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Event review: Music from the Genome

19 July 2010
Appeared in BioNews 567

Music from the Genome

Organised by the Royal Society of Medicine and the Wellcome Trust

Royal Society of Medicine, 1 Wimpole Street, London W1G 0AE, UK

Tuesday 13 July 2010

'Music from the Genome', organised by the Royal Society of Medicine and the Wellcome Trust, Tuesday 13 July 2010

Imagine singing a piece of your DNA. 'A', 'C' and 'G'- the first three letters of your genetic code - are easy because they have corresponding musical notes. The fourth letter, 'T', looks harder, but you can use 'ti' on the musical scale. Think 'tea' in the song 'Doe a deer, a female deer, Ray, a drop of golden sun… Tea, a drink with jam and bread'.

The resulting music sounds a little like plainsong, according to composer Michael Zev Gordon. After hearing the London premiere of his piece 'Allele' at the Royal Society of Medicine (RSM) last Tuesday, I agree.

'Allele' was performed by forty black-garbed choristers in the soaring, glass-walled atrium at the heart of the RSM. All were, in a sense, singing their own genome. The New London Chamber Choir had their DNA decoded and Michael Gordon incorporated their similarities and differences into the music. Allele is apparently the first piece of music to use its performers' genetic code.

A lone voice began the performance. Soon, others joined it, mournfully repeating the same phrases to represent animal reproduction and DNA replication. The piece climaxed with the choristers interweaving slightly different songs to reflect variations in their DNA.

The choir didn't sing the whole human genome. With around three billion letters to get through, I'd still be at the RSM. 'Allele' uses letters from a single gene called arginine vasopressin receptor 1A (AVPR1A) and its variants. AVPR1A was linked to musical ability by a Finnish study last year.

The Music from the Genome project that spawned 'Allele' also includes a scientific study of the genetics behind musical talent. When the Wellcome Trust grant application for the project was submitted, the Finnish study was not yet published. This genetic study would have been unique.

I know all these facts about Music from the Genome because 'Allele' only took twenty minutes to perform. The previous couple of hours were mainly devoted to talks about the history of the project, science and the arts, and genetics.

'Allele' itself was quite pleasant. My husband said it was 'less grisly than most contemporary classical music'. The lectures, however, varied in quality. Their relevance to 'Allele' also remained a mystery for most of the evening.

I didn't understand until the final talk why we'd decamped to the atrium to hear 'Spem in alium' - a piece by Thomas Tallis. Michael Gordon explained 'spem' had inspired him because it was a piece for 40 vocalists. Comprehension finally dawned. I'd misread 'spem in alium' as 'sperm in medium'.

Michael Gordon spoke alongside his two collaborators. Ruth Padel is a poetess and Charles Darwin's great, great granddaughter. Dr Andrew Morley, a consultant anaesthetist, had the initial idea of Music from the Genome.

Dr Morley also spoke earlier in the evening to provide a whistlestop tour of basic genetics. I have no background in genetics, but have written for BioNews long enough to know geneticists' bugbears. One is genetic determinism - the idea that our DNA controls everything from our sexuality to our hobbies.

Here are some choice quotes from Dr Morley that would get most geneticists hot under the collar. On the single letters that differ between our and other people's DNA: 'the one per cent that creates our individuality'. About our DNA in general: 'it makes us what we are'. I don't remember him mentioning the burgeoning field of epigenetics at all.

Results from the Music from the Genome genetic study of music ability aren't yet published, but Dr Morley admits the study method was dubious. They simply compared choir members against non-musicians and could mistakenly find the genes that affect willingness to join a choir, he said.

The most fascinating talk by far was from Marcus du Sautoy, Charles Simonyi Professor for the Public Understanding of Science. He discussed writers, painters, musicians and architects who were inspired by mathematics.

I could wax lyrical about how Salvador Dali's 'Visage of War' is based on a fractal called the Sierpinksi Gasket. Unfortunately, it wouldn't be very interesting to BioNews readers. That's a shame because Dali had a lovely quote about the relationship between art and science. He said: 'I am a carnivorous fish swimming in two waters, the cold water of art and the hot water of science'.

Events like Music from the Genome may be an endangered species now science funders are cutting their budgets. That's something of a shame. Singing your own genome may sound slightly silly, but it's more interesting than your usual night out.

Music from the genome
Royal Society of Medicine |  13 July 2010
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