This Budd’s for You

OK. The night was Friday, July 9, 1982. I was administrative assistant for the New Music America festival in Chicago. I had a big argument with my then-girlfriend (whom I later married nevertheless) which turned out, surprisingly enough, to be all my fault. In a huff brought on by my inability to invent a benign rationale for my behavior convincing enough to satisfy even myself, I sulked out and vowed to walk from our apartment to the festival. As the distance was something under three miles, I had an hour to make it in, and it was a mild summer day, this was a less self-punishing exercise than it may sound. As I trudged up to Navy Pier, Harold Budd had just started playing the performance of his piece Children on the Hill that you can hear here. I stood in one of Navy Pier’s huge doorways simply transfixed. Rarely in my life have I heard another performance so lovely from beginning to end. Navy Pier is enormous, the crowd was huge and casual, and I have always been chagrined about the baby who wails like a banshee at many points during the recording. 

For many years I have toyed with the idea of transcribing this wonderful recording, but given the speed of Budd’s cascading arpeggios in the 13-minute middle section, I doubted the feasibility until digital software rendered it possible to slow it waaaaay down (sometimes to 1/5th-speed) without changing the pitch, EQ-ing it to bring out selective registers. It’s taken dozens of hours of ear-stretching work over the last two years, but I’ve done it, and the amazing Sarah Cahill will finally recreate this performance at Kansas City on Friday, Sept. 4, at the Second International Conference on Minimalist Music. It’s the most difficult musicological feat I’ve ever attempted. The Well-Tuned Piano was child’s play by comparison.

You may (and should) be familiar with the five-minute version of Children on the Hill on Budd’s 1981 recording The Serpent (in Quicksilver) on the Cantil label, rereleased in 1992 on All Saints. That version never changes key or tempo, nor deviates from a B-major scale. This version is recognizably similar in motive and atmosphere, but enormously more complex. The main motive on the Cantil version is B-D#-E; here it is inverted, D#-E-G#. The opening section is based in B major, but abruptly shifts to D, C, and C#. The rapturous middle section, a torrent of Budd’s trademark major-seventh chords, alternates at first between E and Db, but moves upward though D and Eb to an alternation of F and Gb before finally settling back to C# for the ending recapitulation. At no time does the key jump more than a minor third away. Interestingly, each key is associated with a particular textural configuration, so that every return of a key is also the return of a type of arpeggio and melody. Often transitions between keys are introduced by the right hand entering the new key first, so that the left hand resolves a poignant moment of bitonal dissonance. Budd says that he would sometimes use written-down motives on a scrap of paper as a guide, but that these notations are long gone. And, looking at my transcription, he wrote, “I couldn’t play that in a thousand years.”

Below I post my transcription of the segment from 10:30 to 11:32 on the recording. My rhythms are pretty conjectural, often simply an attempt to get all the notes in the right order. The fact that the piano is run through a harmonizer added to the difficulty. Sarah’s working hard, though, and practicing along with the recording to get the unnotatable nuances of rhythm and pacing. I am thrilled that I’m finally going to get to hear this music live again, and get a recording without the crying baby. That kid must be 27 now, and in Kansas City bouncers will be on the lookout for a suspicious 27-year-old.



Comments closed. I thought this Budd was for you, but I guess it was for someone else.



  1. Peter Lawless says

    As a former jazz major (at UMKC actually), I can say that many jazz musicians feel like books of transcriptions are a waste of time. That being said, though, most of them are obsessed with transcribing the masters themselves. I guess they feel like the books are cheating. For them, the benefit is not so much knowing what the master played, but it is the ear training that they gain from the exercise. Also, I think, because they don’t plan on actually performing them in public, a lot of jazz musicians don’t write down their transcriptions. As you’ve mentioned, it can be very hard to notate the complex rhythms, so they don’t take the time.

  2. Bob Gilmore says

    This extremely interesting subject has resonances in a lot of other music. In Irish traditional music, for example, and I imagine in many other kinds of traditional music, there is (perhaps contrary to common sense) no one, definitive, version of any tune. So there’s no such concept as the “real” tune from which any particular version is derived or “interpreted”. (“The same tune is never the same tune twice”, wrote Ciaran Carson; “there are as many ways to play Irish music as there are people to play it”, wrote Martin Hayes.) It’s fascinating how a figure like Budd (and others), coming out of a notated music background, nonetheless fit harmoniously into the practices of a quite different tradition. Maybe their work is (if anything) even closer to traditional musics than to jazz. And in Irish traditional music, song- or tunebooks, which of course always come after the fact, are generally respected but never confused with the actual music and never used prescriptively. It would be wonderful if pianists would take your fantastic transcription in the same spirit, Kyle.

