Central Park Is Alive With The Sound Of Music, Thanks To A Site-Specific App

Oct 26, 2020

Even this spring, when New York City was at the center of the coronavirus pandemic in the U.S, the city's public parks never closed. Instead, they became a place where people went for a socially distanced refuge, often escaping into music with their headphones. Ellen Reid has taken that experience one step further: The Pulitzer Prize-winning composer has written new music for a GPS-enabled app called Soundwalk, specifically designed to accompany walks around Central Park.

Reid had the idea for the app several years ago, but it wasn't until the pandemic hit that she went into her studio and got to work. When I met her at the park to test-drive the app myself, the artist said she was "thinking about creating beauty for people to be inspired by and a place to find joy and a way to connect with our phones, actually in a way that connects us to something larger than ourselves."

Soundwalk's premise is simple: Before you begin your walk, you download the music and turn on your phone's GPS. What you hear depends on the route you take. Reid designed the app so that the listener is also the composer; the path they choose and how long they stand in certain places allows them to control their soundscape.

At Strawberry Fields, the site dedicated to John Lennon and one of Central Park's most popular attractions, there's a mosaic in the pavement that reads "IMAGINE." It's a favorite spot for buskers; Reid says she loves moments it creates for listeners, as outside sounds interact with her music.

She wrote 25 different musical themes — "cells," as she calls them — inspired by nature. After Reid composed the music, members of the New York Philharmonic recorded their parts remotely. She and an engineer mixed them together, and then Reid walked through the entire park with a sound designer to beta test where and how the music is triggered.

"The nuances of the content is really important," she says. "If you think about this path that we're on right now, if the zone, if this cell, was just to one side of the path, somebody who took this path wouldn't hear the music."

There's music for Sheep Meadow, the Mall — a long, tree-lined pathway with statues on either side and more buskers — and the Ramble, an area of the park that made headlines earlier this year when a Amy Cooper, a white woman, called the police on Christian Cooper, a Black birdwatcher, after he asked her to leash her dog. Reid composed the music for this area after reading a profile on the latter in The New York Times.

"I went through the interview and wrote down all of the birds that [Christian Cooper] named, and then I transcribed their musical calls. And that is what is in the background of The Ramble," Reid explains. "The title of this is 'The Birds Belong to All of Us' — which is how he closed that interview, and that spoke to me. To have such generosity after what he experienced was really moving."

Reid's Soundwalk app was co-commissioned by the New York Philharmonic and four other institutions. It can also be heard at Spa Park in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., and will add three additional locations next year. While Reid hopes the pandemic will be behind us by then, she says it very much remains a part of her music. She'd like for Soundwalk make a space for listeners to recharge and keep going.

"I've experienced new feelings and new anxieties, new fears than I've ever experienced before — and with less room to express them," she says. "So, this project really helped to work through those and think about what's happening at this moment, in so many ways."

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

New York City parks never closed. Even at the height of the pandemic last spring, they became a place where people could go for refuge in a socially distanced way, often escaping into music on their headphones. The Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Ellen Reid has taken that a step further. She's written new music for a GPS-enabled app to specifically accompany walks around Central Park. Jeff Lunden met up with the composer to talk about her Soundwalk.

JEFF LUNDEN, BYLINE: Ellen Reid had the idea to create this app several years ago. But when the pandemic hit, she went into her studio and got to work.

ELLEN REID: Thinking about creating beauty for people to be inspired by and a place to find joy and a way to connect with our phones, actually, in a way that connects us to something larger than ourselves.

LUNDEN: Standing in a clearing near the park's entrance at West 72nd Street, she describes how the app works. Before you begin your walk, you download the music and turn on your phone's GPS. What you hear depends on the route you take.

REID: The listener is also able to be the composer. The path that they choose, how long they stand in certain places - they're controlling their soundscape.

LUNDEN: We put in our ear buds, and Reid suggested we start our walk at one of the park's most popular attractions for which she wrote this music.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LUNDEN: We're standing at Strawberry Fields, which is dedicated to John Lennon, who lived close by. There's a mosaic in the pavement that reads imagine. And naturally, there was a busker singing.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Singing) Imagine all the people...

LUNDEN: Reid says she loves those moments when outside sounds interact with her music. She wrote 25 different musical themes, which she calls cells inspired by nature.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LUNDEN: We came to Sheep Meadow, where there are no longer any sheep but...

REID: Where the trees really step aside and the sky opens up.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LUNDEN: After Reid composed the music, members of the New York Philharmonic recorded their parts remotely. She and an engineer mixed them together. Then Reid walked through the entire park with a sound designer to beta-test where and how the music is triggered.

REID: The nuances of the content is really important. Like, if you think about this path that we're on right now - if the cell was just to one side of the path, somebody who took this path wouldn't hear the music.

LUNDEN: Next, we headed to The Mall, a long, tree-lined pathway with statues on either side.

REID: It normally has the most buskers and...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Some painters...

REID: Oh, wow.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: ...Made Columbus's hands red. Did they spoil him by taking off his bronze gloves?

REID: That was a poem by a member of the Young People's Chorus. And at this moment and in every moment, it's so important to think about what these monuments mean and who they're for. And so the members of the Young People's Chorus wrote poetry about some of the historically racist monuments in the park that still stand and about their personal feelings about them and their experiences with them.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Why be surprised by this hulking mass on an unmarked grave? We are the artifice we choose to immortalize.

LUNDEN: After a while, we made our way up a hill to an area of the park known as the Ramble. It made headlines earlier this year when a white woman called the police after an African American birdwatcher asked her to put her dog on a leash. His name is Christian Cooper, and Reid read a profile about him.

REID: I went through the interview and wrote down all of the birds that he named, and then I transcribed their musical calls.

(SOUNDBITE OF ELLEN REID'S "THE BIRDS BELONG TO ALL OF US")

REID: And that is what is in the background of the Ramble. And the title of this is "The Birds Belong To All Of Us," which is how he closed that interview. And to have such generosity after what he experienced was really moving.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LUNDEN: Reid's Soundwalk was commissioned by the New York Philharmonic and four other institutions. You can also hear it now at Spa Park in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., and next year at three other locations. While Ellen Reid hopes the pandemic will be behind us by then, it remains very much a part of her music.

REID: Definitely I've experienced new feelings and new anxieties, new fears than I've ever experienced before and with less room to express them. So this project really helped to work through those and think about what's happening at this moment in so many ways.

LUNDEN: And she hopes to make a space for listeners to recharge and, she says, to keep going. For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden in New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.