Burke Jam

Sonic artist Burke Jam will perform a sound piece over the sound system at Washington-Grizzly Stadium on Sunday, Nov. 24.

Only a few artists have performed their work in Washington-Grizzly Stadium. Smokey Robinson. Pearl Jam. The Rolling Stones. Paul McCartney.

This Sunday, the concert-caliber PA system will crank out sounds by a different kind of artist: Burke Jam, a University of Montana art alumnus, who creates abstract, conceptual soundscapes that are more like art installations than pop music or a DJ set.

Jam was invited to perform as part of the UM Innovation Factory, the kind of offer rarely extended to creators like him.

"Those systems are not something you're going to get to play with every day as a composer or as a sound artist," he said.

The Innovation Factory debuted earlier this month with a 30-day roll-out of events. The space, located on the second floor of the University Center, is outfitted with equipment like 3-D printers and laser cutter that students, faculty and community members can use to develop cross-disciplinary ideas and products.

Brad Allen, a UM art professor and co-director of the Innovation Factory, said it was an idea that Jam had mentioned back in graduate school. As part of the Innovation Factory's roll-out, they wanted a performance and art element, and connected with him.

They cleared the idea with the administration and the stadium staff, who have been working with Jam on technical details about the sound system.

Allen said you can think about the project as a disruption, a positive one though, thanks to the "scale, magnitude and reach" of the PA system. The game announcer's voice typically carries far across the valley, and Jam's sounds could carry up onto Mount Sentinel, too, likely catching the ears of hikers.

The piece, which Jam is composing with field recordings and manipulated sounds, will be not be a musical concert. It's more of an experience, albeit one with a large PA.

The idea of sound art as opposed to music can be unfamiliar, but he's optimistic that listeners can enjoy it regardless of their musical or artistic background.

"My hope is that this piece is something that regardless of what people's musical background or artistic background or experience is, it's just something that they can be in space with for you know, 35 to 40 minutes, and be like, 'Wow, that was really bizarre, that was something,'" he said. 

Jam, a Red Lodge native, studied art at UM for his bachelor's in art and master's in sculpture while playing music solo and in local bands like This is a Process of a Still Life. In the years since he finished school, he moved from visual art into sound. In 2013-14, he went to Iceland on a Fulbright grant to study environmental sound. 

In 2015, he returned to Missoula for an exhibition at the alternative art gallery FrontierSpace. The soundscape in his installation "Constellate: Borealis" shifted based on data from the aurora and the audience's physical position in the space.

So what's this going to sound like? Jam is going to use field recordings, modular synthesis and samples of human vocals that he'll manipulate live. The field recordings are often "sounds" that can't be heard with the human ear — activity in the atmosphere that often sounds like clicks and pops when captured by a special antennae. 

It's not ambient music, but often gets compared to it — relatively quiet and sometimes slowly evolving compositions, usually made with electronic equipment, and often intended to hover in the background.

The piece has a working title of "Skyquake," a "loose term that describes sonic phenomenon that is not empirically provable."

"The definition is an extremely loud sound or noise of unexplained origin that's perceived to emanate from the sky or the atmosphere," he said.

He's also been thinking about and looking at data from the floods in Glacial Lake Missoula, and thinking about the context of a large-scale public address system like the concert-grade one in Washington-Grizzly. People associate it with a certain purpose: loud, rallying music, and his project might "not necessarily subverting but inverting" what we expect to hear.

"What does that mean to have a system that is used primarily for rallying the crowd, and playing the theme songs and doing that kind of stuff in a specific context, what does that mean to take a system like that and all of a sudden use that instead of those kind of topical things, to amplify sounds that we're surrounded by on a daily basis but we don't necessarily hear with our own ears?" he said.

Another project he's been thinking about is one by a fellow sound artist, Laurence English, who was invited to create sound pieces using the World War II air raid system in Los Angeles. 

Jam's creating a skeleton of a composition that he can manipulate live, depending on how things sound and "working with whatever's happening in the space, depending on like how many people are there, or what the weather's doing, it might be a complete blizzard, it might be a 60-degree day in Missoula, who knows?"

People will be free to bring blankets and lie down, or move around the field to see how the sound varies in different locations. Jam never attended any of the Washington-Grizzly concerts himself, although he did hike up on Mount Sentinel to watch the Rolling Stones.

The chance to perform a piece there himself is rare, and ties in with the Innovation Factory's mission: 

"Looking at different ways artistic media can push and pull and explore things that may be left of field, or left of center, and what happens when we dig in in a different way and play with it that way," he said.