  3. Luk Vaes says

    Kyle, to comment on your last question in the second post to this thread. (I am not sure it isn’t a rhetorical question.)
    When I sat in a class on music education, back when classical music and jazz were only very recently merged in one and the same conservatory, I discovered how my colleague students of the Jazz department were taught to improvise: transcribe the music from records that you like, practice the transcriptions and then search for your own sound. I was flabbergasted. In my own innocence (having been raised with nothing but composed music) I had the highest regard for those who did not need a score, for those who could make music ‘just’ by improvising. I had not imagined that they would have started in just the same way as the classically trained musicians and therefore would have needed the same kind of scores.
    These are the makings of yet another branch of historically informed performance practice: play it the way it was recorded.
    KG replies: Oh, it wasn’t rhetorical. I’m truly mystified. So much of the world’s great music is written-down music that was first improvised: examples by Bach, Beethoven, Chopin, Liszt. Ives’s Third Symphony is an orchestration of his organ improvisations that he wrote down. Tobias Picker’s Old and Lost Rivers was a piece he improvised at the piano, taped, transcribed, and orchestrated. I don’t understand what, after hundreds of years of doing this, is now suddenly sacrosanct about improvisation so that transcribing a really gorgeous one and playing it again breaks some horrible taboo.
    I understand that if you want to be a jazz musician, you can’t really claim to be one if you’re playing a copy of someone else’s solo. But I don’t understand that attitude bleeding into other areas of music where the premises are entirely different. I have no claim to be a jazz musician, neither does Sarah. Budd’s kind of on the line, but his compositions cannot be replicated by other interpreters using chord charts. Most of his compositions are simply compositions, some are scored, and it wouldn’t matter who played them. This is one of the few in which his performing chops come to the surface. Obviously I’m not ripping him off because I’m uncreative, I’m just trying to preserve some beautiful music that was only heard by a few people so many people can hear it, and I’ve been lectured by more than one person that I shouldn’t try, I should let it vanish into oblivion. Which strikes me as a horrible sacrifice to some dumb abstract principle.

  4. says

    “What disturbs me more is the kind of philosophical problem: These notes, when Budd plays them, are beautiful, but because he was improvising, they’re not beautiful when Sarah plays them?”
    I don’t think it’s quite as absurd as all that. There is something different about the experience of being present for an improvised performance, and that of being present for one that isn’t (or, I think, of listening to a recording of an improvisation); something about being there—present at the creation, as it were, but also the sense that what comes next is really unknown, potentially even to the performer. I think that really does change the tenor of the audience’s experience, even if what you hear is the same.
    Possibly an example: a few years ago I heard an improvisation by Kyle Bruckmann, Damon Smith, Joëlle Léandre, and Tatsuya Nakatani, playing oboe, double bass, double bass, and percussion, respectively. For one period Nakatani was bent over the side of his kit with his hands on and face very near a large gong, while one knee was agitating a floor tom on which several metal bowls were rocking back and forth. (The playing was soft enough that you could hear them moving on the drumhead.) At one point the two of the bowls hit each other, sending out a chime, at what seemed to be just the right moment, given what the other three had just played. Neither Nakatani nor the other three, I assume, knew that that was going to happen. But it was really immensely satisfying to me, partly because it seemed to be an unplanned but still really right occurrence. It would still sound good even if it had been planned! But I think it wouldn’t have been the same overall.
    None of that is to say that pooh-poohing Cahill’s performance makes sense, or that there’s no point in transcribing improvisations and performing them as-is or reworking them—I just think that “because he was improvising” sometimes is defensible as a component of explaining a particular aesthetic response.

  5. Paul H. Muller says

    It’s beautiful. Count me in with ‘the kid crying works’ – given the title it seems appropriate.
    What with the very fluid character of this piece I think it would be equally effective if played from a note-by-note transcription or from a series of improvisation templates guiding the performer.