Ellen Reid’s Immersive SOUNDWALK Premieres in Central Park

Central Park, New York City, 96th Street. Curling violins, Young People’s Chorus of New York City, syncopated saxophone, kick drum. The orchestra is in my ears; a jazz quartet is live under the tree.

Ellen Reid is no stranger to immersive installations. As part of Opera Omaha’s 2019 One Festival, the Pulitzer Prize winner curated an interactive sound sculpture Playground that was accessible throughout the Festival and activated by actually playing on the playground. At specific times, the playground sculpture sounded Run, Reid’s 15-minute composition for voice and instrumentalized portions of the playground featuring Naomi Louisa O’Connell and the International Contemporary Ensemble.

Now Reid offers SOUNDWALK, a GPS-activated public sound art installation. The piece premiered September 10, 2020 and blankets all 840 acres of Central Park, New York City. Upcoming activations are coming soon in Saratoga Springs, NY; Philadelphia, PA; Vienna, VA; and Jacksonville, OR.

Ellen Reid SOUNDWALK: Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Reservoir--Photo by Lana Norris

Ellen Reid SOUNDWALK: Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Reservoir–Photo by Lana Norris

Harp gently supports a three-note clarinet theme.

The experience requires you to download the SOUNDWALK app, wear headphones, and remain tethered to your phone while your wandering activates musical cells. It’s an odd setup for a piece that claims to help recover some social connection; Central Park is full of other humans who are making music and even conversation. Reid, however, is a composer skilled at creating gentle intimacy despite unsettling atmospheres. Within the constraints of social distancing, the piece creates a sense of shared experience by directing attention to familiar landmarks and communal space.

SOUNDWALK represents collaboration across multiple institutions, industries, and countries. It is co-commissioned by five American cultural institutions and features NY Philharmonic players, the Young People’s Chorus of New York City, jazz ensemble Poole and the Gang, and special SOUNDWALK instrumentalists. Reid’s commission required geolocated sound and audio AR app development from ECHOES.XYZ; audio engineering from Daniel Neuaan; additional sound design from Dante Green; co-production from THE OFFICE performing arts + film and Eclipse Projects; and artwork from Playtime Studio.

Significantly, SOUNDWALK is also supported in part by Mindscapes, the international cultural program about mental health from UK-based Wellcome. During 2018-2019, the organization ran an international cultural project to mark the centennial of the 1918 flu epidemic and advance conversations about epidemic preparedness. “Contagious Cities” focused on four global sites–including New York City–and included artist residencies and interactive events. Months after the close of that project, and in the obvious context of COVID-19, SOUNDWALK is intended to inspire reflection, encourage outdoor activity, and function as an antidote to anxiety and loneliness.

Ellen Reid SOUNDWALK: Swedish Cottage Marionette Theatre--Photo by Lana Norris

Ellen Reid SOUNDWALK: Swedish Cottage Marionette Theatre–Photo by Lana Norris

Sustained strings. Frank Sinatra and Brazilian percussion roll by on bicycles with loudspeakers. A fiddler fiddles on a park bench.

Reid was one of the nineteen composers commissioned by the New York Philharmonic’s “Project 19” celebrating the centennial of the 19th Amendment. Although the 2020 programming was cancelled, the NY Philharmonic is reviving partials of the project. SOUNDWALK features an extended portion of the recording from Reid’s February premiere, When the World as You’ve Known It Doesn’t Exist.

After a cautiously romantic strolling soundtrack, the sudden thumping drama of When the World as You’ve Known It Doesn’t Exist transforms a familiar landmark and makes reality unavoidable. The park’s barren atmosphere is too quiet for a beautiful September evening. Gone is the troubadour guitar, the human birdsong, the escapism–pandemic life is back and ready for reckoning.

Ellen Reid SOUNDWALK: The Ramble--Photo by Lana Norris

Ellen Reid SOUNDWALK: The Ramble–Photo by Lana Norris

Dissonant harmony and a foreboding flute. This app displays the title “The Birds Belong to All of Us” and location in hot pink. Actual birds and their songs are all around.

SOUNDWALK is at its best when the music allows ambient noise to filter in. Even in its wild, vacant state, Central Park presents an array of unexpected music and entertaining characters worth noticing. Reid’s music reacts to natural surroundings and helps its listener anchor in place. SOUNDWALK may not be the standalone sonorities typically offered by the NY Philharmonic, but it succeeds as an immersive experience, as a public health initiative, and as soul respite.


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