As a rhythmic, energetic beat flowed outward from DJ Wendel Patrick's turntables into the National Aquarium's Pier 4 atrium one special night in July, a simple question beckoned from a cardholder in the middle of a draped high-top table: What is the soundscape of your life? This musing, just one of many concepts guests were asked to explore during the Aquarium's Voyages: Chapter 1 event, was a fitting query on a night engineered to inspire thought, discussion and celebration around the intersection of humankind and the natural world—and how art and science play in concert around us every day.
On July 21, 2022, a sell-out crowd of grown-up "voyagers" were greeted at the Aquarium's Main Entrance with wireless headsets playing an audio journey synchronized to their movement through the Aquarium. Our maiden voyage—Chapter 1 in this new series—was developed in partnership with Baltimore beatboxer, breath artist and vocal percussionist Dominic "Shodekeh" Talifero. The auditory adventure of Voyages: Chapter 1 led guests through the Aquarium's array of aquatic habitats for an interactive, after-hours experience designed to inspire and intrigue. After months of research at the National Aquarium, Shodekeh created a unique breath art soundscape that emulated the sounds of the natural world and served as the underpinning to a narrative about the intersection of the biodiversity on display within our buildings and conservation bioacoustics—the study of the many layers of sound present in any ecosystem.
An apt example of such a soundscape is the call-and-answer patterns of many avian—that's bird-centered—ecosystems. Voyagers learned about the orchestral nature of an ecosystem's bioacoustics via a narrative track including featured scientist Ashakur Rahaman and his colleague Dr. Aaron Rice of the K. Lisa Yang Center for Conservation Bioacoustics at Cornell University's Lab of Ornithology. Their engaging explanation of the field of bioacoustics played over Shodekeh's mesmerizing breath art, recorded and mixed by local artist Erik Spangler, creating a layered, holistic audio experience.
"Sound is just one modality for us to sense the world," says Rahaman. "I think, in a way, the variety of sound that's out there—to kind of put it in broad buckets—if you think of biophany, which is biological sound, which we are talking about here, but there is also geophany, which is the arcs and geological process that creates a sound of its own, and then more increasingly, anthropophany, which is our contribution to the acoustic space and the sound of the world ... all of this coming together (creates) a kind of song of a place. If you listen, you will hear that song."
According to Dr. Rice, "Biodiversity is weird and wonderful, and it is so exciting to see all of these different ways that animals use behavior and sound to solve (their) different problems." These "problems," from hunting to courtship to communicating and arguing with their neighbors, are more relatable to our human experience than we might initially think.
Shodekeh's six-movement composition for the event was entitled "Vymatics," applying the "v" in "vocal" to "cymatics." Cymatics are intricate pulsing designs generated by sound vibrations on water and seen through a cymascope, which was developed and executed by Voyages: Chapter 1 artist Erica Hansen. As the track played through the headsets, voyagers encountered these beautiful, kinetic cymatics light displays projected onto Aquarium walls. Each light projection represented a real-time responsive projection of the biodiverse communications found within the "Vymatics" composition that Shodekeh and Hansen created for guests. The mandala-like animations created an ambient experience combining lights, sounds, and the sights and sensations of our underwater world, allowing voyagers to experience the National Aquarium like never before in a multi-sensory immersive event.
At the end of their journey, voyagers were rewarded with—what else?—an after party! An array of Baltimore's best food vendors, complete with curated cocktails by Baltimore mixologist Kendra Robinson, were on-hand to delight guests as DJ Wendel Patrick—the alter ego of classical and jazz pianist Kevin Gift—kept voyagers on their feet and on the dance floor until the night's end.
"That was the most fun I've had in a long time!" proclaimed Lore Fedrowski of Baltimore. "It was so amazing to make friends with all the fish and be filled with childlike wonder for a night."
"Ten-out-of-ten!" raved voyager Stacey Konen. "I would absolutely do this again!" Voyager Jason Auden agreed. "I've never seen the Aquarium this way before," he said. "This was a totally unique experience."
As its name implies, Voyages: Chapter 1 is just the beginning. We look forward to welcoming the community back—and enchanting new voyagers—with Voyages: Chapter 2 on Thursday, November 17, 2022. A new sensory experience created by a new collective of artists and scientists will once again transform the National Aquarium for one special adults-only evening. To make sure you are among the first to receive all the details, subscribe to our Voyages mailing list.