As you walk away from the Mann Center these days, the music follows you in sound ribbons that slowly transform.
Down a gnarled white clover hill, as you gaze over the treetops of Fairmount Park to the city, the soundtrack signals civic pride and promise.
Jazzy drums, piano and trumpet riffs take over at the roundabout anchored with white marble statues.
Again and again, on a tree-lined path, the world seems to open up: warm ropes, the smell of freshly mown grass drying in the sun, a sparkling harp, a sweet scent of pine.
This sequence is something you may never be able to experience on your own – not exactly. It’s because Ellen Reid Soundwalk comes together as a different piece of sound composition / sculpture whenever a listener hears it.
And it is a magnificent work of public art.
Download the app, put on the headphones, and walk. The rest is a matter of chance. Depending on your pace and an endless number of paths through an approximately 280-acre plot of land around the Mann, the Horticultural Center, and other sites, the play materializes in an endless number of forms. The GPS-enabled app responds to the location with a continuous strip of changing recorded music and sound.
Reid, a Pulitzer Prize-winning composer who divides her time between Los Angeles and New York, had never been to Fairmount Park before this project. Soundwalk premiered last year in Central Park with its soundtrack recorded by an independent ensemble, including a synthesizer, and members of the New York Philharmonic. The Fairmount Park version primarily uses these same freelancers, with some additional sound recorded by 19 members of the Philadelphia Orchestra at home.
The work here is presented by the Mann and Fairmount Park Conservancy, and part of the goal is to familiarize Philadelphians with what lies just beyond the Music Center, Please Touch Museum, and other low-key destinations. Many drive, hear a concert or visit the children’s museum, and then leave without entering into the larger framework.
For me, Reid’s room was a chance to experience, at least from the outside, the Ohio House, a ghost from the centennial exhibit held in the park in 1876. It sits near a Mann entrance, but it’s a structure that I would kind of like missed all these years.
Mann’s longtime CEO, Catherine M. Cahill, told me she knew the statue of Verdi in the park, but so far not those of Schubert and Haydn.
Fairmount Park has its own music. There’s the chirping of birds, the wind and the water, of course, but also the traffic, the thud of car radios, and in some places the whoosh of the Schuylkill Expressway. The natural and the artificial worlds coexist and merge in fascinating ways, and Reid’s music gives us a structure on which to hang discovery.
But Soundwalk is more than a permission to hang out. It’s surprisingly moving and it kind of reshapes Fairmount Park.
A walk to a mid-sized oak tree a few weeks ago was accompanied by a faint, sweet smell of smoke and equally mysterious music. Nearby, something more industrial presented itself: a series of giant reels holding pipes that mirrored the spiraling arpeggios of Reid’s music.
It was neither intentional nor planned. Most of Reid’s musical material is shared between the co-curators: the Mann / Fairmount Park Conservancy, the New York Philharmonic, the Saratoga Performing Arts Center, the Wolf Trap Foundation for the Performing Arts, and the Britt Festival Orchestra in Oregon. (Soundwalk has appeared on other sites nationwide as well.)
There is nothing literal or programmatic about the site and music matching. At Fairmount Park, standing in front of Henry Baerer’s bust of Schubert doesn’t bring your ears a passage of a Impromptu, and walking by the Concourse lake won’t trigger anyone Water music.
But that’s part of the message. The location of the music colors, the location suggests meaning to the music, and anything is possible. Reid’s partly acoustic and partly electronic music is inspired by Brian Eno and John Luther Adams, she said on a recent tour of the room. It’s both atmospheric and quite touching.
Soundwalk may be random in nature, but it lands in Philadelphia at a specific time.
“When it was designed, we weren’t sure what the future would hold. No one had a crystal ball on the direction of the pandemic, and there were some very dark days, ”Cahill explains.
It is no coincidence that Soundwalk is partially funded by Mindscapes, a mental health program of Wellcome, the London foundation concerned with global health. It has been a noisy and traumatic few years for most of us. The pandemic and politics have crowded out the sense of well-being. Soundwalk comes as COVID-19 appears to be on the decline and we return to the world.
Whatever the era, Soundwalk changes our perceptions of the park and what is possible there, and reshapes the sound and the environment into a space of inner revelations. It’s a reminder of the basic work of artists – redirecting our thoughts, feelings and memories. The play can be experienced in an hour or five, and it works wonders in helping us deal with whatever has happened and is happening.
It can also help us forget, if only for a precious slice of time.
Soundwalk takes place in Fairmount Park from June 4 to September 30. For more information and to download the app: ellenreidsoundwalk.com.