When someone reaches for a piece of ambient music, they’re typically looking for a tranquil and subtle listening experience that won’t disrupt their state of mind. Inspired by the transcendent sculptures of the Dia:Beacon museum and working alongside Nicolas Jaar in Darkside, Dave Harrington strives to break that comfortable barrier and create structures that bring listeners into a new world. One track can narrate every step you take, and Harrington wants to make each step more interesting than the last.
In this sense, Harrington’s debut solo EP, Before This There Was One Heart But a Thousand Thoughts, seems aptly titled, ready to put his musical psyche to the test. The talented multi-instrumentalist covers an array of moods over the EP’s two tracks, ranging from the imagined haunting drips from an abandoned subway to a lone standup bass improvising under the spotlight.
In anticipation of the EP’s official release, Harrington sat down with Consequence of Sound to chat about his thoughts on improvisation, latest artistic influences, and determination to orchestrate personal music.
Hey! How are you?
I’m great! I’m having an off-day. I’ve only been home for a week and a half, so I’m just staying out of the rain, practicing, and playing a couple of DJ gigs around the city. It’s nice to be back home again.
So, where did this collection of songs come from? What were you inspired by while writing this music?
I composed this collection of ideas whenever I found free time after finishing the Darkside record. It was just stuff that I had, and I didn’t know where it was going, but I still found it interesting and worth expanding. After having a nice amount of material, I began stringing them together, and sat down with Nico [Jaar], and he inspired me to organize them into an EP. When I started finalizing everything and bringing it all together, I was really influenced by ’70s/’80s-era ECM records, music that blurs the line between jazz, fusion, and experimental music.
At another point, I saw a Robert Wilson production, an experimental theater show at The Armory, which really made me conscious about everything that goes into experimental music. The pacing and interaction with the audience is what is going to make your message most clear and understandable.
In terms of other media, I took a trip to the Dia: Beacon, a beautiful museum in the Hudson Valley, last November, which is filled with some of my favorite artwork, from the ’60s until the present. Much of it is seemingly simple, but conceptually complex sculpture work from artists like Richard Serra, Dan Flavin, and Sol Lewitt. That era of conceptual sculpture really spoke to me because they’re quite astral and complex. They create such an atmosphere when you walk inside them, even though they are so simple, and give you an opportunity to walk around inside them.
I thought of something similar while listening to “One-All”, the first track of the EP. All of the layers bleed into each other and create a lot of suspense, especially when that lone standup bass is introduced. Even though it’s a drastic change from the opening minutes of guitar harmonics, you make it sound easy and natural.
I like to be in tune with the aspect of adventure in music. I study film and am deeply influenced by many great composers from film. Sometimes they follow the narratives, but others bring a new experience to the table. I attempt to transfer that same effect into my music, where you can follow a sequence, like chasing the mind’s image through sound.
In making sense of it all, it’s all about pacing. Even though it’s not present here, the EP was probably influenced by pop music, in the vaguest sense of the word, whether it’s from my other projects or what I listen to while making coffee. When I’m left to my own devices, I think that there is some kind of crossover of that. I’m interested in what you can do with instrumental music, and bringing pop into the equation only makes it more intriguing.
How has your solo work differed from your material with Darkside?
It has been an interesting experiment, especially because I am a perpetual tweaker and perfectionist. There are bands where we have recorded albums and stopped 3/4 through because I felt like we needed to start again, and that can get frustrating after a while. So, following through with more restrained ideas was one of the most difficult challenges of this process. Compared to working with Nico, the chemistry between two people in a room isn’t there. When we recorded Psychic, many of the layers were up for grabs and interchangeable, aside from the strings and some percussion. Here, I figure everything out on my own. The EP represents me alone in my house and maybe a studio or two.
Since you worked from home, did your comfort level play a role in the recording process? Was that a conscious decision?
In hindsight, the music came about very naturally, so I didn’t really focus on the “where” of the recording process. Whenever I thought of an idea, I set up shop and went for it. Other times, I’ve lost some cool ideas from being too lazy to move the mics and my computer to the other side of the house. Now, they’re gone forever [laughs]. It was all a matter of what felt best at the time. On the timeline of a parallel universe, I could have recorded the track to my next EP while practicing this morning.
Finding some level of comfort definitely benefited me, though. For example, there aren’t too many people around my studio in the Hudson Valley, which is a barn at my mom’s house. A friend and I recorded all of the percussion there without a worry in the world and banged away for hours.
Was a majority of your EP improvised, or was the structure all planned out?
The sonic DNA of the EP is improvised, while arranging everything was more of an afterthought. Like I said, I would just record spontaneously and rearrange, edit, and work on top of them later. One of the mantras I’ve developed with Nico is that the first idea is the best idea, so we would just plug in, press record, and hope for the best. When we were performing live, the riskiest but also largest takeaways came from feeding off the crowd’s chemistry, where we were required to listen, react, and execute.
Finding that same feeling by myself was daunting, but provided similar results. I’m interested in the mind of improvisation with a knack for structure and composition. There are opportunities that call for linear, free improvisation, and I love that, but you still have your set of constraints, like your tuning or tempo. Structure isn’t normally in that mix, especially with free jazz, so it was interesting to blend those ideologies.
How would you describe your state of mind while you were recording, and what mood do you hope your listeners will take away?
I was always in the mood for discovery, which helped in not putting too much pressure on what I was doing. There were times where I would record things and revisit them months later and finally find a home for them, and that was exciting and enlightening. Being at home while recording only made it more open and inspiring, since I was around my favorite books and records. There wasn’t any pressure here, and they really advanced the wholeness of the final product. This is personal music, which is why I put my name on it.
Listening, in general, is the greatest takeaway. You can ask people to listen, but you can’t tell people to like what you do. If they decide to listen, that makes me very happy and humbled. I like music that I can claim for myself and integrate into my life, whether it’s just my morning or subway album. I’m not sure that this EP will resonate with anyone in that way, but if so, all the better.