New York Magazine

Sound Gar­den

The New York Phil­har­monic has found a novel way to bring us to mu­sic.

- Ext. cen­tral park—early morn­ing Entertainment · Arts · Music · Soundgarden · New York · New York Philharmonic · Ellen Reid · John Luther Adams · Columbus Circle

The park glis­tens in the golden Septem­ber light. Dogs chase one an­other across the freshly mowed grass. A few jog­gers in sur­gi­cal masks and Day-Glo sneak­ers lum­ber by.

It might be an or­di­nary day, but the sound­track in­ti­mates that it’s full of prom­ise. Or­ches­tral mu­sic rises like mist off the lawn: quiv­er­ing strings, a wist­ful clar­inet, a tintinnab­u­la­tion of cro­tales.

Wait, this isn’t a movie—it only feels like one. I pull off my head­phones, and the scene re­verts to the dull haze we’ve be­come ac­cus­tomed to. Anx­ious thoughts and shards of pre­pos­ter­ous news ping my pre-cof­fee con­scious­ness. I over­hear scraps of con­ver­sa­tion and wish I hadn’t:

“Swab­bing down gro­ceries might be a bit much, but …”

“… Now he’s got Barr go­ing af­ter …” “… So she had to move back in with her par­ents …”

I put the head­phones back on, and the world is gilded by mu­sic, which re­sponds to my move­ments. I turn down a twist­ing track through woods, and a lush jazz en­sem­ble ac­com­pa­nies me, quick­en­ing my step. I emerge into a clear­ing and find a solo flute wait­ing there, merg­ing with the choir of birds that breaks into the sound­track from the real world. Ellen Reid’s Sound­walk, com­posed for and per­formed by the New York Phil­har­monic, is an in­ter­ac­tive glam­or­iz­ing ma­chine. A harp trem­bles or a solo cello un­furls a no­ble tune, and a mere walk in the park turns into a jour­ney, a philoso­pher’s am­ble, a ro­man­tic jaunt.

These are tough times for sym­phony or­ches­tras, which be­long in the for­bid­den in­doors. The rich­ness of their tim­bre de­pends on walls to ric­o­chet off, and old wooden in­stru­ments creak when the air is too moist for too long. It will be months—three, eight, 24?—be­fore they and their au­di­ences can re­turn to their nat­u­ral habi­tat, and over the sum­mer, even the Phil­har­monic’s an­nual ex­cur­sions out of doors were scrapped: no blan­kets, no pic­nics, no tinny Tchaikovsk­y float­ing off over the ball fields.

So the orches­tra is do­ing what it can, dis­patch­ing small com­mando units of mu­si­cians around the city on a pickup truck to per­form im­promptu con­certs for au­di­ences of not-too-many-and-not-tooclose-to­gether-please. And it com­mis­sioned and recorded Reid’s por­ta­ble ode to Cen­tral Park, playable on an app that knows where you are and tai­lors the ex­pe­ri­ence to your route on the fly. It might have been a gim­mick, noth­ing more than a silly up­date to the per­son­al­ized playlist. In­stead, it’s a work that has found its ideal form. While most of the clas­si­cal-mu­sic au­di­ence makes do with livestream con­certs or old record­ings, Reid has writ­ten a piece that can only be heard in pri­vate and in mo­tion, with an oblig­ing orches­tra track­ing the lis­tener’s steps.

She is a tal­ented com­poser with a feel for the sub­tle re­la­tion­ship be­tween phys­i­cal and mu­si­cal land­scapes. Count­less com­posers have con­jured places in notes, di­rect­ing the imag­i­na­tion to the top of a moun­tain range, the bot­tom of the Rhine, or Cen­tral Park in the Dark. John Luther Adams blends the sounds mu­si­cians pro­duce with those that the world is bound to con­trib­ute in an out­door per­for­mance. But Sound­walk is at once open-ended and rig­or­ous, glossy and im­pro­vi­sa­tional. Reid cre­ates a rich, grandly or­ches­tral sound world of in­ti­mate nuz­zlings and wrap­around vis­tas, but she also uses GPS as a struc­tural tool, shuf­fling sec­tions like cues in a movie sound­track and let­ting the lis­tener’s tra­jec­tory shape the score rather than the other way around.

The re­sult em­u­lates an im­mer­sive VR ses­sion: When you turn, so does the mu­sic. But the re­sponse is smooth and slow, not in­stan­ta­neous, so that you’re only grad­u­ally aware of the shifts, and the ex­pe­ri­ence never frag­ments into non­sense. Though you hear one mu­sic if you en­ter the park at Colum­bus Cir­cle and an­other if you start at Har­lem Meer, those dif­fer­ences are sub­sumed into a co­gent whole, uni­fied by a slow, am­bling pulse and short mo­tifs wo­ven into sec­tions that can segue or re­peat with­out tear­ing the tex­ture of the whole. The park it­self is like that, al­ways the same and ever chang­ing, a set­ting for what­ever dra­mas or come­dies we choose to play out in its em­brace. Bor­row­ing from the the­atri­cal­ity of Olm­sted’s de­sign, with its shaded cul­verts and broad mead­ows, Reid en­no­bles the hum­drum and the hap­pen­stance. She grants us an il­lu­sion we all need right now: that we have the power to change the plot merely by walk­ing in a dif­fer­ent di­rec­tion.

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