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‘Soundwalk’ turns Central Park into an intoxicating musical adventure

Ellen Reid, composer and creator of the Soundwalk app in Central Park on Sept. 17, 2020. (Jackie Molloy/For the Washington Post)

NEW YORK — I get a bit nervous when something is billed as an “experience.”

As words go, it’s both loaded and empty: When I resort to “an experience” to describe an experience, it seldom bodes well for the subject. Then again, what isn’t an experience?

Still, as the current catchall term for art defined by its defiance against definition, “experience” remains stubbornly useful.

And in the case of composer Ellen Reid’s “Soundwalk” — an app-based, GPS-enabled, shape-shifting musical experience mapped onto New York City’s Central Park and available to anyone with a smartphone and some me-time — “experience,” for once, fits the bill.

A co-commission from the New York Philharmonic, Saratoga Performing Arts Center, Wolf Trap Foundation for the Performing Arts (where it will appear in 2021), the Mann Center for the Performing Arts and the Britt Festival Orchestra, “Soundwalk” was inspired specifically by the terrain of Central Park. But as site-specific works go, this one is compellingly nonspecific.

It’s composed of a vast array of overlapping, interlocking musical “cells” that rise and fall in your ear buds as you walk (or jog, if that’s your thing) through the park. And while the primary “Soundwalk” will be situated in Central Park at least through the remainder of this year, its cells can also be reconfigured and mapped to other locations. Thus, the water theme Reid wrote for the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Reservoir in Central Park sounds as natural among the chorus of geysers at Saratoga Spa State Park, where “Soundwalk” will be active until Nov. 1.

Walking through the park under their influence doesn’t feel like your typical exercise in tuning in and zoning out. If anything, you feel more present within its momentum, more connected to the (suddenly elegant) strangers on your path, and charged with a sense of agency that, at this cultural moment, feels intoxicating. You make your way through the music as it makes its way through you. To call “Soundwalk” a soundtrack would flatten it.

“It’s not a 2-D mock-up of a 3-D thing. It’s the actual thing,” Reid explains in a recent Zoom from her studio in New York.

Reid, 37, is a Pulitzer Prize-winning composer (for 2019’s “p r i s m”) whose work drifts between the poles of composition and sound art. As such, the music of “Soundwalk” feels limned from a blend of intention and intuition. This approach gives her music a striking physicality — a sense of place, or at least space. Listening means moving through it. You can even hear this sense of place at play (or work) in the way she traverses different “lands” as a composer.

“Usually I think more outside of keys, and just more in the land of sound, noise and spectrum,” she says. “But with this work, I think what people have experienced over the past six months doesn’t need to be complemented with dissonance. It needs more sonorous tonalities — and it brought me more to a key-signature kind of land than I normally would have been.”

Accordingly, the hand-drawn map Reid shows me from the planning and plotting stage is a bramble of scribbles detailing the features of the park and the strategies of the music. The sound and the landscape become literally entangled, indistinguishable, legible only through motion.

And while the 840-acre rectangle of Central Park provided a tidy canvas for Reid to imagine the piece, the path that listeners choose to take through the music remains a wild variable. “You don’t know what people are going to do!” she says, laughing. “It was such an exercise in letting go.”

Going to my first concert of the pandemic felt like preparing for battle. Then I got there.

Reid started composing “Soundwalk” amid the peak of the city’s struggle against the pandemic in March, and she recorded individual “cells” with members of the New York Philharmonic, the Young People’s Chorus of New York City and jazz ensemble Poole and the Gang.

She also prepared “Easter eggs” for wandering listeners to stumble upon: a 2011 live recording of Bernard Haitink leading the New York Philharmonic in Beethoven’s “Pastoral” Symphony arrives upon a swell of applause as you pass his statue at the Central Park Mall’s northern end. And the cascading flutes that trickle in as Bethesda Fountain comes into view introduce Reid’s most recently premiered complete work, “When the World as You’ve Known It Doesn’t Exist” — commissioned by the New York Philharmonic as part of its “Project 19” series highlighting contemporary women composers.

Reid cites a range of inspirations that helped her draft the contours of “Soundwalk”: the site-specific sound works of artists Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller; the Industry’s recent production of Christopher Cerrone’s “Invisible Cities,” which allowed audiences to roam freely through L.A.’s Union Station while listening to a live orchestra through headphones; John Luther Adams’s immersive outdoor compositions (not to mention his own 2016 “Soundwalk 9:09” for the Met); and the slight curveball of Brian Eno.

“The space that he makes in his work is what I thought I needed to make,” she says. “In the concert hall, you have to fill everything, grab the audience, bring them in, take them into this tunnel of the experience and set them free. But with ‘Soundwalk,’ it was a totally different way of handling attention.”

Reid’s primary inspiration is a love of public space itself — the overlapping pasts and multiple presents of a place like Central Park, and the part that each of us plays in constructing those histories simply by passing through them.

Ducking through the Driprock Arch, a legion of low violas churn. At Conservatory Water, placid chimes gently puncture a scrim of calm strings. A scraping cello on one path could have come from the trees, a bloom of jazz near Fifth Avenue improvises with the sunlight through the tree canopy. Scattered buskers blend in and out of the soundtrack, and the howl of sirens at the edge of the park registers like alien birdsong couched in the shiny new context of Reid’s lush soundscapes, which have an uncanny way of reflecting (or refracting) the world in progress around them.

But they also force you to consider your place in the park — both physically and in terms of your fellow walkers. Masked, sunglassed and headphoned, it can be hard to forge connection in our current commons; and as I strolled around and gave polite nods to passersby, I wondered how many of us were actually in the same audience.

“Soundwalk” doesn’t just smudge the fine lines between individual and community, public and private. It turns the park into a hall and your map into a score. Walkers and joggers become composers and conductors, just by following their own paths.

In the best, most multidimensional sense of the word, it’s an experience.

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