Credit: Gil Alterovitz, via Technology Review
It won’t be Lady GaGa. But maybe a little Lady GAGATCAGCTCATTCGAC…?
On Tuesday at the British Royal Society of Music, the New London Chamber Choir will publicly perform a new choral piece with the lilting but jargony name “Allele.” The genetic allusion isn’t a superficial conceit: it is genuinely genomic music. Each of the 40 members of the chorus will be singing a score based on part of his or her own DNA.
The project began with geneticist Andrew Morley and the Wellcome Trust’s “Music from the Genome” project, which had sequenced the DNA of 40 gifted singers to learn whether they had any distinctive genetic commonalities that might be indicative of musical ability. The findings of that genomic study have not yet been published. In the interim, however, Morley—who had sung with choirs in his youth, according to the BBC—decided to use the genomic sequences as the raw material for an artistic work.
He turned the data over to composer Michael Zev Gordon, who first translated the strings of nucleotides into notes, then rendered them musical through his selection and rhythmic arrangement of them. The poet Ruth Padel provided the lyrics for the singers. As Pallab Ghosh of the BBC writes:
To begin with, there is a single voice singing a simple rhythmic phrase; but as the piece develops, more voices join in – conveying the biological idea of replication and reproduction.
At its climax, each member of the choir is singing their own unique genetic code – resulting in everyone singing a subtly different song.
Morley and Gordon seem not to be the first to think of translating genome sequences into music. Indeed, some artist-scientists have attempted the maybe even more intriguing trick of turning music into DNA and inserting it into living cells.
Research fellow Gil Alterovitz at M.I.T. and Harvard Medical School has developed a computer program that translates information about cells’ gene and protein expression into musical sequences. His purpose is scientific rather than aesthetic, however. Because our brains are particularly adept at picking up patterns in the sounds we hear, Alterovitz hopes that his system could help researchers identify subtle derangements in the synchrony of gene expression that might underlie disease states.
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