Mark Harris: An Idea of North / Learning to Walk

That Mark Harris's An Idea of North / Learning to Walk emerges out of a thick blanket of rain drizzle and other outdoor sounds (e.g., traffic roar, bird chirps) says much about the electroacoustic musician's approach to sound design, as does the fact that he brings to the recording process a visual arts background. Scenic and evocative by design, the forty-four-minute recording creates the impression of a travelogue in moving the listener unhurriedly from one environment to another. Five separately indexed tracks are given individual titles, but the recording plays as a single, uninterrupted piece—a structural detail that makes the experience of listening to the album all the more immersive.

It's not a purely field recordings-based recording, however. Though “Softly Lies Sleeping” does begin with the aforementioned outdoor sounds, it also contains a carefully calibrated stream of shimmering tones and washes, while “In Slow Motion She Falls” deepens the mood of entrancement via its own set of glistening symphonic tones. Like many a contemporary electronic producer, Harris works with custom software applications and live synthesis as well as heavily processed samples of live instruments and field recordings.

The title track is the centerpiece, not just literally but also figuratively in being almost three times the length of the next-longest track. Here and elsewhere, Harris strikes a careful balance between musical elements—predominantly shimmering string tones, though in this setting they're augmented by the sparkle of ruminative keyboard playing—and real-world sounds, such as the crash of seashore waves, that lend the abstract musical materials a sense of context. Incredibly, the track was created in a single take when Harris, finding himself isolated in his home studio during the Christmas period of 2010 due to heavy snowfall, sat down and simply began playing, with the recording equipment luckily turned on. What's perhaps most remarkable about the central section is how successfully Harris sustains the piece's meditative mood for the full measure of its nearly twenty-minute running time whilst also retaining a receptivity to wherever the improvisational impulse might lead.

There's a sense in which the album comes full circle, with the opening two pieces mirrored by the closing two and all four dwarfed by the epic scale of the central setting (that such a structural design exists is also suggested by the title of the closing track, “Towards an Ending and Reprise”). One comes away from the recording feeling as if a journey has been undertaken and that the reward for having met the challenge and survived the adventure is the solace provided by the return home. In the final analysis, An Idea of North / Learning to Walk impresses as a thoroughly well-crafted and well-executed work by Harris, who previously issued the 2010 full-length The Boy Observes the Ocean on the always excellent Hibernate label.

February 2012