Beginning today, Big Ears presents Pulitzer Prize winning composer and Oak Ridge native, Ellen Reid’s, latest work “Soundwalk,” at Ijams Nature Center. The free presentation is available for download on your smartphone and is anticipated to be available through September 2022. In one respect it is simple: Download the app and take a walk down any trail at Ijams while listening on your smartphone. In another respect, I had a hard time wrapping my head around the idea.
Essentially, Ms. Reid has composed music and compiled it specifically with the sights and sounds at Ijams in mind. The music for this installation of soundscape (her first was in Central Park and others are now found around the country) was performed by Kronos Quartet and Ellen’s own Soundwalk Ensemble. Using GPS tags, your smartphone knows what to play, dictated by your location. The experience is different depending on the course you take through the trails, tailoring the experience to each person’s path. You’ll find specific directions here.
I was given the opportunity to download the app early and experience the walk at Ijams prior to the launch. I walked a bit over five miles, starting initially at the Visitor Center and following the Tower Trail through to the River Boardwalk and Trail. I followed the gravel road up from the docks to the Toll Creek Trail and then returned via the Tower Trail.
Moving to the Mead’s Quarry area, I walked the Pink Marble Trail, and the Tharp Trace Loop. I took the Imerys Trail (which is part of the Urban Wilderness South Loop Trail) to the Ross Marble Quarry Loop and the Keyhole. In both areas, I retraced my steps and meandered about, listening for the shifts in music.
I found the experience to be exhilarating, as if the stones, trails and canopy of trees themselves had been given voice. Using a wide range of instruments, the pacing often suited the terrain perfectly, with insistent, driving tones on the steep climb on the Tharp Trace Trail, for instance, to the lush tones while walking through canopies of trees. An encounter with a historic cemetery brings music that transports the listener back in time.
One serendipitous discovery led me to a preference I’ll share: use earbuds or non-noise cancelling headphones. That’s what I used because that’s what I own, but as I walked, I realized I could hear the natural sounds as a backdrop to the music and the blend of the two set the table for a perfect experience.
My only complaint, which I expressed to Ms. Reid, was that there was no dramatic music when I encountered the three-to-four-foot copperhead on the Tharp Trace incline (starting the trail on the south side of the quarry). She wryly suggested that I only got that music if I’d stepped on the copperhead. I’ll defer that music to my imagination. I will recommend that if you’d like to avoid that music, you might want to keep a keen eye out as you wander the trails.
Ms. Reid, originally from Oak Ridge, graduated from Columbia College in New York City in 2005, and earned her MFA at the California Institute of the Arts. She told me she had a long-term interest in synthesizing art forms and found that a point of emphasis at CalArts. She began developing an opera, attracted to the combination of story and music.
While developing the opera, a lengthy process, she began to connect to the L.A. arts institutions, eventually becoming the “first composer to have been commissioned by all of Los Angeles’s four major classical music institutions: Los Angeles Opera at REDCAT, Los Angeles Philharmonic, L.A. Master Chorale, and L.A. Chamber Orchestra.” She also writes music for movies, television, and art installations like this one.
The opera, Prism, debuted last, though she’d started it before the other pieces. The work deals with sexual assault from the perspective of the survivor. “Sexual assault is present in a lot of operas, but the assault isn’t usually told from the perspective of the victim. What happens later? What is in the survivor’s head?” She said she started working on the idea before the Me Too movement, but it took on a new life as awareness around sexual assault grew.
It felt like over the course of time it evolved from being a piece for women to a piece for everyone. The topic became a part of the zeitgeist. I wanted to explore the point of view and all the richness, complexity and nuance that comes with that. It is my hope that if anyone in the audience hadn’t experienced sexual assault, they might understand it more deeply.
Debuting in November 2018, the Opera won the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 2019.
I asked if all the success at such a young age surprised her. She said she felt she had “a limited window to prove I had something to say. People can lose interest quickly in you as an artist.” She said to have a full career, she felt it was critical to become established at an early age. “It was a shock to the system and definitely a surprise to have won the Pulitzer. It brought light to my work, for which I am grateful. I feel it made ideas that are more difficult to explain, more possible to be attempted. It made it easier for me to explore other ideas that are outside the box and to take risks.
She continued her success with the premier of When the World as You’ve Known It Doesn’t Exist, performed by the New York Symphony Orchestra on February 20, 2020. She said sometimes art has a meaning we don’t understand when it is first produced. She, of course, had no idea how quickly the world was changing at that moment. “It was surreal. We were starting to get the news. It felt like it wasn’t here, but it was.” She said it is part of her memory of the pandemic.
Ellen has also been involved in Luna Composition Lab, which she co-founded. She calls it “the most gratifying thing I do.” In a year-and-a-half, it has grown to include six fellows who get skype lessons twice a month and “gives them a chance to share their work and connect them with other female, non-binary, or gender non-conforming composers between the ages of twelve and eighteen. She said, “It gives them a community within a male-dominated field.” Works from the group have been commissioned by both large and chamber orchestras and the group is launching a new course, “Adventures in Sound: Beginning Composition.” She said it stresses reading and writing music, as well as “exploring how to have a creative practice.”
Ms. Reid’s idea for a musical experience tied to a particular place had taken shape before the pandemic, but was fast-tracked once the pandemic began, both because it is a musical experience perfectly suited for distancing. With many performances and tours canceled, more collaborators were available to record music and move the project forward.
The first was recorded by the New York Philharmonic, with the Young People’s Chorus of New York City, and Poole and the Gang. Other commissions around the country followed. Ellen calls them “hyper local, but also modular.”
She said the process of writing for a live installation was different in many respects.
Writing for a concert hall, the goal is, through the music, to erase everything else. For this experience, I want to bring you further in to where you are. The music has to create space to be in harmony with your surroundings. It’s an invitation to come into yourself and experience the music within your environment.
Additionally, she said when composing a piece for a concert hall, she knows it flows from the beginning to the end. With a soundwalk, it is more fluid, and she must account for the fact that a person can go in any direction. Still, she said, “It has to make sense, connect, and feel complete.” She said it must work for a brief time or for longer walks. The environment changes with the time of day. She said it demands a different kind of writing.
Regarding the local project, she said she loves the Big Ears Festival and has attended, as well as performed with the International Contemporary Ensemble. When Ashley reached out she was excited and eager to do the project. She said she traveled to Knoxville, walking five to eight miles a day on the trails at Ijams for about a week to get a feel for the sights and sounds in different areas. She said everything is designed for the location with some sound cells being used only on single trails and others showing up on more than one.
I work to see what feels right to me in the location as I walk through the space. What are the colors and soundscapes? It’s like a kaleidoscope and the cells are the beads. You can turn it and every time it is a different shape. There are ways to use the material to make it infinite. Ijams is so beautiful, it was great to spend more time there.
She stressed that there’s no right way to experience the music and encouraged everyone to download the free app and experience it. Regarding its ephemeral nature, she said, “Part of the power is that they are up for a while, then gone. As an artist, I like to move.”