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Professor creates soundwalk to complement ambient noise in Fergus Falls

St. Cloud State University professor Scott Miller tries to complement surrounding sounds, a process like adding strings to percussion instruments already there.

An illustration of a person in headphones walking outside while music notes burst from the surroundings.
Troy Becker / The Forum
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FERGUS FALLS, Minn. — Musical notes, specifically composed for Fergus Falls, can be plucked from the air while enjoying the city’s walking spaces.

Scott Miller, a professor of music at St. Cloud State University for the past 28 years, grew up in New York and moved to Minnesota where he received his Ph.D. from the University of Minnesota.

So far, Miller has created three soundwalks: At the University of Minnesota, in Minneapolis and in Fergus Falls. A soundwalk is a musical experience using GPS tracking from a phone that will cue up music strategically placed into his app, SonARIII .

“It's really a beautiful experience,” Miller said. “What you don’t experience is anything resembling a song. It’s an experience that you enter into. When you walk into an area or zone where the sound is programmed to respond or play, it’s more of a steady sound experience. There's change, but it’s not shaped like a normal composition with a beginning, middle and an end. It begins when you begin and where you end.”

A brick clock tower resembling a grandfather clock in an old downtown.
Part of the soundwalk through downtown Fergus Falls, Minnesota.
C.S. Hagen / The Forum

He tries to complement surrounding sounds, a process like adding strings to percussion instruments already there. Ambient noises in Fergus Falls include trains, bells, traffic, birds, waterfalls, buzzing electric boxes — daily life in any bustling town.

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“Part of the soundwalk goes along the Otter Tail River, and another aspect is that walk also takes you past a dam that generates electricity, and this creates its own distinctive kinds of sounds. The dam sounds like a sci-fi film soundtrack,” Miller said.

Many of his sounds are synthetic sounding, and at times like church bells, especially in the Lake Alice area. Music for that area of the soundwalk was inspired by the 1919 cyclone that wreaked havoc across the town.

“Legend is that the church bell was thrown into Lake Alice, and you can still hear that ringing if you listen to it closely enough,” Miller said.

The Fergus Falls composition took him nearly a year to complete, and he finished the project in November 2021.

“At the end of the walk, you get in the right place, you should hear a small boat bell and steam whistle, which was inspired by the early boat traffic. There was a lot of traffic going to the Red River,” Miller said.

White, foamy water cascades through a small dam
The dam along the river walk in Fergus Falls, Minnesota, is part of the soundwalk created by St. Cloud State University professor Scott Miller.
C.S. Hagen / The Forum

Miller was attracted to Fergus Falls because he spent time there in 2015, and he remembers the arts community fondly. Since that time, he was looking for a way to return for artistic reasons to connect with the community again.

His approach to soundwalk composition involves walking the routes, which are later clearly marked in red on the app. He takes notes, records sounds and lets his ears guide him.

“Then I start composing music that I think is complementary to those sounds or in some way draws attention to an aspect of that area,” Miller said.

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With three soundwalks finished, he’s open to creating a fourth, possibly even in Fargo.

“I’m absolutely open to the idea. It would be a matter of bringing together the resources to make it happen,” Miller said.

A Canada goose walks on lush grass in front of a lake.
Part of the soundwalk created by St. Cloud State University professor Scott Miller goes along Lake Alice in Fergus Falls, Minnesota.
C.S. Hagen / The Forum

C.S. Hagen is an award-winning journalist currently covering the education and activist beats mainly in North Dakota and Minnesota.
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