If strolling through Golden Gate Park while listening to music sounds like a post-pandemic dream, the Kronos Quartet is about to make that dream a real-life event.
“Ellen Reid Soundwalk,” an immersive, experience-based work by composer Ellen Reid, is one of the main attractions of the San Francisco quartet’s annual Kronos Festival, returning June 11-18.
This year’s calendar includes multiple world premieres, and works by more than 20 guest artists, including streamed world premieres by Nicole Lizée, Soo Yeon Lyuh and Mahsa Vahdat, along with appearances by Sahba Aminikia, Vân-Ánh Võ, Zachary James Watkins and Wu Man, and Kronos Quartet signature works such as George Crumb’s “God-music,” Frank Zappa’s “None of the Above” and Terry Riley’s “One Earth, One People, One Love.”
While those events will come to audiences online, Reid’s work is designed to be experienced outside, in nature. The Pulitzer Prize-winning composer’s self-guided, GPS-enabled public art work, with music performed by Kronos and others, makes its Bay Area debut in the park on June 12.
“I’m thrilled,” Reid told the Examiner in a recent phone call. “Golden Gate Park is so beautiful and inspiring, and the Kronos Quartet is a legend.”
“Soundwalk” offers a one-of-a-kind event, enabled when you install a free app to your phone, download the walk, and listen in headphones. As you move through the park, the app finds sound for your location, with Reid’s score illuminating the natural environment.
The work — Reid calls it “an experience” — premiered in New York’s Central Park, and subsequent installations were introduced in Saratoga Springs, Philadelphia and Los Angeles. This will be its San Francisco debut, and Reid said that Golden Gate Park is the ideal place for it.
“It’s such a beautiful park,” she said. “Spending time in Golden Gate Park is a whole new experience. The plants, the attention to the flowers — it’s so beautiful, just really moving to be in this gorgeous landscape. That, combined with the chance to work with the Kronos, made it irresistible.”
Reid had been talking to Kronos founder and first violinist David Harrington about collaborating on a project for some time, when, she said, “I kind of went out on the edge and asked him if they’d want to collaborate on ‘Soundwalk,’” adding that, due to the pandemic, the quartet, with additional musicians, recorded individually from their homes.
“That’s the opposite of what a string quartet does usually,” she said, “and they sound beautiful. Their musicianship really shines through.”
Reid’s score ranges through styles and genres reflecting orchestral sounds, instrumental music, electronica and jazz. The composer said this ‘Soundwalk’ is different than its earlier iterations. “It needed a certain level of beauty and peace and solitude,” she said. “There are some more rambunctious, jagged musical moments that I sometimes bring into parks, but they just didn’t feel right here.” Kronos took it “next-level,” she added. “The beauty of their playing and their vision just elevates the experience. It’s been wonderful to be immersed in it.”
The experience of ‘Soundwalk’ is marvelously flexible: Reid, who likens the piece to a kaleidoscope, created the work in small bites that can be configured in myriad ways. “If you put all the little modules next to each other, it would total over an hour,” she said. “But the way that it’s layered together is infinite. There are infinite iterations of how they interact, depending on how you’re walking, how long you stand in one place. They shift when you move in the landscape around you — and hopefully bring you more into nature.”
As a result, people can choose their own path and duration on the walk. Earlier versions of ‘Soundwalk’ were more scripted, says Reid; she wanted this one to be listener-driven. “It creates collaboration for the listener,” she said. “Your choices are changing the music — in a way, you’re composing the walk.”
Reid hopes that the experience will “make people curious, so that even people who know the park really well see it in a new light — or, for people who don’t know it as well, it gives them an excuse to come, enjoy the music, connect with nature.”
Reid, a Tennessee native, is a fast-rising star in the music world. Her opera, “p r i s m,” was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 2019; her “Fear/Release” was included in “Throughline,” this season’s opening concert by the San Francisco Symphony. Hailed as one of the most innovative composer/sound artists of her generation, she co-founded, with Missy Mazzoli, the Luna Composers Lab, a mentorship program for young female, nonbinary and gender non-conforming composers. She has several projects currently in the works, but says she intends to keep bringing ‘Soundwalk’ to new environments.
“We’re building ‘Soundwalks’ in great parks in great cities,” she said. “The great thing about it is that it’s only in parks that are open to the public. So this show can go on. It’s been great to be able to bring music and art into a world at a time when it’s really challenging to do so.”
Kronos Festival, which includes the public art installation “Ellen Reid Soundwalk” in Golden Gate Park, runs free online from June 11-18. Go to kronosquartet.org.