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Art resounding in nature

Shay Nichols serenading the crowd at Forestial.

Shay Nichols serenading the crowd at Forestival.

It might take other people a bit longer to dive into an artistic residency, but Shay Nichols, newly arrived at A Studio in the Woods, performed a cappella while paddling about the pond during last weekend's Forestival celebration. Not only did she bravely -- and quietly -- perform for an audience that had just heard the rousing Rockabilly band Rory Danger and the Danger Dangers, but within earshot of boisterous children engaged in arts and crafts projects. She also stood fearlessly in the canoe.

Nichols is the first artist in residence participating in the Studio’s second season of “Flint and Steel: Cross-disciplinary Combustion,” through which she will explore the interplay of nature and music. At the remote retreat, one can get some sense what the natural world might have been like 100 years ago when there was less noise caused by human activity.

As a society, we have become desensitized to the subtle sounds of nature, Nichols believes. Sound has become an addiction that prevents us from being present. She says the mere act of listening can inspire innovative solutions to looming environmental problems, whether scientific insights, stirring works of art or surprising strategies to galvanize support for wetland restoration.

Nichols’ art was inspired by author Bernie Krause, a pioneer of acoustic ecology, who has been recording wild soundscapes for 45 years -- wind blowing in the trees, chirping birds, croaking of frogs and sounds of insects that have changed over time.Shay 2 cropped

Nichols hails from Northern California, where she finds inspiration on the Marin Headlands and at Big Sur on the Pacific Coast. Her subtle improvisations recall melodies of Native Americans and Asian cultures that are more attuned to the natural world. Describing the form of her music, she references “joik,” a traditional song of the Sami people of Scandinavia, one of the oldest, nonverbal musical traditions of Europe. A joik is meant to “sing the soil of the place,” Nichols said.

During her five-week stay in the environmental haven in Lower Algiers, Nichols will collaborate with Tulane professor Tom Sherry to discover the science underpinning the sounds. His areas of specialization include conservation biology bird ecology, particularly migratory and tropical birds.

“She’s exploring the power of sounds and music and nature to create healing,” said Sherry, who is both scientist and classical musician. He says the arts have tremendous potential to educate people about science, but admits this particular experiment takes him out of his “comfort zone,” not knowing exactly what to expect.

“What people hear depends on their personality and training because of our filtering, but I am always tremendously refreshed when I am outdoors,” Sherry said.

Nichol’s residency will include field trips to natural areas such as City Park and Jean Lafitte Preserve, prized for providing habitat for a wide variety of birds and other wildlife. She will invite other musicians to be inspired by the “chorus” of Southern Louisiana’s natural environment to “create nature-based compositions reflecting the beauty and diversity of the natural environment.” Nichols will also offer four 90-minute classes on “Creating Vocal Soundscapes in Nature.”

For more information, contact A Studio in the Woods.

Mary Rickard has been a regular contributor to the New Orleans Times-Picayune and the New Orleans Advocate, as well as newspapers and wire services in other locales. Feel free to send her comments or critiques at [email protected]