Bay Nature magazineFall 2021

Art and Design

“Slow Down and Open Up” On a Soundwalk Through Golden Gate Park

October 1, 2021

San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park has always been an intentional destination for me. I generally go there to visit a specific museum or garden or to meet friends for a picnic at a specific location. I come, I do what I’m there to do, and then leave. But at over 1,000 acres in size, Golden Gate Park is larger than Central Park or in two cases entire countries, so such a limited approach leaves most of the park unexplored by the average visitor. Pulitzer Prize–winning composer Ellen Reid offers a remedy for this disposition to habit with a new app-based experience created in collaboration with San Francisco’s Kronos Quartet and her ensemble of musicians from around the country.

Ellen Reid SOUNDWALK is a free, GPS-enabled app that covers much of the eastern half of the park. When users enter a SOUNDWALK area, music by the acclaimed string quartet and from Reid’s ensemble begins to play through a user’s smartphone. The music is hyperlocal to the user’s location and changes frequently as one moves about the park. Mapped to notable locations, musical pieces include 13 Easter eggs of music from Kronos Quartet’s nearly 50-year history as well as new pieces Reid wrote for the quartet, while between locations interstitial music plays. Reid has produced similar experiences at parks around the country, but each is different, taking cues from the uniqueness of each park. While some parks warrant jagged and aggressive music, for example, Reid says that “something about the sound world of Golden Gate Park has a softness to it.” 

On the gray late-June morning when I first experienced SOUNDWALK, a gentle droning tune played as I exited my car somewhere along Martin Luther King Jr. Drive. The cars traveling the busy street bordering the park were still audible, but they hardly disrupted the simple yet engrossing soundscape. Walking without purpose, but true to habit, I stuck dutifully to the sidewalk. But knowing that the music would change if I ventured off this path, I resolved to take a divergent trail up a set of log steps. Emerging somewhere around Stow Lake, I ran into a large flock of ambling ducks. For a while I sat on a tree-shrouded bench overlooking the lake, the placid music adding to the calm mood of the morning. (Designed with accessibility in mind, SOUNDWALK can be enjoyed from a stationary location because in most places multiple musical tracks converge, creating unique playlists that take a long time to repeat.) 

My walk grew more exciting once I continued on amid the variety of Reid’s compositions. I knew that the music was composed for each site, but I didn’t know precisely how these compositions were mapped onto the park. I found myself making sudden turns, tacking left, then right as I walked toward interesting areas where the music might change. The sight of the 1893 stone Stow Lake Bridge, covered in ivy and leading to Strawberry Hill, an island in the lake, immediately made me wonder how Reid would interpret this location. Incidentally, she later told me this is one of her favorite spots in the park. 

With SOUNDWALK, the bridge became a portal. The adjacent musical tracks create seamless transitions between what Reid calls “sound worlds,” keeping listeners engrossed in the aural experience. And as I stepped onto Strawberry Hill, trilling flutes ushered me into a magical world; I half expected fairies or sprites to emerge from the trees. Later, an atmospheric and moody composition led me up the hill to the ruins of Sweeny Observatory, destroyed in the 1906 earthquake. Slowly, however, as my excitement (but not enjoyment) settled, I walked less consciously and meandered more effortlessly. The whole experience was cinematic, like a customized score accompanying the movie of my walk in the park.

Some might ask if a place as beautiful as Golden Gate Park needs musical augmentation. But SOUNDWALK is a reminder that Golden Gate Park itself is a work of art—as cultural as it is natural—and our experiences there are already mediated by the park’s design, the landscaping, and visitors’ own uses of the space. “It’s already a composition,” Reid says of the park. “It’s a sculpture; I felt like I was collaborating with this existing work of art.” 

SOUNDWALK then is like a remix of  Golden Gate Park—neither an improvement nor a substitute. It “slows you down and opens you up,” says Reid, so that “you see more of the details of the existing work of art.”

Ellen Reid SOUNDWALK will remain available through June 2024.

About the Author

Matthew Harrison Tedford is an arts writer focused on ecology, history, and politics. Based in San Francisco, his work has appeared on KQED, Hyperallergic, SF Weekly, Art Practical, and elsewhere.