When setting genetic sequences, I've strived to extract musical qualities from selected viruses as well as human genes. For 25 years this work was done in consultation with my best friend and renowned geneticist Charles Strom, PhD, MD*. As all undertakings to limn or sonify data are inherently subjective, we combined our expertise by constructing a fixed, logical physio-musical conversion of DNA by charting the chemical properties, etc., of codons alongside musical elements. (See: A Physiological Approach to DNA Music, http://www.petergena.com/docs/gena-strom-DNA.pdf). Subsequently, I devised algorithms to realize sequences, alone or together with others into music via a virtual DNA Mixer, of my design.
The grim tragedy that we face with the Coronavirus precludes any conscionable attempt to highlight its mRNA as music. However, the resounding success of recent vaccines is a cause for uplifting recognition as well as solemn observance. The spike protein acts as a grappling hook to bond the virus to the cell surface. The key to the vaccine’s efficacy is that it blocks this attachment, preventing infection. I found that the texture lends itself to a string orchestra arrangement. Similarly, I am drawn to add it to my piano collection, DNA-PNO.
Take note that billions of sequences are being read simultaneously in a multitude of cells, and that ribosomes (organelles that linearly convert the codons to amino acids on each string) do not all start reading on the same “downbeat.” At any slice in time (life) the transformations occur at different points in multiple strings. Hence, I’m inclined to place sequences in various forms of canons.
Converted sequences generate a myriad of all musical elements, producing an entropic texture of notes, rhythms, articulations, etc. At times brisk tempi can render such pointillism too severe. Changing the pace can evince motivic and gestural qualities, sometimes lengthening the piece—derived from a sequence of over 3800 base-pairs! Similarly, dynamics must be integrated. In vaccinum, more than in any of the other DNA pieces, I looked to emphasize in a musical way the natural recurring patterns of codons in the sequence.
The DNA Mixer is interfaced to a musical notation program, which is in turn outputted to one of several excellent instrumental simulators. The version for string orchestra is realized by Noteperformer, and for piano a Disklavier, or computer simulators such Pianoteq 7 and Akoustik Piano. Vaccinum à 5 (5-voiced texture) is divided into five “regions,” or movements. The final region reveals itself in memoriam, dedicated to those lost.
Peter Gena, Ph.D.
Composer and Professor Emeritus,
School of the Art Institute of Chicago
*Charles (Buck) Strom MD, PhD, FAAP, FACMG, HCLD
Currently CEO of Liquid Diagnostics LLC and Co- Director of Head and Neck Cancer Research Center at UCLA School of Dentistry. Formerly, he served as Vice President of Genetics and Genomics at Quest Diagnostics. Prior to that, he was Director of Medical Genetics and the DNA Laboratory, Departments of Pediatrics and Obstetrics and Gynecology, Illinois Masonic Medical Center, Chicago.