Brian Eno thought of his ambient music as “wallpaper.” Harold Budd thinks of it more like architecture. His first album was called The Pavilion of Dreams, and its glissandos of harp and electric piano arched and vaulted like the ribs of some great cathedral. 2000’s The Room is the culmination of his desire to conjure space out of thin air. Here are 13 interlinked “rooms” with no purpose and nothing in them beyond what the music lets you imagine. Like an installation, they’re meant to be wandered through in awe, and anyone with a lust for exploring, whose favorite thing about Harry Potter was the secret corridors and who gets a little thrill every time a bookcase slides away to reveal the door to a dungeon, will be at home.

The arrangements on The Room are sparse. Much of it is devoted to solo piano, which on “The Room of Accidental Geometry” is joined by a flanged, gently scraped electric guitar. “The Room of Stairs” buzzes with distant bells, like dust particles penetrated by a shaft of light. Yet somehow, we’re not thinking about the individual instruments, much in the way that when we enter a church or a mosque we’re not thinking about the wood and bricks and beams that went into its walls but about the presence that seems to radiate in the space between them. Budd is an admirer of minimalists like Mark Rothko and understands better than anyone how a great work of art can be greater than the sum of its parts, how a piano can be more than just a piano.

Harold Budd’s most endearing quirk is how he underlines his chord changes with snaky little chromatic phrases. Listen on “The Room of Ancillary Dreams” how the first two chords give it lift before the third chord falls with the weight of a star plummeting to earth, accompanied by just enough pedal steel to make it sound like a ghost has entered the room. On “The Room of Oracles,” the chords seem hesitant to change, the piano circling endlessly as if trapped in a never-ending snake game. The Room moves slowly and tentatively, rarely straying outside the minor key, like approximating the slow pace at which one would walk through a gallery or a church.

There’s awe, but—except for an alarm-like bell on the masterful seven-minute centerpiece “The Room of Mirrors”—there’s not much tension. Budd has never been concerned with seeming cool or cutting-edge, describing his early music as “mindless, shallow, and utterly devastating.” It’s the prickliness of Budd’s playing and the eccentricity of the sounds he chooses, like the piano on “The Room Obscured” that sounds like it’s being squeezed through a tube, that keep his music from venturing into the more vapid corners of new age. Pitchfork’s called him the “thinking man’s George Winston,” though perhaps a more accurate way to put it is that he’s George Winston if his goal was give you goosebumps rather than lull you into a place of peace.

The Room, Budd’s only album for Atlantic, represents a new beginning for his career—though he’s threatened to make every ensuing album his last. Avalon Sutra from 2004 and the wonderful piano improvisation Perhaps from 2007 exist in the top tier of Budd’s work, while 2011’s In the Mist presents his music in a pleasingly spartan context; that’s not to mention two great albums with Robin Guthrie. Budd is 84 years old and mostly keeps quiet these days, intermittently working on soundtracks and collaborations from his Joshua Tree home. “I don’t mind disappearing,” Budd’s said about his decision to “retire,” but it’s kind of scary to know one of the greatest minds in ambient music is still smoldering deep in the desert.

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