Album Review: “An Idea of North/Learning to Walk” by Mark Harris (on n5MD)

I admit to not being overly familiar with long form pieces of ambient music, but I have to believe that “An Idea of North/Learning to Walk’ by UK sound artist Mark Harris would be considered one of the finer expressions of the genre.  It is an absorbing, immersive journey in sound that is full of depth and nuance and which can be enjoyed either with careful attention to all of its facets, or subconsciously as it connects to deeper senses of place and memory.

Not unlike preparing to watch a film, before one takes on tracks of this length, it is probably helpful to know something about both the artist and the piece both so you can get the most from the experience.  Via his n5MD artist profile, we learn that Mark usually works from heavily processed samples of live instruments and field recordings along with live synthesis in a unique generative process using his own custom developed software applications and real-time improvisation.

By Mark’s own account, the central piece, ‘An Idea of North’, flowed out seamlessly in one take initiated after an unusually heavy English snowfall during the Christmas period of 2010.  Then, Mark says, “As I usually work by a process of improvisation, and often use memories of environments / landscape as a starting point for a composition – I gradually began to think of creating a longer composition which would seamlessly merge pieces around the work I’ve just created, which would give the listener the impression of a journey through various environments / landscapes (both physical and emotional) gradually moving from the familiar to the more extreme / isolated and “darker” spaces and then gradually returning “home” at the end of the piece.”.

Indeed, the piece begins with familiar and calming sounds of rain, birdsong, and the Doppler effect of the occasional car coming and going over wet roadway.  This goes on long enough to immerse the listener in a sense of place before the synthesized sounds begin to gently assert themselves. Gradually, the rain falls harder and the music slowly begins to move front and center until it finally takes over completely and a sense of isolation is created, as if one is turning deeply inwards or retreating from the trappings of civilization.

About 12 minutes in, just as Mark description suggests would happen, the landscape changes.  We hear waves and the very distant droning of engines which create a sense of both seclusion and orientation to a new a place.  At this point we here one bright, chiming note, then another, then several more spaced unevenly apart to create a musical impression of the feeling of taking first steps and here the words in the title, “learning to walk”, suddenly seem to fit perfectly.  This sense of discovery and determined movement is a nice change and adds an element of brightness and optimism to the piece before the synthesized music begins a long, slow fade to sustain a feeling of calm reflection.

Besides the music and sculpted sounds themselves, the album is finely mastered and just sounds great coming through a pair of headphones, a quality which only enhances the journey.   If you appreciate long form works, you will not want to miss this.  If not, perhaps this would be a good one to get your feet wet with.  Either way, I recommend a listen with no reservations.   See below for links to the album and a Soundcloud preview:

Mark Harris on Vimeo (includes links to him on Soundcloud, Facebook, & Google+)

Album link on the n5MD web site

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