One of my priorities as I enter my third and possibly last year of living in New York City is to experience as much of the city as possible, as cheaply and meaningfully as I can. This means about a million things, from taking advantage of free admission days at local museums, to using the heck out of our museum memberships, to prioritizing those activities that are worth paying for that allow me to see the city in a new way.

One activity that fell into the lattermost category (but that I didn’t have to pay for myself since I went on a field trip with work, score!) was the To a Great City tour, part of the Guggenheim’s Stillspotting NYC, a series of installations around Lower Manhattan.

The staging of five recorded works by Pärt gradually transports visitors from the hustle and bustle of the streetscape to an elevated urban experience that makes them newly aware of their sense of hearing. Visitors can experience this confluence of music and architecture at five separate locations downtown that quietly celebrate the city, ten years after the September 11 attacks. Traveling through sites along the periphery of Ground Zero, participants encounter a green labyrinth created by the Battery Conservancy, reflect in an underground chamber at Governors Island National Monument, and enter otherwise inaccessible spaces in landmark skyscrapers. The stillness and seclusion of these spaces heightens awareness and recalibrates the senses. Over the course of a day, participants may visit each space multiple times at their leisure to understand how their perception changes based on circumstances such as time, stress, appetite, and sleep. Listeners become increasingly sensitized as they are drawn in and ideally are transformed to a focused and tranquil state.

We were able to hit 3 of the 5 sites (the other 2 located on Governors Island had to be skipped because we missed the last ferry of the day, boo), and so we got to walk a labyrinth in Battery Park, check out the view from the 46th floor of 7 World Trade Center, and hang out in the Woolworth Building. In each location, music helped to quiet the world around you and focus your attention.

I’d say, overall, the project wasn’t super successful. The coolest thing about it was getting access to non- or semi-public areas, and most often the music felt rather forced and awkward. I would have liked to have seen more spaces that New Yorkers take for granted (the labyrinth in Battery Park, for example) given a soundtrack for download and personal use. How cool would it be to be hanging out in Battery Park and see a few people walking the labyrinth with headphones on, participating in something you don’t know about yet, but want to find out about?  As it was executed, it felt rather stiff and formal.

That said, I was glad to have done it, and would have paid the $10 ticket fee myself. The inside of the neo-Gothic Woolworth Building was insanely detailed and beautiful (This photo hardly does it justice), and the views of the newly opened 9/11 Memorial from 7 WTC were lovely. I only wish we’d been able to see the sites on Governors Island to round out the experience – that might have changed my impressions of the tour overall.

Tours for To a Great City run from Thursdays to Sundays, September 15–18 and 22–25, 2011. Hours of operation are 11 am–7 pm, with the last ticket pick-up at 4 pm (but try not to miss the last Governors Island ferry!). Information available here.

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