I approach a nondescript kiosk in the lobby of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, sign a form and surrender my driver's license. In return I receive a white iPod mini with earphones -- an electronic invitation to join aural artist Janet Cardiff for her half-hour experiential tour, "Words Drawn in Water." Sitting down amid squawking Boy Scouts on a sofa, I push "play" and music -- the resonant bass of Paul Robeson singing "Ol' Man River" -- begins. I immediately recall "Show Boat," the classic musical in which he starred that depicted the then-taboo love affair between a black man and a white woman. But soon, someone -- Cardiff? my secret sharer? -- whispers conspiratorially to me: "Take the back door out. No one is watching."
Indeed. I feel almost invisible, enwrapped in the astonishingly vivid soundscape that Cardiff has recorded for this walk down a portion of the National Mall. It's a walk filled with surprises and memories as she shares with me the fascinating and the mundane: digressions, revelations, all matter of mental flotsam and jetsam.
Soon I hear Cardiff saying she chose Robeson's voice because he was her mother's favorite singer. As she talks, river and water imagery abounds -- dripping, trickling, rolling. My own past comes flooding back.
I grew up here and remember childhood and adolescent visits to the Mall. In my earphones, I hear drumbeats vigorously pulsating and I flash back maybe 30 years, remembering the first time I witnessed Native American dancing and drumming on the Mall, at a Smithsonian Folklife Festival. I'm 14, just for a minute. "Sometimes," the voice says, "I'm not sure what's real."
Cardiff and I walk in step, as she has directed me to do. There's the carousel up ahead aswirl in color, its hurdy-gurdy pipe organ droning on. I lift up my earphones, only to realize that the music is part of the recording. I remember sitting on those carved horses as a kid and then, a decade ago, boosting my toddler son onto a white stallion. I want to relish that moment but the voice pushes me onward, telling me about peeling back "hidden layers of history in this city."
We -- we're a pair now, that voice, gentle yet commanding, and me -- continue along. I pause momentarily on a wooden bench. Families, a trio of joggers, a gaggle of preschoolers with chaperones on a field trip, pass me by, but I'm not there. I'm in another world, one that's secret, filled with mystery and long-forgotten episodes, spurred on and massaged by Cardiff's thoughts and my own ghosts whispering in my ears.
With her unique recording method, Cardiff paints a truer-than-life sound portrait that keeps me guessing whether something's real or if it's coming through the earphones. Helicopters buzz overhead. The president, I think, absent-mindedly looking over my shoulder. But no, it's another of the artist's sonic illusions, recorded with hyper-real sound fidelity. Those footsteps crunching on the gravel path sound like mine -- why don't I remember not to wear sandals to the Mall? -- but they, too, are recorded.
At last I've made it to my -- and Cardiff's -- final destination. A door closes. Am I alone? My journey has been a rich one, filled with music, stories, snippets of conversation, putting me, like a character in an Alain Resnais film, through a series of flashbacks. "Thoughts and memories," that voice tells me, "connecting from one time to another."
I make my way back to the kiosk. Return my borrowed iPod. Catch sight of my reflection in the glass. The figure looking back at me seems half real, half imagined, much like Cardiff's "Words Drawn in Water."
If you go: Pick up your iPod at the kiosk across from the information desk Wednesday through Sunday, 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m., through Oct. 30. Weekdays are recommended. You need a driver's license, credit card or passport, which the staff holds during your excursion.
The walk is meant to be solitary, and is not recommended for children. Museum staff ask visitors to allow about a five-minute interval between excursions. Visitors with disabilities can view the tour on a laptop at the kiosk, or they may take the walk and pause the iPod as necessary to use accessible ramps.
Where: Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Independence Avenue and Seventh Street SW. 202-633-1000. www.hirshhorn.si.edu.