Ellen Reid, composer of ‘Soundwalk’, in Central Park, Manhattan
Ellen Reid, composer of ‘Soundwalk’, in Central Park, Manhattan © Jackie Molloy

Arts organisations everywhere are struggling to come to terms with how to replace lost live performances. Archived telecasts of past events are one solution, sometimes rewarding but unimaginative. More potentially exciting are those companies trying to create new events with the internet in mind.

At the New York Philharmonic, now under the bracing leadership of Deborah Borda, there have been no live orchestral performances since March, and the entire 2020-21 season has been cancelled. But before the curtain fell, Borda had come up with Project 19: commissions of women composers to celebrate the centenary of the 19th Amendment to the US constitution, which gave (most) women the right to vote.

A recipient of one of those commissions was Ellen Reid, one of the most accomplished of young American “tonalist” composers. Last year she won the Pulitzer Prize for Music for her opera p r i s m, which also won the Music Critics Association of North America’s award for best new opera. Now she has re-emerged with Soundwalk, a gently ambitious outdoor musical panorama.

It works like this: individuals download a free app, allowing them to walk about listening to Reid’s music on their phones. The initial home of this site-specific experience is Central Park, where it will continue into next year. Most of the music was freshly composed by Reid and recorded by chamber ensembles from the Philharmonic. She has also folded in her composition When the World as You’ve Known it Doesn’t Exist along with bits of Beethoven (the Pastoral Symphony) and Duke Ellington.

Central Park is the jewel in the heart of Manhattan, and to walk through its 840 acres on a beautiful autumn day is a treat in itself, a reminder of the countryside north of New York and of virginal Manhattan before settlers arrived.

Reid’s music is restful, contemplative, modestly pungent, blending more or less gracefully (sometimes there are oddly cacophonous overlaps) with what she calls her “Easter eggs” of other music. The intrusion through one’s earphones of conversation or construction or distant traffic can disrupt the mood. Publicity promised music that was “artfully crafted to harmonise with the park’s landscape and attractions”, but the synchronicity is less exact.

Reid has provided segments, or “cells”. When you reach the border of one cell, that music fades and a new music begins. If you double back, the first segment reappears. It’s restful but a little bland. And how all this “artfully crafted” music will fit the locales of the co-commissioners (see below) is hard to envisage.

Still, outdoor art, visual or sonic, seems especially appropriate in a pandemic: witness the charms of the recently reopened Storm King Arts Center north of New York or, pre-pandemic, David Lang’s Mile-Long Opera on Manhattan’s High Line or Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s hanging fabrics in this same Central Park. Reid and the Philharmonic are to be congratulated on what counts as one of the more creative responses to the constraints yet opportunities of these straitened times.


In Central Park and the Saratoga Performing Arts Center in upstate New York extending into 2021, ellenreidsoundwalk.com or nyphil.org; with other co-commissioned performances next year at the Wolf Trap Foundation in Virginia, the Mann Center in Philadelphia and the Britt Music and Arts Festival in Oregon

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