The new audio installation “Sound on Mystic” spreads out over a winding 2-mile stretch of the Mystic River, with one end at Medford Square by Cradock Bridge and the other at Lower Mystic Lake in Arlington. According to Google Maps, a one-way walk along the route takes 50 minutes. Ignore that. If you’re going to walk one end to the other, block out at least two hours plus travel time.
Assuming you have good walking shoes, the path isn’t flooded anywhere, and you keep a brisk pace, you could probably do it in about an hour. But hurrying through “Sound on Mystic” is a disservice not only to yourself, but to the 14 pieces of art created by local composers, poets, and experimental sound sculptors, then cued up along the route in “Echoes,” a mobile app that hosts GPS-triggered sound walks. It’s also a disservice to the natural landscape waiting for anyone who ventures to take it in.
Which is to say: I could have rushed past the pair of silent and elegant waterfowl perched on a partially submerged log in the river, not stopping to walk through a dentist-office parking lot to get a closer look and take a picture and ask my social networks what they were. (The verdict: probably double-crested cormorants.) Or I could have blown through the section of the map featuring Balla Kouyaté's “Parkway,” a contemplative and curious piece played on the balafon, a West African ancestor of the modern xylophone.
I could have chosen to not pause the audio to take my headphones off and share a few moments with a turtle basking on a rock or a great blue heron fishing in the shallows. And I definitely could have dispensed with backtracking when the heron took off in the direction I came from and landed near a large nest, where a giant mute swan sat watch atop a clutch of cygnets-in-waiting. I could have, but I didn’t, and though my stomach may have let out a few choice rumbles, my mind was more content and centered than at anytime in recent memory. (Next time I walk, I’ll bring a power bank; the app drains battery quite rapidly.)
“Sound on Mystic” is the creation of audio designer Ian Coss, music producer/marketer Dwayne Johnson, and MIT administrator/poet Gary Roberts, funded by the arts councils of Medford and Arlington with support from the Mystic River Watershed Association. On its own, the installation offers a unique guided tour of the waterway; here a dark and oft-omitted chapter in its history, here a musical reflection on its significance to one composer, here a poetic interpretation of its ecology.
Experiencing it at this point in time, “Sound on Mystic” offered me something more as well: the invitation to be joyfully surprised in encountering something new, rather than the trepidation at best, terror at worst, that I had come to associate with new information since March 2020. Living in Boston and Somerville for the past five years, I’ve seen the paths along the river plenty of times from inside a car bound for Route 93, but I’d never explored them on foot. The familiar was made strange by the slow pace, but the strange was then made familiar by the sounds, which drowned out the hum of the highways.
The sole through-line between the sound pieces is the artists’ connection to the region. Each approaches the river from a different angle. Some offer a retreat from the world as it is. Others issue invitations to engage with it, such as sound artist Erin Genia’s “Continuity,” which lets listeners eavesdrop on Genia and her twin daughters as they analyze a historic marker and unpack its sanitized narrative of Native American history.
Genia usually works with ceramic vessels, ambient recordings, and spoken word material in both Dakota and English to create her sound sculptures. So “Continuity” is a departure from her usual medium, she explained in a Zoom interview. It’s also her first collaboration with her three children. “We’re a family of artists,” said Genia, a member of the Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate tribe in South Dakota and 2020 artist in residence for the city of Boston.
The conversation one hears in “Continuity” was actually recorded at the family’s home a few blocks from the river because attempts to record on-site picked up too much ambient noise. It’s based on many talks Genia had with the kids over the past year as she homeschooled the younger two. The girls contributed to the script and Genia’s son, Sam, 20, composed the music that bookends the piece.
“We focused on traditional Dakota instruments: a rattle, several different varieties of drum, and a flute,” Genia said. “We actually had a long conversation about using a flute because so often there’s this stereotypical flute music that people think of as Native music.”
“I decided to add it anyway and play with it a little bit — make it into a self-aware flute, poking fun at that narrative,” added Sam, sitting next to his mother.
Another thing further amazed me during my trek up the river. As with so many others, my ability to concentrate suffered during the pandemic. As my body grew accustomed to a cycle of crisis after crisis, my mind locked into hypervigilance for what might suddenly roar over the horizon. Even when I tried to focus on things I usually enjoyed like TV shows or books, I often felt out of tune. Meditation and exercise could reliably get me back into my body for a spell, but ultimately began to feel more like damage-control than rebuilding. Walking “Sound on Mystic” reminded me that my brain could exist somewhere other than crisis mode.
What did it take to keep all my cylinders occupied? Part of it was the immersive experience: sights, sounds, movement, not a Zoom box to be seen or a “you’re on mute” to be heard. Then there was the realization that the earth had finally woken up, after months of hitting the snooze button. Leaves were unfurling on branches, and petals were strewn along paths that were buried in heavy wet snow weeks earlier as the region was spattered with the last messy sneeze of a persistent cold.
New things begat new things. Alone on the path, I cautiously removed my face mask and let the glorious, alive smell of the riverside fill my lungs. I don’t remember consciously pulling the mask back up, but several times I realized I had covered my nose and mouth again, even though I hadn’t seen another person. Like the never-ending cascade of crises that stopped me from fully devoting my attention to anything besides doomscrolling, having my face covered at all times outside my house is another thing I’ve grown accustomed to.
It’ll take a while to re-internalize the idea that the outside air can be friendly, I realized. But in time I will. Someday we will again be used to the sun on our faces and the breeze in our noses. In the meantime, the river will keep flowing to the sea.
SOUND ON MYSTIC
Available May 15. Sound installation can be accessed via the free ECHOES app (available on the Apple or Android app stores). More information at soundonmystic.com
A.Z. Madonna can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @knitandlisten. Madonna’s work is supported by the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation.