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Jeff Miers: An immersive experience with Artpark’s Sonic Trails leads to a moment of connection

Jeff Miers: An immersive experience with Artpark’s Sonic Trails leads to a moment of connection

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Artpark Sonic Trails

Buffalo News music critic Jeff Miers walks one of the "Sonic Trails" at Artpark in Lewiston.

It had been 15 months since I had engaged with music and nature in any public fashion. I was ready to stick my toe back into the pool in some way. 

I chose to do so by embarking on Sonic Trails, Artpark’s inventive summerlong curatorial experience that seeks to marry music, technology and nature, employing the breathtaking beauty of the Niagara Gorge and the state park that houses the venue to underline the primordial connection between sound, song, history and the rhythms of the earth.

There are five audio tours you can choose from; each will guide you on a different trail through the park. All you need to do is download the app that will act as your private tour guide and bring headphones. Once arriving at Artpark, you literally just park your car and go.

I chose “Juneteenth: From the Past to the Living Present” for my maiden Sonic Trails voyage. Narrated by Rhiannon Giddens – a musician, historian and co-founder of the awesome string band the Carolina Chocolate Drops – the tour has musical accompaniment by Giddens and cellist Yo-Yo Ma. It centers, in Artpark’s words, on “the profound contributions of African Americans (to) American culture, music and history, seeking to imagine a society of inclusion, connection, empathy and justice.”

Artpark Sonic Trails

The Sonic Trails app leads the way on a trail at Artpark in Lewiston.

A moment of connection 

Though so many might not realize as much, Artpark and its surrounding environs provide a more than apt setting for Giddens’ noble effort to marry an often shameful past to a living, hopeful present, with the earth, the air and the water as omniscient overseers. This area was a major crossing point for refugees escaping slavery via the Underground Railroad, their eyes, hopes and dreams of freedom firmly focused on the Canadian side of the Niagara River. As Giddens spoke and sang through my headphones via the Sonic Trails app, with gorgeous cello lamentations from Yo-Yo Ma filling the space between, I gazed from my perch on the escarpment over the shimmering river toward Canada and ruminated on “inclusion, connection, empathy and justice.”

A large, flat, ancient rock provided a vantage point, and as I stood there, Giddens spoke, suggesting that this rock – painted black, to cover markings left by travelers along the path over the years – could be a metaphor for our own relationship to our country’s history.

“If you paint over something, what is beneath that paint is not erased,” Giddens said. So it is with what are sadly ongoing attempts in this country to paint a veneer of revisionism over a history of shame and disgrace. But that history is also redolent with profound examples of the indomitability of the human spirt. 

As I stood there above the river, that duality took on a visceral form. A presence.

There was a moment. The rational mind might have insisted otherwise. But there was a moment. In a flash, I felt the power of the land and the presence of those who had passed through it. Not in some Hallmark Channel, neatly wrapped-with-a-bow manner. But through a strong and deep mini-epiphany that was both exhilarating and profoundly sad.

Artpark Sonic Trails

A sign leads to one of the Sonic Trails at Artpark in Lewiston.

 A location-aware experience

Last summer, Artpark became one of the few venues in the region to find a way to engage its audience during the thick of the pandemic, when social distancing and reduced capacity were mandatory realities. Part of that summer’s unique programming included a collaboration with genre-bending composers and multimedia artists the Holladay Brothers, renowned for their forward-looking work in the world of location-aware musical compositions that employ GPS technology to curate experiences for listeners tailored to their geographic surroundings. 

Dubbed “Cover the Water,” the location-specific, ever-morphing ambient composition accompanies the listener on a lengthy trek through trails that mirror the snaking path of the Niagara River. 

As I followed the winding path, the cooler air passing across the river from the Canadian side providing a welcome counter to the heat lingering in the thick, lush greenery, the Holladay Brothers’ soundtrack moved from Brian Eno-like ambient textures into more dense, seemingly random polyrhythmic structures. Stone walls built into the side of the gorge appeared, a weathered presence serving as a reminder of Lewiston’s status as the first European settlement in Western New York, its role in the War of 1812 and the Seneca Nation’s sacred duties as protectors of the land and water, even as those European settlers sought to claim that land and water for their own.

Listening through headphones while traversing the path, with the river to my right, an air of surrealism colored the experience. Time itself, like the path and the Holladay Brothers’ ever-evolving composition, began to feel nonlinear, the past and the present folding into each other. I was a bit startled and disoriented. But I also felt connected to earth, air and history for the first time in ages. 

Artpark's Sonic Trails also includes “Her Moccasins Talk,” featuring First Nations music and storytelling, as well as tours featuring new compositions by iconic hip-hop and electronic music artist DJ Spooky and the Kronos Quartet. All are free and will be active throughout the summer. All you need is the app – Artpark Sonic Trails, which is free to download through the Apple app store and Google Play.

I’d also recommend a good pair of headphones, an open mind and a willingness to embrace an immersive experience.

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