Circle the east side of the psychology building onto Charles E. Young Drive, where crunchy pine needles often blanket the winding path toward the road, and you’ll hear the hum of traffic coming from Hilgard Avenue. But beginning this quarter, you can hear something else.
A celestial-sounding synthesizer melody.
Head south on the bustling iconic drive and the synth music builds, as if pulling you toward the Mildred E. Mathias Botanical Garden. Continuing further south past the Terasaki Life Sciences building, you can suddenly hear vocals and chimes, almost eerie sounding particularly if a helicopter going to Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center flies overhead joining the chorus.
All these different sonic elements mesh seamlessly into a soundtrack that layers and changes based on where you’re walking through campus.
Though it’s a novel and contemplative way to experience UCLA’s beautiful Westwood campus, it’s decidedly not meant to make campus feel like a new and alien environment. In fact, said its creator, Pulitzer Prize–winning composer and sound artist Ellen Reid, the music is meant to be heard in conjunction with the ambient sounds on campus. Birds, bells, marching band practice — and squirrels.
“Squirrels — lots of very bold squirrels,” said Reid, who composed original music geocoded to specific locations — everywhere from the residence halls at the top of the Hill to the Franklin D. Murphy Sculpture Garden in the northeastern corner of campus and extending south to the botanical garden.
The result is a free public artwork, powered by a GPS-enabled smartphone app, that uses music to animate the campus's environment. After downloading and installing the Ellen Reid SOUNDWALK app, participants have the freedom to explore campus along whatever path they choose and as they enter designated spots, they’ll trigger musical “cells” that are carefully crafted to harmonize with the environment around them.
Reid has been working on the SOUNDWALK project for a long time. Her first installation launched in September 2020 in New York City’s Central Park. There are 12 active SOUNDWALKs — one of which is in Athens, Greece — and one that opened recently in her home state of Tennessee.
Then in early 2021, in conjunction with UCLA’s Center for the Art of Performance, Reid brought SOUNDWALK to Griffith Park, incorporating a Los Angeles feel into the composition and making plans to compose a UCLA edition that worked in conjunction with the Griffith Park version. The UCLA version went live Sept. 1.
“This special SOUNDWALK is dedicated to the students, health care professionals, faculty and staff of UCLA,” Reid said on the CAP UCLA website. “It is intended as a complement to the main installation in Griffith Park, and I hope that it brings the same sense of reflection, adventure and endless possibility to the UCLA campus. I welcome listeners to observe how sound can alter the perception of a place, beckoning them to explore new areas and to experience the familiar with a fresh perspective.”
Kristy Edmunds, executive and artistic director of CAP UCLA, which presented the UCLA project in association with UCLA’s Student Committee for the Arts, said, “It considers your body in time and space through the music and the technology.”
Take the west end of Bruin Walk at the base of the Hill. Head toward Drake Stadium and the intramural field — the massive field creating a sea of green to your left — and ambient horns, almost jazz-like, seep through your headphones.
Figuring out the areas on campus to score involved getting buy-in from the Student Committee for the Arts, a multidisciplinary group of student art enthusiasts and activists who work to bring programming as well as event awareness to the student body.
B Thompson, co-director of the committee, was struck by how much Reid cared about the students' ideas. She asked all of them: What do you think the emotional heart of campus is?
“That was a really powerful question,” said Thompson, a fifth-year world arts and cultures major who is also minoring in arts education and community engagement. For Thompson, the heart of campus lies at Janss Steps, a place they interpret as the campus’ converging point.
Reid said that her team took this feedback to heart and included the students’ six location suggestions in the SOUNDWALK’s composition. The app shows this almost like an imprint, with an aerial view of UCLA where sound cells are seen connecting the various “hearts” of campus in what sort of looks like a horse.
Listeners can use the map to navigate their walk throughout campus, or choose their own path going in and out of sound cells at random. Regardless of how you experience it, the music always integrates seamlessly into the next cell or fades in or out when you enter or exit the geolocations.
“It’s a unifier,” Edmunds said.
As a multimedia public art project, SOUNDWALK is a great fit for UCLA, a campus whose 419 acres have often been used like a public park. Edmunds said she can’t count the number of acquaintances who have taught their kids to ride bikes on the campus’ paths.
Edmunds, who spent much of pandemic in a very lonely Royce Hall, has wondered how to make a gift to a diverse group of people accessing campus during a pandemic — most importantly for the health care workers taking walks during their breaks.
“It’s a thing that considers you through music and the landscape of here and the time that we’re in,” she said.
Part of the SOUNDWALK ensemble is violist Nadia Sirota, an artist-in-residence with CAP UCLA and one of the creative producers on the project. Sirota was among the musicians who recorded their sections of the composition isolated in their homes.
“Picture the musical elements as a sort of chef’s mise-en-place. You have all these aromatics and oils and starches and herbs at your fingertips, and you use them to enhance what’s there; the green space is sort of the central element or protein of the dish,” Sirota said.
Reid’s thoughtful scoring and the musical execution would suggest a cohort of people markedly familiar with campus. Just head over to the botanical garden. Wind your way down to the garden gate, and suddenly a flute dances into the melody, just as the hums of generators on south campus fade. Then a crescendo, almost like the buzz of bees surrounds you as you enter the refuge of green. Lastly, calm, as rays of light shine through the leaves and the sounds of the creek join the harp notes of Reid’s score.
“This one at UCLA,” Reid said, “is a really special one.”