Celebrating Art and Science at Voyages: Chapter 2
Featured local artists Jessica Keyes and Patrick McMinn wrote, produced and performed a four-part composition inspired by the Chesapeake Bay.
On a chilly evening in November 2022, nearly 500 guests poured into the National Aquarium for the second installment of Voyages, our after-hours, 21+ event series that debuted in July with the inaugural Chapter 1 event.
Every Voyages event will feature local vendors serving up some of the best of the Baltimore food scene and an after party featuring local talent, and Chapter 2 was no exception. Event guests—collectively known as "voyagers"—kicked off the evening with drinks and dinner in Pier 4 and ended the experience with performances from Eze Jackson and DJ Trillnatured.
In between, voyagers traveled throughout the exhibits in Pier 3 as they listened to Will the Great Water Remember, a four-part composition written and performed by local artists Jessica Keyes and Patrick McMinn. Voyagers listened to the first three movements in the composition on individual headphones as they explored Aquarium exhibits. The fourth movement was in the form of live music traveling throughout the space, performed by a group dubbed the Schooling Fish Ensemble.
For each Voyages event, the featured artist—or in this case, artists—take a deep dive into a scientific topic, using their research to inform their work. Will the Great Water Remember is influenced by months of Jessica's and Patrick's individual research, interviews with Aquarium staff, and conversations with experts in the field about the biodiversity in the Chesapeake Bay.
In the project's early stages, Jessica and Patrick planned to focus their research on schooling fish. Although this idea still found its way into the final composition in the form of the Schooling Fish Ensemble, Jessica and Patrick switched gears to Bay biodiversity after discussions with National Aquarium Director of Field Conservation Charmaine Dahlenburg and General Curator Jack Cover.
According to Jessica and Patrick, the decision to shift focus to the Bay was influenced by discussions with Charmaine and Jack about the conservation work here at the Aquarium focused on oysters, a keystone species in the Chesapeake Bay. During these early conversations, Jessica and Patrick learned about the artificial oyster reef the Aquarium constructed just outside our walls in the Inner Harbor, as well as the idea of oyster reefs as aquatic communities. They also learned about the history of the Inner Harbor's ecology, and how the effects of industry have altered the composition of this habitat that was formerly a tidal salt marsh.
From this initial spark of inspiration, Jessica and Patrick set off in different directions. Jessica was most inspired by oyster reefs and, as a librarian by day, she was able to conduct research on oysters, how their reefs form, and the vibrant biodiversity that these reef ecosystems support. Patrick, on the other hand, knew he wanted to pursue the sonification of data in his process, but wasn't sure at first which specific topic he was going to delve into.
In September 2022, both artists visited the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science's Horn Point Laboratory, located on the Eastern Shore, to talk to scientists and dive deeper into their research. Horn Point is an oyster hatchery, so Jessica had plenty of fodder for her research into oyster reefs. The trip to Horn Point was also pivotal for Patrick, who engaged in discussions with scientists about Chesapeake Bay water quality and other data that heavily influenced his final piece for Voyages.
After the Horn Point trip—in addition to many weeks of brainstorming, researching and discussing ideas—it was time for Jessica and Patrick to write the composition that guests experienced during the event.
Will the Great Water Remember includes pieces that were algorithmically generated. For Movement 1, "The Body is the Foundation," Jessica recorded samples of herself playing saxophone and assembled them into short clips, using software to move through the samples following randomized patterns. For Movement 2, "A Coefficient of Memory," Patrick wrote his own software using the programming language Supercollider to interpret water quality data from the Inner Harbor and transform it into sounds, using an algorithm he designed to introduce randomization into the events that occur in the piece.
Jessica's process as an artist focuses on creating ephemeral art, and this was important to her for Voyages: Chapter 2.
"I think there's a lot of value in an experience that happens just one time, when you're there and you're in it," she explained. "Neither you nor anyone else will ever experience it anywhere else again. I really liked the idea of a playful environment that would encourage exploration of things we were creating, a sense there's always something happening to switch to, something to explore."
