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Step into the Missoula Art Museum on a winter day, and you may be thankful the Hellgate winds are blowing.

Inside one of the first-floor galleries are three instrumental sculptures that spring into action depending on those frigid currents of air.

You'll hear percussion emanating from "Renowind," an octagonal, rawhide drumhead equipped with a series of mallets, a set of chimes and a soft gong.

Up the steps, a "Puget Sound Table" emits gentle droning sounds from sets of strings oriented to the four cardinal directions.

Farthest in the corner, "Horizon (Songline) Translator" contributes an arpeggio of flutes.

All three are fed data from rooftop wind vanes and anemometers, which measure the velocity and direction of the wind, respectively. The information is fed through microprocessors to the alien-looking acoustic instruments.

The "Trio," as the exhibition is called, was built by Patrick Zentz, an artist who lives and works on a ranch near Laurel.

He said the basic concept is this: Take a logical system, put it in contact with a chaotic system, in this case, the wind, and there's a chance you could gain some insight or greater understanding.

Zentz compared humans' relationship to our environment to fish – they don't realize they're in a fishbowl of water because it's the "ubiquitous environment they live in."

Similarly, people grow numb to wind – "the ocean of air" around them.

"We live in such a fantastical place and it becomes the norm and we cease to notice it," he said.

He sees his art as a way of "simply pointing a finger and things and saying 'look at that.' "

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MAM curator of art Steve Glueckert said "Trio" demonstrates that artists approach their work in the same deductive manner as scientists.

In Zentz's case, Glueckert said he creates art like a scientist – the sounds are the result of an experiment, not the product of a musician trying to produce a particular score. (Zentz, too, says that the tones are not intended to be be heard as music.)

Instead, it's an attempt to bridge art and the environment – and the fact they produce that myriad variety of tones is evidence the experiment succeeded, Glueckert said.

"Renowind," for instance, has one side for each of the cardinal directions. They swivel as the velocity of the wind increases, moving the mallets closer to the drum to create a deeper tone.

The chimes will signal an increase in velocity, and a soft gong inside the drum indicates a change in direction.

"Puget Sound Table" uses strings to illustrate the speed and direction of the wind.

Slides, operated by motors, press down on the strings and raise or lower the pitch according the wind's velocity.

To indicate direction, a wind from the southwest will produce tones from the south- and west-facing arms.

Different from the other two sculptures is "Horizon (Songline) Translator."

It operates on data only from directional shifts in the wind – meaning that the sculpture, which resembles an organ's pipes wrapped in a circle, remains silent if there's no change in the wind.

In order to create an input for the piece, Zentz drew a circle on a topographical map with Missoula at its center and the radius extending to Bonner.

He selected 60 equidistant points – one per brass tube – around the circumference of the circle and pulled the data on their elevations.

That data is then used to instruct the vertical adjustments inside the brass tubes.

"A pronounced shift results in an arpeggio that defines a specific vista," Zentz explained.

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Zentz was raised on a cattle ranch near Laurel. He originally wanted to be a doctor, and enrolled at Westmont College in Santa Barbara, California, to study biology.

He had a change of heart, though, and returned to his home state. He studied sculpture at the University of Montana, and graduated with a master's degree in 1974.

Zentz then bought a ranch next door to his childhood digs and pursued careers in both ranching and art. He always remained interested in science, though, and said he hasn't produced anything resembling a traditional sculpture since college.

Zentz said the "Trio" pieces, built in 1998 and 1999, marked a critical point in his 40-year career because it was the first time he employed physical computation.

He built on that approach for public art projects, including sculptures in Salt Lake City; Las Vegas; Portland, Oregon; Seattle; Boise, Idaho; and Madison, Wisconsin.

Pieces in those more urban settings rely on data from their environments. "Homage to the Pedestrian," in Boise, for instance, consists of a series of percussion instruments atop light poles. As people walk by, the instruments create a series of sounds.

Glueckert noted that the "Trio" works are historically important in a broader sense.

"It records a time period of really avant-garde experimentation in the state of Montana," he said.

He said that Zentz has peers in artists such as Dennis Voss; Theodore Waddell, who has incorporated found objects such as roadkill into his mixed-media pieces; and Gary Horinek, a Hingham rancher who builds installations inspired by agriculture and the eastern Montana landscape.

"Trio" is part of the nonprofit MAM's permanent collection of some 1,400 works. The pieces were donated in 2011 by Billings art collectors John and Carol Green, who wanted to keep works by Montana artists in the state.

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Zentz, meanwhile, said he ceased working on physical objects six years ago to study computer programming for another phase of his work.

Building instruments that interpret data is time-consuming and involves limitations that won't hinder a piece of software.

Virtual instruments also are more liberating in terms of data he can draw on, such as information from Mars. The audience, too, isn't as limited – the work can be viewed anywhere via the Internet.

One piece in its early stages he envisions being employed in driverless cars. Since commuters will be free from the responsibilities of driving, he sees potential in programs designed to illuminate the world passing by their window.

He said the software and sensors could translate the always-changing environment outside the vehicle, combine it with vital signs such as a heartbeat and convert it into a changing soundscape.

He says that all of his artwork hinges on the idea that if we understand the natural world more deeply, "we will take care of it."

"There's an appreciation that comes with knowledge," he said.

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Arts & Entertainment Reporter

Entertainment editor for the Missoulian.