Minnesota composer Scott Miller began his musical journey in a high school rock band. “I didn’t think of it as composing,” he said, “really it was more of this kind of collaborative approach with everybody in the band trying to produce songs.” 

But during his time “composing” with the band, he discovered unique aspects of music that inspired him. “The things that I was interested in weren’t songs with lyrics, but I was attracted to instrumental things that often involved lots of intricate rhythm and really sort of had musical features that I much later would learn were associated with musical minimalism and classical music,” he explained. His experience led him to take music on as a career. 

Growing up in New York, Miller moved to Minnesota where he received his Ph.D. from the University of Minnesota. Soon after, he got a job working as a professor for St. Cloud State University where he has been teaching students about electronic music, composition, music theory and more for 28 years. 

Part of Miller’s work over the past 28 years has involved “soundwalks.” A soundwalk uses the GPS tracking in a walker’s phone to play audio based on the proximity of the walker to strategically placed virtual speakers that are programmed into the app. 

To better explain how it works, Miller used the example of how apps are often available when visiting a museum. As the visitor approaches a particular painting or sculpture, the app will recognize that the visitor is near that particular work and will begin playing a narrator’s voice, describing its history and significance. The same concept applies for a soundwalk. As the walker approaches a specific point along the walk, a soundtrack inspired by that particular area will begin to play. 

Having created two soundwalks in the past, Miller decided Fergus Falls would be the perfect place to make another one. Miller took part in a Hinge Arts Residency in 2015 through Springboard for the Arts.

“I had a fantastic time,” he said. “I really loved my stay in Fergus Falls and I’d been trying to find a way to have to do work in Fergus Falls again since then.” 

He began the process of creating the Fergus Falls soundwalk by doing a listening walk throughout Fergus Falls, taking notes, photos, video and recording the ambient sounds. He then used that work as reference as he composed music that would resonate with the natural sounds of the area. 

“I wasn’t trying to create a soundtrack that replaced or blocked out what you hear,” he said, “I wanted to produce music that would compliment what was going on and that would somehow make you, as a listener, hear the natural environment in a slightly different way that hopefully stays with you when you’re not using the app.”

There were many particular sounds that inspired Miller, including the dam, which Miller says reminded him of a sci-fi film. “It’s amazing!” he exclaimed. “Just the sound that comes out of that building. It was really a surprise.” 

He also noticed intriguing sounds emanating from the Otter Tail Power Company building, “There is all of this electromagnetic interference that you can hear when you have headphones plugged into an electronic device,” he described. “You can’t hear it in the air, but it’s really just this sort of this amazing window into things that are going on in our environment that you probably aren’t very much aware of.” 

Miller also found himself inspired by the water — specifically Lake Alice, the Otter Tail River and local history surrounding the two bodies of water.

He was particularly interested in the story of when the cyclone of 1919 threw a church bell into Lake Alice. “The mythology is that you can still hear the bell ringing,” he explained. He also found himself intrigued by the history of the steamboats that used to float down the Otter Tail River on their way to the Red River. “There were these little steam boats that had bells on them and steam whistles,” he said, “and so the music that I ended up creating for this are all inspired by, really, bells — the idea of these bell sounds.”

Some of the sounds are synthesized, some are actual bells, and all of the sound changes depending on where the listener is on the walk. 

The whole soundwalk is available on an app called SonAR III Fergus Falls, which Miller created with the help of some student software engineers. “It’s a team effort,” he explained. “It’s collaborative, even if it doesn’t seem like a collaboration in a direct way, this is only possible with the work that lots of people have done for years.”

Miller learned a lot through the development of the app, but admitted that “it’s kind of secondary to the art making.”

“It's really important to not forget that really what I’m trying to do is make an artwork that I want to share with people. So I’m looking forward to letting somebody else have the satisfaction of solving the app programing and I’ll focus on the satisfaction of working with sound,” he said. 

Those who are interested in testing out the soundwalk can download the SonAR III Fergus Falls app to try it out. It’s a very pleasant, doable soundwalk, taking walkers through the riverwalk and around Lake Alice. 

It’s recommended to use headphones that don’t totally block the noise. So walkers can hear sounds from the SonAR III composition as well as sounds of the environment mixed together at the same time. 

For more information visit scottmiller.net/sonar-iii

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