Gabi Lewton-Leopold was walking in Central Park with her class when she decided she wanted to study art history. She was plugged into a piece by Canadian sound artist Janet Cardiff called Her Long Black Hair—Cardiff barked directions and historical tidbits directly into Lewton-Leopold’s ears, and she found herself floored by the disconnect between what she saw and what she heard.
“It was one of those moments where I was like, ‘Oh my god, what is this? This is art?!’ It blew my mind,” Lewton-Leopold says. “She had this great quote about walking, which was, ‘One foot in the past, one in the future, and the body in between.’”
The quote applies just as snugly to Overlay, a new soundwalk Lewton-Leopold made in collaboration with her husband, local composer Branic Howard, for Third Angle New Music. Designed to take listeners on a scenic, story-filled, hourlong loop through Mt Tabor Park, Overlay is the first in a series of 10 park-centered soundwalks Third Angle plans to release monthly between now and August 2021.
In early March, moments before COVID shutdowns, Howard led a soundwalk for Third Angle that looped from the eastern edge of the Hawthorne Bridge through downtown. Traditionally, a soundwalk describes the simple act of walking and listening at the same time—actively absorbing the ambience of an urban environment. The walk Howard hosted in March followed this model. Once COVID came, though, Third Angle approached him about putting together something a little more composed.
"I don't think in narratives. I don't have any connections to words, really, when I'm making stuff," he says, so he recruited Lewton-Leopold, a writer, to help shape some sort of story component. After living in Southeast Portland for years, the pair decided to focus on Tabor, charting an easy route that passes the dormant volcano's reservoirs and bobs between heavily-trafficked paths and remote foliage-filled corners.
Throughout the hourlong walk (which includes spoken directions from Lewton-Leopold), Overlay presents listeners with all kinds of mini-narratives: a woman recalls witnessing a hawk take an animal from a reservoir; someone senses the ghost of their dead partner in a nearby ringtone; a man reflects on the simple pleasures of gathering regularly with coffee and friends on one of Tabor's slopes. It's sneakily affecting.
Some storytellers are friends of the couple; some are randos Howard encountered while recording field sound; one is Lewton-Leopold herself, recounting the solar eclipse of 2017. Their words bob in and out, some filtered like phone calls, some whispered directly in the listener's ear, all undergirded by the park's natural sounds. "Tabor is so unique because it feels wild, even though it really isn't that wild," Lewton-Leopold says, contrasting its roughness with the Central Park gloss of Laurelhurst. "But there is wildlife there, and it's right in the city, and when you're walking along you can still hear the city." Overlay highlights and thrives on these kinds of contrasts and complements—wild and civilized, here and gone, alone and together.
Howard and Lewton-Leopold hope especially to harp on that latter duality. While the route is designed for Mt Tabor, Lewton-Leopold notes that a friend in Brooklyn listened in Prospect Park—the added disconnect only enhances the piece's themes, and it echoes Lewton-Leopold's early experience with Cardiff in Central Park. Howard hopes, too, that Overlay might change listeners' relationships with sound itself.
"It's about partly focusing on sound as a concrete thing that you can experience," he says. "It's a lot more difficult than it's ever been to just stop and do this thing called listening." With Overlay, though—for an hour, at least—it's not only easy. It's exciting.
Overlay is now streaming on Third Angle's website. On Thursday, December 10, listeners can access a recorded Zoom Q&A event with Howard and Lewton-Leopold.