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Blowin' in the wind

Artist Burke Jam lets the sounds of nature take the reins

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Burke Jam spent the first part of graduate school experimenting with a harp. Not just any harp, but an Aeolian harp that can only be played by the wind. The instrument was first described in the late 1600s by a Jesuit scholar and was named after Aeolus, the Greek god of wind. Its strings are loose, so if it's plucked by a person there is no sound. But when the wind blows through it, it begins to hum. The scientific term for the natural phenomenon is the "von Karman vortex street effect," and it's demonstrated in other situations, like when power lines vibrate during a gust. A person can adjust the harp's string, but how it sounds is dictated by nature.

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  • Burke Jam
  • A photograph by Burke Jam that will be used in his upcoming installation Sonification 1–3.

"You can tune the strings to a certain key but the topography, the wind speed and direction, the vegetation—all of that affects how the wind moves through that environment, which in turn affects the sound of the harp," Jam says.

Jam is a Missoula artist and musician whose atmospheric shows—whether under his solo moniker, Churchmouse, or as a guitarist in bands like Scriptures—hint heavily at his penchant for sonic experimentation. He's also been involved in Missoula's alternative visual art scene, most recently as a curator for the back-alley gallery, Frontier Space, which often shows avant garde art installations that are sometimes kept secret until the day of exhibit.

With the Aeolian harp experiment, Burke mapped out several arbitrarily chosen outdoor sites—some small as a room, others hundreds of miles wide—with a compass. He visited each cardinal and sub-cardinal point of the landscape, of which there are eight, just like notes in a scale. He recorded whatever music the wind made with the harp.

"Each one would have a different sound and it would be indicated by the actual site itself," he says. "If you play it all together, all of sudden you get chords."

Sound installations aren't always the easiest thing to present to an audience. Jam created an audio piece recently where he walked the entire length of the Spiral Jetty and recorded what he heard. The Utah-based earthwork sculpture made in 1970 by the late Robert Smithson is meant to be seen, but Burke approached it another way. He recorded his footsteps, which provided an aural texture that's surprisingly rich: you can hear him navigating over sand, rocks and crunchy salt crystals. You can also hear other sounds in the sky such as airplaines—Delta flights into Salt Lake City, mostly—and birds.

During his time working toward an interdisciplinary master's degree in the University of Montana's Fine Arts program, Jam has amassed hours of field recordings. In his upcoming thesis show, The Shadow of Polaris: Understanding Sound and Place, he examines music made by certain natural objects. Besides some photographs, he's keeping the main art installation under wraps so that viewers will be surprised when they walk in. But he promises that it will be both a visual and aural experience.

As with all of his work, Polaris will involve natural elements. Jam says he's interested in how sound affects the environment, especially when it comes to issues like fracking, climate change and pollution.

"Most people who you ask on the street can tell you what fracking is," Jam says. 'But they don't understand the amount of decibels and how powerful a sonic wave that it's sending through the water. It literally kills huge amounts of sea life and it distorts migratory paths for salmon and whales."

His art pieces don't take political sides. Instead, he weaves those issues into his installations in indirect ways.

"It puts too narrow of a parameter on what I'm trying to ask my audience," Jam says. "When you present a politic you run the risk of polarizing an audience. Sometimes that's your job as an artist. But I just want people—whether from rural Montana or Brooklyn—to be able to walk into a gallery and experience the work I do and walk out with a set of questions."

On March 1, Jam will show another installation that also explores sound. Sonification 1–3, which he'll show at the Music Recital Hall, uses panoramic photos he shot of natural landscapes around Montana. As the photos rotate, local band Stellarondo will play a literal interpretation of the images scored by Jam. He composed the music by using the outlines of clouds and mountains to dictate what notes the musicians should play.

"They're sight-reading the visual image the same way they'd read a staff of music," he says. "To my mind music is just an object of sound. Sound is just a phenomenon like light."

With a master's degree in hand, Jam has plans to explore more of his ideas in the area of natural acousticology. His next project will take him to Iceland, where he'll spend two months recording sites across the country.

"We are definitely a visual culture," he says. "But for me, sound is fascinating. In the summer, when I'm not teaching or working in the studio, I'm smoke-jumping. In the woods, in the dark, you hear things before you actually see them."

The MFA Thesis show featuring The Shadow of Polaris opens at UM's Gallery of Visual Arts in the Social Science Building Thu., Feb. 21, with a reception from 5 to 7 PM.

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