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Dancing to the sounds of the Duluth harbor
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A Duluth composer has turned the sounds of the Duluth harbor into music. (Photo courtesy Ken Newhams, Duluth Shipping News)
Most people who visit Duluth spend some time sight-seeing on the waterfront. But the sounds of the harbor can be just as inspiring as the sights. A young composer has turned those sounds into music.

Duluth, Minn. — Duluth's harbor is a noisy place. Ships blow their horns. Trains rumble through. And the Aerial Lift Bridge rings an alarm when it goes up and down.

Ryan Rapsys hears music in all this.

Rapsys studied composition at the University of Minnesota Duluth. He graduated just last spring. His orchestral work has been performed by the Duluth-Superior Symphony Orchestra.

He loves to write electronic music, and he also likes to play with sounds he's recorded.

Every sound in this piece started as noise in the harbor. Rapsys recorded more than a hundred sounds, and brought them back to his computer, and mixed them.

"I like to think of it as -- instead of instruments, music can be made out of any sound sources," Rapsys says. "And music is the art of sound in time, so it's all fair game in my opinion."

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Image Ryan Rapsys

Rapsys's work, "Sounds of the Harbor," uses a tone most people recognize - the warning horn the Aerial Lift Bridge makes when it's rising for a boat coming through the canal.

Rapsys repeats the horn and changes its pitch to create a melody.

"I didn't do anything real crazy with it," he says. Sometimes he likes to bend and distort sounds. But for this piece he says the sounds themselves are so interesting, he didn't want to change them.

The horn melody mixes with intricate rhythms created by other harbor sounds, including a truck backing up and a crane loading cargo.

Rapsys loves rhythm. And he likes to work with the texture or timbre of his found sounds. He hears music even in the sound of gravel falling off a shovel.

"Every single sound has some timbrel quality," he says. "Because you have the rocks, how they cling off each other based on their volume or velocity. What's happening with a lot of those is you're hearing overtones."

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Image Lisa McKhann

Admittedly, this music isn't for everyone. But Lisa McKhann loves it. She's the one who commissioned the work. She's a dancer and choreographer. She moved to Duluth six years ago, and her backyard is on the harbor.

To go with Rapsys's music, she designed a dance that suggests a clash between human and machine.

"He's got incredible rhythms built into it, and real complexity," she says. "So to me it brought to mind just the workings of machines."

The dance is part of a program called "Sounding Duluth." Tonight and tomorrow night, thirty artists will blend dance, music, spoken word, and painting on the stage of the Weber Music Hall.

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Image Rehearsal

Ryan Rapsys's "Sounds of the Harbor" is the centerpiece of the program.

It's the first time he's written music for dance. He says it's a perfect combination. Rapsys admits his compositions sometimes don't work well in a concert setting. Much of the music is being played back from a computer. The dance will give the audience something to look at, and Rapsys says it'll help them respond to the music.

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