Taking Hike In The Park (Or Memory Lane Stroll) With An App Obbligato

Ellen Reid’s ‘SOUNDWALK’ has been installed at Los Angeles’ huge Griffith Park for the next three years. (Photos by Richard S. Ginell)

LOS ANGELES – I have been taking long walks daily since the COVID-19 pandemic constricted our lives. At first, it was just around the neighborhood, but before long I would get bored and set my sights elsewhere – unfamiliar neighborhoods nearby, my old junior high school, circling Lake Balboa in Van Nuys. Occasionally I would get ambitious and drive to the Palisades overlooking the ocean in Santa Monica, or get really ambitious and go all the way to Redondo Beach, with its sweeping vistas of the Palos Verdes Peninsula. But one rule that I have observed is to never plug in earphones and hear music as I walk. I want to be aware of my surroundings, of all of the ambient sounds of nature and life, as well as any dangers presented by traffic.

The Bruin mascot statue near Pauley Pavilion, UCLA.

Well, I broke that rule recently because it would have been impossible to experience SOUNDWALK without mobile electronic tools.

SOUNDWALK is a multi-city, multi-styled project by Ellen Reid, whose score for the chamber opera p r i s m has been honored in every which way, including a Best New Opera award from the Music Critics Association of North America

According to its app, SOUNDWALK is a free, “GPS-enabled work of public art that uses music to illuminate the natural environment” – for example, Los Angeles’ huge Griffith Park, where it has been installed for the next three years. “The experience is guided by the listener: the path you choose dictates the music you hear, and no two visits will be exactly the same. After downloading the free app and putting on your headphones, you can explore the park, triggering musical cells that are carefully crafted to harmonize with the park’s landscape and attractions.”

And it’s not only Griffith Park. There is a companion version of SOUNDWALK that has been installed on the UCLA campus in Westwood. Several other places around the state and country have it as well – Heisler Park in Laguna Beach; Golden Gate Park in San Francisco; the Britt Music and Arts Festival in Jacksonville, Ore.; the Ijams Nature Center in Knoxville, Tenn.; Wolf Trap National Park in Fairfax County, Va.; the Virginia Arts Festival in Norfolk and Virginia Beach, Va.; the Mann Center in Philadelphia; Saratoga Performing Arts Center in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.; and New York City’s Central Park.

There’s even an installation in Stavros Niarchos Park in Greece. Each locale appears to have different combinations of music, some selections reaching outside the project (the San Francisco edition includes several Kronos Quartet “Easter eggs” by Terry Riley, George Crumb, and others from their vast catalogue).

Griffith Observatory.

One morning in late autumn, I trekked to Griffith Park to try out the SOUNDWALK “experience.” The bait was a world premiere recording of a Reid piece by the Kronos created for this specific location. It was this piece that I heard first when I parked the car near the southern end of the park on Fern Dell Drive, strapped on the earphones, and started the app on a mobile phone. It sounded sparely textured and a bit edgy in tone as I walked for awhile on the heavily shaded paved trail for about a quarter mile.

As I arrived at a spot where the vegetation clears out a little and the trail splits into several paths near an uninhabited children’s playground, the Kronos foursome faded and a small soft-jazz combo took over on the earphones. That interlude was short-lived as the trail widened and started to ascend into the chaparral-covered hills, all of the tree canopies now gone.

The jazz combo gave way almost seamlessly to a 14-piece chamber orchestra (the SOUNDWALK Ensemble, with Reid on synthesizer) playing sustained, soothing quasi-symphonic material. It is reminiscent of pastoral Copland in his Americana period, but without the wide-spaced harmonies and astringent edge. Looming at the top of the hills is the famous Griffith Observatory (recently depicted in iconic tones in the film La La Land), but the music didn’t come close to capturing the grandeur of the view.

After climbing for nearly a mile in that direction, I turned around and headed downhill. As I passed near the playground, the quasi-Copland music faded and the jazz combo came back. Soon thereafter, the Kronos music returned as an offshoot of the main trail dived into a creekside nature trail that passed underneath Fern Dell Drive. I doubled back and forth quickly through the zones to check out the shifts from band to band just to see if the transitions were consistent. They were.

Kerckhoff Hall, UCLA, where I got my start.

I would be hard pressed to say whether any of this music enhanced the experience of the walk. The ascent music soon palled on the senses after the novelty wore off, although I would have liked to have heard more of the jazz if I had been willing to stay in that zone for a while.

A week later, I went to UCLA (my alma mater, as it happens) to try out the companion walk, which turned out to be quite different in terrain and content. It was an extremely rare rainy day in drought-ridden Southern California, all the better for a good walk in refreshed air after several smoggy days in a row.

As I entered a zone at the top of a campus drive, the first music coming through the earphones was soft jazz similar to what I had heard in Griffith Park. Soon giving way to new shimmering digital choral voices repeating over and over, that was succeeded by sustained wind instruments as I descended toward Drake Stadium.

Upon entering the main campus, the soundscape became a layer of whole notes with a deep, mellow electronic undercurrent. It was final exam week on campus, and the walkways were lightly dotted with students looking serious or anxious. Eventually, from somewhere in the near-distance the campus chimes struck noon and a carillon played in haunting counterpoint to the mellow music on the earphones, an Ivesian/Cageian moment of chance synchronicity.

A piccolo trumpet sounded as I stood before Kerckhoff Hall, the headquarters of the UCLA Daily Bruin, the campus newspaper where I got my start as a published writer. As I passed Pauley Pavilion, where I played clarinet in the UCLA Wind Ensemble during basketball games during the Bruins’ golden John Wooden era so long ago, the music was pared down to a gentle duet for trumpet and harp. The harp lingered to just beyond the point near the student dorms where the music zone ends, soon fading away to nothing like old memories as present-day reality beckoned.

Griffith Park’s Fern Dell, where the Kronos piece was playing.

There is a psychological explanation for the difference between the Griffith Park and UCLA walks, where one’s own life experiences come into play. The UCLA walk I found to be very moving in a personal way, whereas the Griffith Park walk was not, even though Ellen Reid’s scores aimed for the same basic lulling, ambient effect. Although I can’t say that this music illuminated the particular environments I visited as intended, it certainly did encourage “calm reflection and introspection” and serve as a welcome excuse to leave the house and get some exercise – also as intended. Experiences in other sectors of the park and campus, not to mention other locales around the country, will likely be different from mine due to the ever-shifting musical and natural environments.

Socially-distanced sound art, they call it, a concert hall without walls. Or if you prefer, without people who may or may not be vaccinated. Happy hiking, all!