The essence of the composition was ephemerality, but there was a level of predictability as well, because the compositions changed very slowly over the long duration of the performance. The structure provided by the algorithms inevitably introduces subtle differences every time the music is played. Jessica and Patrick likened this to a guest's experience at the Aquarium: There are always the same animals in the same habitats, but where they are in the habitat, and the experience the guest has, is different each time.
Jessica explained that her final composition was fairly abstract in how it connected thematically with her scientific research. Since oyster reefs start with a few shells and build on top of one other to form large structures, she mirrored this idea of accretion when writing her music. Her final composition included a chord progression that formed the foundation of the piece—much like the foundation of an oyster reef—which grows slowly and becomes more complex over the two-and-a-half hours of music. More and more small sounds and textures are layered into the music over time, meant to convey the layering of oyster shells on a reef.
"The overall sense was that it was becoming more rich and complex without overwhelming the listener," she explained.
Patrick, on the other hand, said he was "painfully literal" in interpreting data and translating it into his final piece. He took data from the Maryland Department of Natural Resources' Eyes on the Bay listening station—located immediately outside of the Aquarium in the Inner Harbor—from September 15 to October 31, 2022, and discussed the resulting data set with Jack and Charmaine, who provided context for what the data meant.
The next step in Patrick's process was to map out the parameters in the music's code, deciding which musical elements would signify what event—for example, if the dissolved oxygen levels in the data set reach a certain critical point, which sounds and timbres should be mapped into the algorithm to communicate that data?
"Once those mappings are made, you have to let the algorithm loose," Patrick explains. "It's a process of iteration, listening to figure out what serves the data set."
Each movement in Will the Great Water Remember was inspired by and named after a specific idea or process that connected to the original theme of biodiversity in the Chesapeake Bay.
This movement, written and performed by Jessica, was inspired by the process of accretion in oyster reef communities, where new generations of oysters grow on top of older shells.
This movement, written and performed by Patrick, explored the juxtaposition of scientific data with sound.
This movement, written by Jessica and Patrick and performed in real-time at the event, was inspired by the ecological effects of Hurricane Agnes on the Chesapeake Bay in 1972.
This movement was performed by the Schooling Fish Ensemble, a group of musicians playing live music as they traveled throughout the space. As the group's name suggests, this movement is based on the behaviors of schooling fish and a system of sensory organs known as the lateral line, which allow fish to sense the movement of surrounding fish and adjust their movement accordingly.
According to Jessica, the live musicians in the Schooling Fish Ensemble who performed Movement IV completely transformed the event. Jessica, who wrote the score for the composition that the ensemble performed, explained that the score included a rule set that looked like board game instructions—which could also be described as a sort of algorithm. There were three rule sections: searching, evading and foraging. In the "searching" section, where the music had a melodic feel, the rules stated that the ensemble members should take slow steps, and when they encountered an obstacle—such as a wall or person—they should turn 90 degrees and take short steps, playing staccato notes, before resuming their original tempo.
By following these rules, ensemble members were relating to the person next to them and their environment, instead of solely following the leader—much like a group of schooling fish.
Jessica and Patrick chose musicians for the ensemble who they had worked with before, who they knew were excited about experimental music and would create a delightful experience for guests. According to Jessica, the trust that she had built with these musicians was key in the success of the Schooling Fish Ensemble performance.
"There was not any element of perfection or doing it right or wrong," Jessica explained. "We agreed on what would feel right for the different elements of the performance, and over the course of the evening, the rule set evolved without any input from me—and they knew I would be OK with it."
Jessica and Patrick, both accomplished musicians who are well-established in the local Baltimore arts scene, explained that Voyages: Chapter 2 was the largest project they have worked on to date.
"It was wonderful to be looped into the Aquarium community for a while," Jessica explained. "Even though this project was on a bigger scale than anything we've ever done, it never felt overwhelming because of that support."
Both artists agreed that the support of the scientists they were working with was critical as well.
"As an artist in a DIY community, you have the feeling you have to make everything yourself," Patrick explained. "Having a support network of scientists who are emailing you back within a day with extreme enthusiasm—it was invaluable."
Bridging the gap between these artistic and scientific communities resulted in an experience that powerfully embodied what Voyages is all about: exploring the intersection of art and science to inspire voyagers to celebrate their connection with the natural world.