After nearly three decades of recording, pianist and composer Harold Budd is calling it quits, explaining he has said all he wants to and does not mind disappearing. If this indeed turns out to be the case, Avalon Sutra proves that Budd has saved the very best for last. Budd has walked the no man's land ground between minimalism and ambient music and forged his own territory. And while the former is his pedigree, he sounds like none of his peers. His pieces are composed and open-ended; they have never been based on a "system," and they are usually delicate, impressionistic, and, more often than not, mysterious and melodic. His sense of dynamic is restrained and his economical use of silence has always been masterful, whether on early works such as The Pavilion of Dreams, his middle-period albums such as The Plateaux of Mirror and The Pearl with Brian Eno, or his more structured works like The White Arcades with Robin Guthrie, By the Dawn's Early Light, and The Room. Always, his elliptical piano sets the course, following various muses through a gauzy labyrinth and conveying great poetry, emotion, and spirituality -- without ever becoming excessive or overly sentimental. The 14 tracks on Avalon Sutra are elegant, contemplative (not speculative), and poignant; the grace and tenderness that they impart so readily are tempered with emotional depth and dimension by notions of memory, loss, and even grief.
The three "Arabesque" pieces here -- in reverse numerical order -- feature Budd's piano, whispering softly and purposefully over a delicate wash of electronics, contrasted sharply by Jon Gibson's nearly insistent soprano saxophone lines (sopranino on "Arabesque 3") through the center. Elsewhere, Budd employs strings and electronic drones on four titles, including the ever-so-brief "It's Steeper Near the Roses," written for David Sylvian. There are also four solo titles that are layered in a very stark painterly way with other gauzy sonic elements. "In Little Heart"'s wispy electronic chords provide a backdrop for Budd's slippery skeletal melody that is accented and underscored by small chimes that seem to come from the ether. On "A Walk in the Park With Nancy," Budd quotes liberally from the melody of "O Come, O Come Emmanuel" on his acoustic piano as a Rhodes filtered through with unobtrusive echo adds a simple repetitive ballast. Gibson plays a skeletal bass flute in duet on "How Vacantly You Stare at Me," and "Porcelain Ginger," a solo work, is one of Budd's most engaging and elliptical compositions in ages. "As Long As I Can Hold My Breath," the set's final cut, is given a 70-plus minute remix treatment by electronic composer Akira Rabelais on disc two with additional production from Sylvian. Here, the theme from the original track is cut into a compelling, artfully rendered whole, with string loops, meandering piano that drifts in and out of the mix -- yet appears at all the right moments to add poignancy and dimension -- and a gentle wash of noise. It is utterly hypnotic and engaging throughout its long duration. Budd may not have been the most prolific composer or recording artist, but his consistency was remarkable and his economy of musical language always pointed to more just beyond the veil of sound. He will be missed.