2015 Year of the phage conference | San Diego State University

Phage Music

MP3 DownloadDuration
Austin Timmerman00:46
Nakul Tiruviluamala00:53
Ryan Morgan01:29
Michel Leggiere03:36
Joseph Earnest04:46
Daniel Castro00:39
Dorothy Guthrie00:54
Anastasya Korol03:19
Aaron Hudson04:42
Shannon Camp05:20
Griffin Powdrell01:16
Jack DePuy01:27
Jay Sanchioli01:45
Joe O'Quinn04:34
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The challenge in creating this music was to do something nontrivial: to put music composition and the biology of phages together in a meaningful way.

This goal required the composers in the composition laboratory to spend several months digging into the basic concepts of bioscience, specifically the biology of phage ɸX174.

Like music, genetic information is composed of variations of a few units. These variations are nuanced in such a way that when DNA is transcribed into RNA and RNA is translated into the amino acids of proteins, we have the possibility of infinite meaning. Phages (and all viruses) take advantage of nuanced manipulation by layering meaning in their genomes in order to fit a myriad of information into relatively small strings of nucleic acids. We, the composers, attempted to cross map (translate) between the genomic information of ɸX174 and the types of fractal patterning of notes and pitches inside of matrices of time, which comprise what we know as music.

It dawned on us at one point, that the experience of listening to music provides us, from an early age, with an expert’s finely-tuned ability to recognize and track patterns and evolving permutations. What we find so seductively fascinating about music is that it is comprised of self-similar, hierarchically nested patterns within patterns within patterns—it is fractal.

The enormous challenge in translating DNA to music was to rigorously preserve the information of the genome, while allowing the composers the intuitive wiggle room necessary to create music which connects with us emotionally, thus harnessing our ability to trace patterns in music and discovering, in a very physical way, patterns hidden deep within the string of nucleotides. In an exciting merging of art and science, we have discovered musical patterns in ɸX174’s genome that have remained hidden until now.

A one-to-one mapping of nucleotide to note does not make for intrinsically interesting music.  If one assigns each of the four nucleotides to a different note on our musical scale and assigns each note the same duration of time, one gets a series of notes that we perceive in a way similarly to how we perceive wind chimes: a very pleasant background texture that fails to yield an evolving series of sequences in the form of melodies that we can remember, follow and compare.

My initial hope with this project was that we would at least be able to produce what I called "music-like artifacts." Indeed, several of the pieces in this collection are "wind chime" pieces: where the sequence of nucleotides is transcribed to provide a pleasant and compelling rhythmic pulse or background texture. However, a number of the pieces succeed in maintaining a rigorous mapping of the genome while placing it into a musical context which gives the composer latitude to intuitively interact with the sequence, thus creating music that is truly a transcription where one can remember and hum the melody produced and where that melody makes sense as music and connects with us emotionally.

-Jozefius Rattus, PhD
Coordinator of Composition Studies
School of Music & Dance

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Forest Rohwer Laboratory
San Diego State University