Ellen Reid's Soundwalk App Breathes Musical Life Into Central Park : Deceptive Cadence Created by Pulitzer-winning composer Ellen Reid, Soundwalk lets visitors score their socially distanced walks around the park with an ever-changing, GPS-sensitive soundtrack.

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

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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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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