Deep Ambient With Daniel is a new column where Daniel Bromfield, Pretty Much Amazing writer and former host of Deep Ambient Hour With Daniel on 88.1 KWVA, discusses the ambient treasures he loves, lives with, and falls asleep to.
“This is only pretty. Don't look for any meaning.”
Harold Budd would like you to know this going into his 1978 album The Pavilion of Dreams, one of the jewels of the early, Eno-centric ambient era. Perhaps this is prudent. But it’s worth discussing how The Pavilion of Dreams creates the illusion of meaning.
The album is best understood as a place; the title makes that clear. This is one of the most architectural of all ambient records, its dramatic crescendos vaulting up to heaven like the ribs of a great Gothic cathedral. The use of the Arabic praise “Bismillahi ‘Rrahmani ‘Rrahim” (in the name of God, the most gracious, the most merciful) in the title of the opening track suggests we’re meant to think of The Pavilion of Dreams as a non-denominational sacred space, like the Chapel by Budd’s good buddy Mark Rothko.
A chapel (typically) has no meaning in itself. It’s a building; the meaning comes from on high. But even a non-Christian can feel a sense of awe from stepping into one. That’s by design: we’re meant to feel humble, the church as a surrogate for the size and power of God. This is true of most places of worship. I remember as a kid going to Temple Emanu-El and thinking the musty smell of the rugs was the smell of God. It was only much later that I found the Hebrew word shekhinah, the “settling” of divine presence.
The Pavilion of Dreams imparts that same feeling, in part from familiar cues like the choir-voice on “Let Us Go Into the House of the Lord” and “Madrigals of the Rose Angel” and in part from more abstract ones, like the sheer scope of these pieces (“Madrigals” stretches to 15 minutes, “Bismillahi” over 18) and their cathedral-like construction. Budd, a consistently humble and self-deprecating composer, would probably see this as reading too much into his art. But The Pavilion of Dreams didn’t come out of a vacuum.
While working on their album Through the Hill, Budd and XTC’s Andy Partridge would fax each other titles. One was “Ceramic Avenue”. “I have no idea what it means,” jokes Budd. It’s still a nice image. I wonder if Budd scrawled down the titles for Pavilion in an Abrahamic state of mind, then used them as a reference for the music. The first track he composed for the record was “Madrigals of the Rose Angel”, written in 1972. Did he listen to the song and decided it sounded like a rose angel? Did the name flash through his head before he’d written a note? Either way, there’s no Rose Angel in scripture.
Pavilion lives and dies with its aesthetic, whose operative word is “holy.” It’s one of the first ambient albums to take an approach—inputs first, music later—that’s become so common in the Tumblr age, where artists stress aesthetics as much as music to the point that the two become interchangeable. For this reason it will probably appeal more to a contemporary audience who might find other early ambient works like Eno’s Ambient series (to the second of which Budd made major contributions) uninspiring.
A lot art with a strong emphasis on aesthetic tends to be subjective, because audiences are predispositioned towards certain cues than others. I suspect part of the reason I’ve never fully grasped the work of Tim Hecker is that his music is inextricably tied to the church; it’s often made on organs and recorded in those desanctified churches of which the indie world is in no short supply. As a Jew, churches mean nothing to me; someone with childhood memories of gazing up at stained glass as organs filled the room during Sunday services might find a deeper personal connection with Hecker’s music.
Pavilion is broad rather than specific. While the use of the Arabic in “Bismillahi” might be simple appropriation, perhaps it’s a cue that if you’re a Muslim you can find as much here to enjoy as a Jew or Christian who recognizes “Let Us Go Into The House Of The Lord” from Psalms. I can’t speak for any faith other than my own, but anyone can understand the way art can dwarf us, the way it can make us feel humble. Churches, synagogues, mosques, stupas, they all do that—and so does Pavilion of Dreams.