If you’ve ever listened to music on a walk or hike, you know it creates opportunities for synchronicity — a new track begins as a stoplight changes from red to green, or the music crescendos just as you reach an overlook. Ellen Reid Soundwalk, a new public art piece, uses a GPS-responsive app to generate an intentionally synchronous soundscape for visitors to Griffith Park.
Reid, a Pulitzer Prize-winning composer, has worked with LA Opera, LA Philharmonic, Los Angeles Master Chorale and Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra. For her latest project, she chose a different type of collaborator — L.A.’s natural environment.
Instead of a concert hall, Reid’s compositions for Soundwalk are designed for an audience of one. Anyone in Los Angeles can download the free app (available for iPhone and Android), head to Griffith Park, and walk, hike or relax as they listen to Reid’s site-specific score. The project is presented by UCLA’s Center for the Art of Performance, with music performed by Kronos Quartet in addition to Reid’s Soundwalk ensemble. As a listener moves through the park, the GPS triggers subtle changes in the music. Rounding a bend might add some high strings or vocals; climbing a steep incline could change the sound’s texture. Meanwhile, the noises of the park itself — from chirping birds to the low rumble of a nearby conversation to the roar of a helicopter overhead — add another dimension to the composition.
Reid notes, “Every single user will use it differently, so I have to make something that is a full, complete, meaningful experience for someone who is unable to walk and sits on a bench, for someone who walks the same path every day, and for someone who wants to walk for five hours in the park… There’s no control over how people use it, and that’s part of what makes it really special.”
How could we bring the amazing complexity of layers that happens in these public parks into some kind of a sonic experience?Ellen Reid
Reid, who divides her time between Los Angeles and New York City, had the idea for Soundwalk while running in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park a few years ago. She finds walking and jogging helpful to her creative process and says, "There is something that kind of moves you through challenges and lubricates your brain, so it can process and connects things that maybe it wouldn't have otherwise.” On that particular run, she was thinking about all the other people who feel personal connections with those same public spaces, and she wondered, “How could we bring the amazing complexity of layers that happens in these public parks into some kind of a sonic experience?”
Soundwalk was conceived before COVID, but in 2020, the timing felt right. The project allows for social distancing so people can experience it during the pandemic — and beyond. Reid says, “It's going to stay up for multiple years, and hopefully, it will continue to grow and expand through that time, and stay as relevant after COVID as it is right now.”
The first Soundwalk launched in Central Park last fall, but planning the Los Angeles version has felt especially significant for Reid. She says, “I love L.A. L.A. is my muse, end of story.” She earned her master’s degree at CalArts and says, “L.A. just gave me a little bit more room to feel creative — something about the city — and so oftentimes I use it as a place where I write. I make sure to be in L.A. while I'm writing because I feel so connected to creative inspiration here."
She takes early morning walks through L.A. neighborhoods or in Griffith Park and says, “The kind of perspective that you get on a hike in Griffith Park is unlike anything else ever in the world. It's just so magnificent. A friend of mine went to Tibet and wrote that she felt closer to the sky. That's how I feel in Griffith Park. It’s just a little bit closer to the sky.”
She wanted to convey that expansive, infinite feeling in the score and found the sound she was looking for with her synthesizer. She says, “For Griffith Park, I'm putting in a lot more synth, and I've transcribed some orchestral stuff onto the synth. Those synth textures feel like the haze of L.A. to me that you sometimes get when you're up in Griffith Park.”
Reid associates certain musical themes with different landscapes, which has guided her compositions for Soundwalk. She says, “I have something that feels to me like it's wooded. It's a bit more filled than the music that's for, say, an open field. It's more like cascading brass, slow strings, high ostinato.” All of the music in the app conveys something about the landscape in a specific part of the park.
Reid spoke to KCET while she was still finalizing the Griffith Park soundscape. “We’re still figuring out how much of the park the app can handle. We're definitely focusing around Griffith Observatory and all of the hikes to it, from it, to Dante's view, to the Hollywood sign—that whole section.” She encourages people to go more than once and try a few different routes. “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.”
When you’re ready to try Ellen Reid Soundwalk, download the app, and then head to the park. Reid suggests experiencing it alone. “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.”