For many of us, a morning yoga practice or an evening walk clears the mind, calms the nerves, drops the blood pressure, and maybe creates a spark of inspiration. But for 2019 Pulitzer Prize-winning composer and sound artist Ellen Reid, a jog around Prospect Park in Brooklyn a few years ago led to the “Soundwalk“ series, a site-specific sound and public art installation. This sonic landscape experience is coming to Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts this summer, beginning at dawn on April 6, when the park opens to the public.
“I just felt a deep connection to my route, and I thought about the overlaying of experiences that happen in public parks,” Reid explained from Los Angeles via Zoom as she sat outside a friend’s music studio. She developed “Soundwalk,” a kinesthetic and aural experience, thinking through movement, geography, and composition theory to capture the sonic contours of the landscape.
“Soundwalk” was first designed for Central Park with music performed by the New York Philharmonic and the Soundwalk Ensemble. After the September 2019 success of the project, she rearranged the composition for the vastly different landscape of hilly Griffith Park in L.A. “Soundwalk” has since been adapted for public parks in Saratoga Springs, NY; Philadelphia, PA; Virginia Beach, Norfolk, and Vienna, VA; and Jackson, OR.
“Every space we install ‘Soundwalk’ in begs for a different treatment of sound, such different resonances in those spaces. The parks have their own rhythms.”
Co-commissioned by the Wolf Trap Foundation for the Performing Arts, “Soundwalk” will harmonize with the park’s soft meadow, gently rising hills, trails through woods, a small pond, and Wolf Trap Creek coursing through the center of the park.
“The different parks have different sounds attached to them. Central Park has a lake and all these ponds, so the water has a theme,” Reid explains. “At Wolf Trap, there’s a creek that runs through it. As you walk closer to the creek these tremolo strings echo the sound of the creek, and the mood and energy that the creek creates.”
To capture the rhythms of Wolf Trap, Reid had an “onsite avatar” walk through the space using FaceTime so that Reid could see the physical features of the park. The avatar also pointed out sites of cultural or historical significance.
“I also go to each location to experience it myself,” Reid continues. “When I write the different themes in my studio, I would think they were the right tempo but they are always too fast.” Reid will walk the trails of Wolf Trap to test the app and the soundscape in early April.
“For each new landscape I draw a really involved map that uses color and I write text over it. That’s my starting place,” Reid explains. “I have to think how someone will move through a space, to make a sonic experience that feels cathartic. I have to think about all these interacting modules that we don’t have to for a regular musical composition…I bring the physicality into the work because the listener walks and moves with the music.”
Soundwalk is kinesthetic in composition, in theory and in praxis.
When you open the downloaded Ellen Reid Soundwalk app and begin walking, the soundtrack alters with your direction, and the music may become more jazzy, upbeat, softer, sparse or layered depending on where in the park you decide to walk, creating a leitmotif focused on the particulars of this park.
The sounds of nature: birdsong, leaves crackling underfoot, a babbling brook, the susurrus of wind rushing through grass — as well as your own contributions of footsteps, breath, heartbeat — all add to the symphonic experience.
“Someone wrote me on Instagram that a squirrel scurried right when a flute entered, so that became the squirrel’s theme. We can ascribe meaning through that collaboration with nature.”
Supported in part by the UK’s Wellcome program, which addresses mental health and wellbeing through the arts and science, Reid believes that walking in nature is always a healing process, but even more so when accompanied by the Soundwalk Ensemble comprised of “the best freelance musicians from coast to coast.” She explains, too, how much more important this is after the stresses of the pandemic, isolation, and loss of the last year.
“One of the things that really got us going on ‘Soundwalk’ was mental health, the peace of mind of being in nature.”
She also promises some surprises while you walk and listen, too.
“We’ve hidden some ‘easter eggs’ in unusual places, but you have to go there to find that out.”
“Soundwalk” opens at dawn Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts on Tuesday, April 6 and runs through September 6. Free to attend. Download the Ellen Reid Soundwalk app here. To learn more about Reid and “Soundwalk,” visit www.ellenreidsoundwalk.com and follow @ellenreidsoundwalk on Instagram.
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