The Baltimore musician Shodekeh peered at the dolphins nosing out of a tank in a cordoned-off section of the National Aquarium. Guided by the dolphins’ handlers, he tossed ice cubes into the tank, locking eyes with the sleek creatures.

Then Shodekeh opened his mouth, unleashing the talent he has honed through decades of practice — the ability to replicate nearly any sound using only his body. He conjured the rush of wind through trees with his breath. He cleared his throat, then replicated the rush of ocean waves. The dolphins responded with clicks and whistles — signs, their handlers said, that they were intrigued.

“I tried to really stay in the moment,” said Shodekeh, who is Towson University’s innovator-in-residence and recently performed at Carnegie Hall. “I didn’t want to assume anything.”

The interaction was part of months of research for the musician’s innovative collaboration with the aquarium. Shodekeh interviewed a whale song expert and toured the aquarium with General Curator Jack Cover, pondering biodiversity, the interconnectedness of species and how, when, and why animals make sounds.

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The resulting work — a multilayered blend of biology lecture, animal sounds, vocalizations and pulsating images — will be unveiled at an adults-only, after-hours event on July 21. It is the first of a series titled “Voyages,” designed to dispel the notion that the aquarium is just for school groups and families trailing Goldfish cracker crumbs. Participants will tour the aquarium while listening to and viewing the presentation, then enjoy food and cocktails from local restaurants and dance to a set from DJ Wendel Patrick.

“At Voyages, rather than step aside for a kid to press their nose to the glass, you get to press your nose against the glass,” said Sarah Doccolo, the aquarium’s community programs manager, referring to adults. It was Doccolo, who has worked with the immersive theater group Submersive Productions and the Baltimore Rock Opera Society, who invited Shodekeh to team up with the aquarium.

Shodekeh, one of Baltimore’s best-known and most innovative musicians, performs as both a beatboxer, in which he recreates the thumps and clangs of life in an industrialized society, and a breath artist, in which he summons the sounds of the natural world. He decided to approach this project as a breath artist and biomusicologist, one who studies the interactions between music and the natural world.

Shodekeh gathered inspiration by listening to the sounds of the sea. The depths of the ocean are not inky silence, but a busy underwater city, explained Cover. In fact, one way scientists analyze the creatures underwater is to lower a special microphone into the depths and identify species by sound.

Parrotfish crunch along a coral reef, scraping off algae with their teeth. Snapping shrimp hide in the sand clicking their oversized claws. Seahorses crackle, like pops of electricity, when in distress. Dolphins chirp, whirr and whistle, emitting a pattern of sounds as unique as human fingerprints. A whale’s haunting song echoes through the water to reach other members of its species thousands of miles away.

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Shodekeh also listened to sounds of rainforest creatures, like Australia’s wonga pigeon, which makes a rhythmic sound like a siren or a car alarm, and golden poison dart frogs, which trill to each other through the jungle leaves.

“I knew that I did not want to approach this challenge project as a beatboxer. I decided to shift my creative thinking and choose another vodality, or modality of the voice. And I thought breath art would be the most appropriate one,” said Shodekeh. “Breath connects to different animal vocalizations and connects to concepts of ocean conservation, air and water and land.”

Shodekeh chose to focus on six organisms for his composition. Two birds represent air, the wonga pigeon and blue-faced honeyeater. The Atlantic bottle-nosed dolphin and black drum fish symbolize water. And, from the land, he focused on the golden poison dart frog and what Shodekeh refers to as “those pesky, pesky Homo sapiens.”

“We’re a part of biodiversity, no matter to what degree we’re compromising the environment,” said Shodekeh.

For the composition, Shodekeh layered interviews he recorded with Ashakur Rahaman, a whale expert from the K. Lisa Yang Center for Conservation Bioacoustics at The Cornell Lab of Ornithology, with animal noises and sounds he created with his breath. Then visual artist Erica Hansen used a device called a CymaScope to translate the sounds into pulsing visual images. Doccolo describes the result as “sensory vertigo.” In one portion of the presentation, Rahaman discusses whale behavior while a drum fish thumps and Shodekeh creates the sound of a swirling wind.

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Cover, who has worked at the aquarium since 1987, said he sees the organization serving as an intermediary between scientists and the broader community to share urgent messages about the importance of biodiversity and conservation.

“We’re a part of the natural world, yet we don’t often feel like we are a part of it,” he said. “We want to get everyone thinking about how crazy and amazing this planet is.”

For Shodekeh, who spends part of each year collaborating with nomadic throat singers in the remote republic of Tuva in southern Siberia, the project has opened his ears to new sounds.

“I’m finding that I’m paying more attention to the birdcalls that exist throughout my neighborhood or in different neighborhoods,” he said. “The next time I am in Tuva, which is largely untouched by industrialization, I will be open to hearing even more creatures.”

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Julie Scharper is a news enterprise reporter who writes about interesting people, places, trends and traditions in Baltimore and the surrounding counties. She seeks to answer the question: What does it mean to be alive in this time and place? 

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