Readers of critic-composer Kyle Gann‘s PostClassic blog at artsjournal.com/postclassic have been treated this year to occasional comments on his part about his various efforts in transcription — taking existing recordings, and converting them into staves on the page, and notes on the stave. (And, if not literally the page, then a computerized equivalent.) Gann describes the practice as a kind of fool-hearty obsession, and as an instructive tool: learning by diving deep into the work of composers he admires.
When he completed a transcription of the piano improvisation “Children on the Hill” by Harold Budd — heard on the Budd album The Serpent (In Quicksilver) — and showed the score to Budd, he says Budd replied, “I couldn’t play that in a thousand years.” Fortunately for us, the accomplished pianist Sarah Cahill accepted the challenge, and performed Gann’s version last month at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, which was hosting the Second International Conference on Minimalist Music.
In Cahill’s playing, this is an intricately minimalist work, simple patterns repeating to maximum and sustained effect. Gann’s source material is not the Serpent album version, but a live performance by Budd at New Music America in 1982. (The Serpent version is about five minutes long; this transcription is about five times that. He’s written about the differences in the versions at artsjournal.com/postclassic.)
Of course, Budd is as much an innovator in sound as he is in composition, as exemplified by his work with Brian Eno and the Cocteau Twins. The resulting file from the Minimalist Music conference has something akin to the milky lushness that listeners have come to associate with a proper Budd recording — perhaps due to the relatively low fidelity of the recording and of MP3 compression.