"Ellen Reid SOUNDWALK" is a meditative experience that marries music to Griffith Park's natural splendor, allowing for introspection with a side of exercise. As audiences move, the music that comes through their headphones changes based on GPS triggers. And once you've downloaded the free app and music, it becomes a repeatable form of public art you can enjoy any time the park is open.
On a recent not-too-hot Sunday, I took the Boy Scout trail from the Greek Theatre up to the Observatory and experienced several distinct sounds.
A trill of flues and percussion seemed to welcome me into the park. As I continued up the dirt path, there was a swell of strings, then chimes as I neared the trail's first vista. It reminded me of something you'd hear during a meditation track, yet in this instance, the trail was the only guide. Frenetic jazz began as I worked my way up steeper inclines — a trumpet, a flurry of percussion. Things shifted again as I approached Observatory. The music took a synthy turn that reminded me of Vangelis's "Blade Runner" score. Catching my breath on the Observatory lawn, I noticed audio clips from Apollo 11's Mission Control had slipped in the mix.
Composer Ellen Reid, who won a Pulitzer Prize in Music for her opera "p r i s m" in 2019, previously told KCET she came up with the idea while jogging in Brooklyn's Prospect Park a few years ago. A Central Park version launched in the fall of 2019, while Griffith Park's SOUNDWALK debuted in 2020 — a particularly meaningful time as people were searching for safe things to do outdoors. Griffith Park is the largest municipal park in the U.S., coming in at over 4,200 acres and giving Reid a huge canvas. She has scored over 20 miles of it with 100 tracks, performed by the Kronos Quartet and the SOUNDWALK Ensemble, who add brass, woodwinds, vocals and more. Some of the tracks are long and complex, while others last for less than a minute. They can overlap too, depending on your trajectory. The Boy Scout Trail path I took is just one of several options. As such, the experience lends itself to repeat explorations, as each visit will be different from the last. "You'll hear things that connect if you go on different paths. They won't be exactly the same, but they connect. So the connective themes or the way that things refract and relate to each other becomes more interesting the more that you do it," Reid said.
If all this sounds like an appealing prospect, here's how to get started.
1. Do all your downloading at home.
This is important! Cellular signals can be spotty in Griffith Park, so make sure you download both the app and the music from home or somewhere with decent Wi-Fi.
The app is available for iOS and Android here. It's free.
Once it's installed, open the app. The app will ask for permission to access your device's location while using it. Say yes.
You'll notice there are several soundwalks to choose from, including locations in New York and Virginia. Griffith Park: Presented by CAP UCLA should come up first because it's the closest option, but if not (mine loaded a Saratoga Springs option first), swipe until you find it. Tap "Open Walk," then on the next screen, tap "Download Walk." It should only take a minute or so to put all the music right on your phone.
2. Choose your trail.
A high-res map of trails within the SOUNDWALK is available here. You'll also notice symbols designating restrooms, parking, vistas and other landmarks.
Trails vary in difficulty and length. For example, if you're looking for something scenic and relatively easy, Ferndell is a great choice.
If you're not sure which trail is best for you, you can find more information at LA Parks or one of several hiking websites, like Hiking Project or Modern Hiker, which is maintained by "Discovering Griffith Park" author and hiking aficionado Casey Schreiner.
3. Don't forget your headphones.
On top of your usual hiking essentials — water, sunscreen, good shoes, etc. — make sure your phone is fully charged and you've packed headphones.
4. Getting there.
There are plenty of places to park, as detailed on the map. Some are free, and some spots near the Griffith Observatory are paid.
Note that LADOT's DASH Observatory/Los Feliz bus was paused due to COVID-19, but resumes June 23. The Parkline shuttle is suspended indefinitely. Sign up for updates here. Again, the Ferndell Trail remains a good, SOUNDWALK-activated access point for those who don't plan to drive.
5. Open your app
Open your app, then open the Griffith Park walk. Note that it is recommended that you start the walk in an area where you have a good signal, so you may wish to do this before you get too far into the park.
Put on your headphones and wander as you please. As long as you're on a trail or in an area within the SOUNDWALK's boundaries, GPS triggers will automatically play the various tracks as you move. You can tuck your phone in your pocket and leave it there. Also note that while you can do this in a group, Reid recommended a solo experience. "There's something about being able to move at your own pace and kind of take it in, where you're walking with the music. It has a different feeling than if you walk with a group of people," she said. But again, it's highly repeatable, so you can try it several ways. You have plenty of time, too. SOUNDWALK will remain up through 2023.