What is the “Sound” of Duluth?
What is the sound of Duluth? Or Minneapolis, Brooklyn, or Austin, TX for that matter? Looking at the last two cities, you might argue that a jangly variant of lo-fi garage pop epitomizes their current “sound.” But characterizations like that don’t really get at a city’s sound so much as the type of music that’s popular among musicians from that locale. And thanks to the proliferation of Internet music culture, chances are the aesthetic popular in one larger city is also popular in another. (Do you see how I just conflated Austin and Brooklyn?) I imagine one thing working against larger metro areas—let’s add Portland and, to a lesser extent, Seattle to the mix as well—cultivating a distinguishing music style is the in-and-out migration of young creative types. A good portion of the artistic work comes from individuals with shorter roots to the region and a poorer sense of the city’s music history.
Minneapolis has a long history of well-loved, well-known, and well-remembered musicians and bands who’ve called the city home. Dylan, Prince, the Replacements, Hüsker Dü, yadda yadda—all regarded as seminal “Minneapolis artists.” But there’s nothing essentially “Minneapolis” about Robert Zimmerman’s raspy storytelling, the skeezy grooves of The Artist, or the charging punk of the ’80s. Nothing in the guitar chords, drum kicks, or synth riffs. Without outside knowledge of the band, it would be nearly impossible to pinpoint where the seminal bands came from. Maybe, if explicit enough or Google-able, you could guess from some revealing lyrics . . .
Two bands notorious for name-dropping their home state are the Hold Steady and Motion City Soundtrack. (For the latter, it’s even encoded in their name!) And neither of them, in my opinion, connects music to place in anything more than a superficial way. While mentioning Lyndale Avenue or City Center may serve an autobiographical or narrative end, the references are merely cultural touchpoints for the listener a character in the song. Depending on the track, artists like these come off as either encyclopedic city slickers or desperate crowd-pleasers.
So what about Duluth? The harbor city’s biggest cultural exports are, arguably, Low and Trampled by Turtles. But just like Prince and the Replacements, Low’s shoegazing alt-rock and Trampled by Turtles’ rootsy bacchanalia aren’t particularly “Duluthy.” A half-liquored-up music-theory graduate student might contrarily try to argue that the cold, foggy winters of Duluth lend a mellow, introspective quality to Low’s songwriting; or that big-small town vibe of downtown Duluth is the origin of the celebratory togetherness of Trampled’s folky bombast. I believe that music can capture the atmosphere of a place as large as a city, but I don’t think it can be accomplished through rock or pop.
Not to sound like an old saw . . . but this is a perfect realm for experimentalism—like the combination of found-sound manipulation and abstract choral music of Philip Blackburn. Blackburn is a UK-born “environmental sound artist” who’s been doing much of the album production work for the fabulous and under-appreciated innova record label based in St. Paul. After about 20 years with innova, the label is releasing what amounts to Blackburn’s “debut album,” Ghostly Psalms (due out February 28). The lead-off track from the album is “Duluth Harbor Serenade,” an 8-minute wander along the shore of Lake Superior and the up the cobblestone avenues of the taconite city.
“Duluth Harbor Serenade” is a montage of found sounds mingled with immersive public performances in the city. (Watch the video below.) The shrill bellows of fog horns, piercing wail of ambulance sirens, and tolls of church bells comingle with the laughter of school children, buzzing chainsaws, an impromptu street-corner choral arrangement, lapping waves, and random loud instruments played and recorded simultaneously throughout the city. According to innova, the composition was “heard over several miles.”
Blackburn’s serenade is, I think, the perfect example of music capturing the “sound” of a city. Listening to it brings me back to day trips with my dad and brother to Canal Park and crooked evenings walking out of Fitger’s. The recording samples he chose to spotlight on the track speak to Duluth’s industrial past—the boats pushing through the harbor, the railcars loading and unloading ore from the Iron Range—in a very honest way. One example of someone trying this out in Minneapolis—to a much lesser extent—is Jeremy Messersmith at the end of his song “Light Rail.” These are the sounds that make the city what it is, turned into music. On top of that, by bringing the performance into the streets, Blackburn indirectly engaged Duluth’s whole population with his art.
I’d argue that a work like “Duluth Harbor Serenade” is possible for every city, every town. It’s up to the artist, of course, to single out the integral, nostalgic, idiosyncratic snippets of noise that make the place memorable, that turn a city into a hometown.