Tag Archives: Music

Music of the Spheres

This was something I wrote for the “review” assignment of my writing course.

2016-01-20 17.44.32There is a time and a place for complex atonal music, and perhaps the drinks reception of a genomics conference at the Excel Centre was not it. Through the chatter it wasn’t always easy to hear what the string quartet was doing, and meeting attendees were confused about the performance. “I thought they were still tuning”, said one of the guests.

There was a good reason the Kreutzer Quartet was playing here, at the Festival of Genomics, surrounded by exhibit stands for DNA sequencing companies and clusters of geneticists. Their performance was a crucial part of an art piece by Charlotte Jarvis, which explored the possibilities of encoding complex information in DNA.

Jarvis and Goldman introducing the Kreutzer Quartet.

Jarvis and Goldman introducing the Kreutzer Quartet.

The work, Music of the Spheres (named after a Byron poem), combines music, science, and a bubble machine. It requires some effort on the part of the audience to grasp how all the components fit together.

The core of the work is a three-movement musical composition, written by the Kreutzer Quartet, and inspired by DNA. The musicians performed the first and third movements live during a drinks reception at the Festival of Genomics, on January 20th. They used asynchronous glissando scales to express the coiling strands of DNA, and tapped the strings with the wooden part of their bow (col legno) to suggest the sound of large machines handling genetic information.

Movement 2, however, was not performed – at least not by the string quartet. This middle movement was converted into DNA code according to a system developed by Nick Goldman at the European Bioinformatics Institute. He initiated this collaboration with Jarvis to illustrate the enormous potential of using DNA code to digitize large amounts of information: in this case, a recording of the Kreutzer Quartet playing the middle movement of their genetics-inspired piece. This segment of custom-designed DNA was then created and mixed into a soapy solution. So it wasn’t the string quartet playing the middle movement of the piece, but a bubble machine. While the musicians rested, Jarvis switched on the machine, and the music travelled in the air – unheard, but tangible and visible. If you were to capture a bubble, isolate the DNA and sequence it, you might be able to get the data for the recording back out of its unconventional storage format.

2016-01-20 17.48.45This was not the first performance of Music of the Spheres. It had previously been set up in a large empty building, a gallery along the coast, and Hornsey Town Hall. The string quartet can’t be everywhere, but the bubbles are always there, and form the core part of the work. In fact, Jarvis turned on the bubble machine a few times during breaks at the Festival of Genomics. Without the string quartet, this created an effect of simple party entertainment, not out of place at this conference, which also featured a lively talk show and a treadmill challenge. People engaged with the bubbles by photographing them, popping them, or shielding their coffee cups from soapy surprises. Many of them were unaware that each bubble contained fragments of DNA encoding a piece of music.

2016-01-20 15.29.00

But while the bubbles alone were a good match for the hectic venue, the live performance unfortunately was not. It seems a shame that the talented Kreutzer Quartet came all the way here to perform for a crowd that could barely hear them and was more interested in catching up with colleagues over a drink.

Music of the Spheres is a work that makes us think about the potential of DNA as a data storage method. It requires thoughtful reflection, and is best experienced against a quiet backdrop – not one of clinking wine glasses and murmuring conversations.

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Dexter’s Laboratory

As Eva described at Science Studio, it turns out that The Offspring’s Dexter Holland has gone back to working on his PhD in molecular biology after taking some time off to be a rockstar. His thesis is looking at the use of microRNAs by HIV during infections. Holland now as the unofficially required first author paper (PDF link; authored as Bryan Holland) needed to be allowed to defend.

Not only is the name “The Offspring” probably inspired by biology, but the famous lyric “keep ’em separated” was inspired by an experience Holland had pouring plates in graduate school, which you can hear Dexter describe in an interview about his music and science on The Nerdist Podcast.

Musicians and scientists

Can you name a “musisci” – a person involved in both music and science? This was a question I asked over seven hundred people in a survey, and the answer looked like this:musisci

Without the top five answers, you can more clearly see some of the other ones:

musisci_withoutTop5

As you can see, there are a lot of people who have both music and science in their life, and this includes about a third of survey respondents, as well.

Survey responses musisci.007

For the full results of the survey, see my blog post on easternblot.net. I’m also starting a quarterly newsletter about the musician/scientist overlap. First issue will go out today (with more survey results, some music, and related links), and the next one in August. You can sign up here if you’d like to receive it.

The Music of Climate Change

Here’s something to listen to over the weekend: On NPR, composer John Luther Adams explains the science and art behind his Pulitzer-winning orchestral work, Become Ocean, which I’ve listened to at least ten times in the past week.

I believe deeply in the inherent power and mystery, the imperative, for music in our lives. And it’s my hope that you can listen to this music without knowing anything about what the composer had in mind…

At the same time — and this is me talking out of the other side of my mouth — most of us these days, think a lot about the future of the present state of the Earth, the future of the human species and specifically about climate change. As I composed Become Ocean, I had in my mind and my heart this image of the melting of polar ice and the rising of the seas. All life on this Earth emerged from the ocean. If we don’t wake up and pay attention here pretty soon, we human animals may find ourselves once again becoming ocean sooner than we imagine…

And maybe that’s the Alaskan in me: 40 years living in the presence of raging wildfires and river ice breaking free in the springtime. I’ve been in touch for most of my life — pretty directly in touch — with these elemental forces that are so much bigger and more powerful, not only than I am, but than I can even imagine. And that can be both terrifying and profoundly reassuring.

Watch the performance by the Seattle Symphony:

O(K Go)ptical Illusion


OK Go are known, in addition to their music, for their quirky videos, particularly a no-edit style that reduces “production values” (and costs) while making the whole thing that much more impressive. They’ve done a Rube Goldberg machine and a sound generating car-obstacle course combo. Now they have an entire video based on optical illusions.

One of my favorite things about optical illusions is not that they show that our brain can be tricked (which it can). It is that optical illusions are entertaining proof that the reality we perceive is a processed version of actual reality. Optical illusions represent a hack of that system.

Hat tip to Lauren Davis at io9.