtown.

  3. mclaren says

    This is one of the serious problems with new music. “A tape Harold Budd gave you…” Wouldn’t it be nice if that live performance was actually released on CD, and someone else could hear it?
    There is no reason nowadays, no reason at all not to release this stuff in some form. If not on CD, then as an MP3 download. If not in an MP3 download, then something else…anything. This idea that major composers should withhold important work and not release it… It’s just nuts. It’s crazy, crazy, crazy.
    Wolf claims There was a moment, for example, in the early 60s, in which the radical music in LA was a couple of grad students at USC (Budd and David Cope) and Barney Childs, then Dean of Deep Springs College, watching alfafa grow.
    We must of course ignore the existence of Ivor Darreg in Los Angeles in the early 60s, composing in a wide variety of equal divisions of the octave from 13 equal, 14 equal, 15 equal, 16 equal, 17 equal, 18 equal, 19 equal, 20 equal, 21 equal, 22 equal, 23 equal and 24 equal as well as a wide variety of just intonation tunings on his home-built Elastic Tuning Organ, on his tubulongs (13 equal, 14, 15, 17, 19, 22 and 53) and on his refretted acoustic and electric guitars (14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 24 and 31 for the acoustics, 17 and 19 and 31 on the electrics). As we all know, that’s not “radical music.”
    And of course we must ignore Erv Wilson with his 31 equal and 41 equal guitars and his JI tubulongs and his 31 equal glass marimba. Naturally, this is not “radical music” either.
    And of course we must ignore Kraig Grady…and so on.
    The only reason new music in HelL.A. “suffers” seems to be the highly selective memory of characters like Wolf.
    KG replies: Well, it’s not a tape Harold gave me, it’s one that an organization I worked for recorded and that I’ve had for 27 years, and it was rendered unusable by a baby who wailed like a siren through almost the entire concert. My transcription, made with the idea of Sarah Cahill performing it, is an attempt to save it for posterity, and something I couldn’t have attempted before the digital technology of the last few years. I’m rushing this wonderful performance into the public ear as fast as I feasibly could have. But you’re right, it’s a shame how much fantastic, even famous, music is hidden away in tape archives. The only body of work I have total control over, my own, I put as much of on my web site as anyone could possibly be interested in.

  4. kraig Grady says

    funny, I have never thought of the west coast as insular. It always seemed the other way around. It was New York which always seemed insular. The west knew what was going on back east. The east would always take a fews years to catch up.
    Now there are so many easterner there, the distinction is null at this point

  5. Rod Jones says

    FWIW I think there’s a (very) short extract of the NMA version of Children on the Hill on a documentary tape that Wim Mertens made of the festival called Chicago ’82: A Dip in the Lake that was released on the Belgian Disques du Crepescule label in about 1983. As far as I know the tape has never been re-issued as a CD but I think a quick Google will throw up more than one bootleg mp3 version. I don’t think it’s necessarily worth tracking down the tape for this track because, as I remember, the extract is less than a couple of minutes long but maybe it points to the existence of another tape of the same performance; perhaps one that was recorded further away from the baby!
    KG replies: I’m astonished that Mertens made a documentary and I never heard about it.

  6. says

    There is also a version of it on the Les Disques Du Crepuscle compilation “From Brussels With Love”. I believe the “a dip in the lake” tape also contains excerpts of interviews conducted by Mertens at the NMA conference.
    KG replies: Thanks. It would be nice to compare as many versions as I can get, or as time allows, anyway.

  7. Joseph L. says

    From memory, the Wim Mertens tape featured an extract from an interview with Budd, superimposed on a fragment of Budd playing the piece.
    That tape packed a lot into its short length.

  8. Joseph L. says

    The only reason new music in HelL.A. “suffers” seems to be the highly selective memory of characters like Wolf.
    Somebody needs to write the definitive history of California new music, say from the 20s to the 80s.

  9. Gabor Bernath says

    I don’t understand mclaren’s complaints about Daniel Wolf’s remarks. Daniel was, along with Kraig Grady, a student of Erv Wilson and a friend of Darreg’s, and has always promoted their work, for example with his students (like me) in Hungary and Germany.
    KG replies: You know, I think if you’re from California and everyone’s ignoring your music, there’s a simple reason – you’re out in California! But if you’re in New York like me, and everyone’s ignoring your music – who knows why? Must not be any good.

  10. Kyle Gann says

    I finally received the “From Brussels with Love” disc. The version of Children on the Hill is the same one as on Cantil.