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Mark Harris: An Idea of north / Learning to walk

img  Tobias Fischer

Is art always artifice - a world onto its own, leading inward, into the imagination – or does it derive its peculiar fascination and function through, as poet Wallace Stevens once put it, "its contact with reality as it impinges us from the outside, the sense that we can touch and feel a solid reality which does not wholly dissolve itself into the conceptions of our own mind"? While rock and pop, in their affirmation of the surficial, appear to suggest the latter, the oeuvre of Birmingham-based sound artist Mark Harris intriguingly allows for the possibility that it could be both. Making extensive use of generative technology as a tool for realising his ideal of slow, incremental transformations, and working with self-programmed software environments his music, at a first glance, appears to be obsessed with process. Undeniably, part of its allure does stem from the meticulous, supernatural grace of the resulting arrangements, from the unfolding of a wondrous narrative with a poetic vocabulary outside the boundaries delineated by human language. And yet, it never makes the technology underpinning these structures its actual topic. Rather, it serves as a portal from the "factual" to the "fantastical", a bridge leading straight into Harris's mind, where a mere "idea of North" can turn into something as solid and real as a solitary walk through a snow-draped garden.

And into something equally breath-taking to boot: The first two minutes of Harris's second full-length alone are of a mesmerising intensity, a pristine panorama of bird song, beckoning drones and a soft rainshower gradually emerging from silence like the picture an old TV booting up from complete blackness and grainy images to full resolution. Is one is slipping slowly into a bewildering dream at night or waking up from one in the morning? Alluringly, as these two layers of perception become permeable and interchangeable, there is no longer a definitive answer to that question – in its entire construction and development, An Idea of North is more real than reality, more dreamy than a dream: Everything here is built like a circular Gaussian bell curve, the music building towards discrete climaxes and then returning precisely to the point whence it came from, like a hot air balloon floating endlessly along the equator in an infinite loop. And so the nineteen-minute title track constitutes, on the one hand, a natural pinnacle of the record's development from quietude to a peacefully glowing, dense continuum of shimmering, icicle-like bell sounds, angelic whistles and tender melodic pulsations; and, on the other, as a miniature-version, a hallucinatory condensation so to speak, of the album as a whole.

It is an impression corroborated by the background information that Harris began work on An Idea of North precisely with this piece, using it as a point of departure and finishing the album by concentrically adding corresponding compositions from the center outward. As a result, the album's architecture reminds one of fractal structures, of complex, infinitely deep forms built from a single basic shape. The fascination of these structures, when applied to the world of music is that they emphasise the spatial characteristics of music to a degree where it suddenly becomes tangible: This isn't music describing a landscape or recounting an imaginary journey through a landscape – it is music as a landscape. The anecdote on the album's genesis, which may seem clichéd but is actually vital to recount here in bid of understanding its approach, is that Harris found himself snowed-in and cut off from civilisation and put the situation to good use by working on new material in the studio. Certainly, the simple equation that isolationism by default lead to isolationist music would be wrong – surely, he could just as well have produced a triumphant marching tune or a garish dubstep track. The point, however, is that he let the moment and the mood contained within it guide him, transcribing it into sound in an instantaneous, immediate and improvisatory process. As a result, one can literally sense oneself, on listening to An Idea of North, not just in the solitude of the studio with him on the day the music was written, but also immediately grasp the fantastical flowers growing from ideas into images in that very instant.

Or, as composer George Rocheberg described it in the essay "Fiddlers and Fribbler“, when discussing the question of whether art was a separate world into itself or a commentary on the solid reality described by Wallace in the first paragraph, "there is only the 'appearance' of an outside and an inside. What truly exists is a vast unity; and it is in this universal continuum … that man expresses himself … All separations of Self and World, body and mind (or consciousness) turn out to be distortions of view, expressions of self-defeating and self-imposed limitations … However distant man may be from the source of his creation, that source is built into him." On An Idea of North, meanwhile, Harris seems to be standing right next to it. The album stretches from the outskirts of his personal fantasy to the all-encompassing galaxy of universals, from the lands of the imaginary to the realms of the so-called objective and factual, from the temporal to the spatial and back again. It is never quite there, always becoming, forever growing towards an uncertain destination which is why, on a work filled with gorgeous, precisely realised ambient soundscapes, these individual compositions are all but meaningless in the greater scheme of things. The concluding track is here is called "towards an ending and reprise" - but, of course, there is no real end and, like a good book, the experience lives on inside one's mind after one has put it down.

Roughly five minutes of the album are taken up by the opening fade-in and the final fade-out, and its last minute consists of nothing but complete silence. It is only in the seemingly unreal conceptions of our own minds that  something as quiet and fragile as this could sound this momentous.

By Tobias Fischer

Homepage: Mark Harris
Homepage: n5MD Records

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