Genetic Music Is Only As Limited As the Potential of Life Itself

I was talking to a good friend of mine from Philadelphia a week or so ago about the Genetic Music Project and he remarked that “some of the best creativity comes from constraints.” While this is true, my one objection to this comment was simply that sometimes I think people look at the Genetic Music Project as imposing far more constraints than it actually does. As I tried to emphasize on the ABOUT page and in the FAQ, the overall goal of the project is for it to, much as a metaphor for DNA itself, grow organically and creatively. After all, those four little letters that make up DNA have, using nearly infinite combinatorial power, created everything from the Ebola virus, to celery, to electric eels, to even creatures that can plant flags and other worlds and can understand the very chemistry that created them. The genetic sequences I provide should not be so much thought of as a limitation but rather as a starting point to create greater and greater beauty and complexity.

As I’ve made clear, artists should not feel the least bit compelled to assign nucleotides to the obvious notes (T, Thymidine, being the perfect example of why this would be impossible anyway), and should not feel limited to using a single genetic marker, or to even to interpreting the letters of the FASTA sequence as notes–notes can stand for everything from pitch to pace to which instrument you should use for each strand.

An easy way around the perceived limitations of the four note code is to remember that proteins are based on three nucleotide codons (GGG, TCT, AGC, etc) and therefore you can base your music or art project on whatever you assign those 64 three letter codes to do. A friend of mine who I am very excited to receive work from, for example, thought that the option of having 64 possibilities meant he could let the genetic code tell him which setting of his Casio keyboard he should use and move from there allowing other codons to stand for notes, pacing, tone, or other factors.

But if getting deeper into the science is not what intrigued you about this project, here is a little mental exercise that I often enjoy thinking about. I call it the Space Beacon Tribute exercise. Think of the person you love most in the world or the person you most admire in history. What if you decided, as your tribute to him or her, to broadcast to the universe the entirety of that person’s genome and hope that at some point an alien civilization could enjoy the sound of that person’s blood, or even potentially clone that person on an entirely different world. While, yes, if you were to broadcast one nucleotide per second sending all of one person’s over 3 billion base pairs it would take around 103 years, this is a blink of the eye in terms of galactic time. However, if you wanted to make sure that people got it right the first time, redundancy would be a good idea, therefore sending out the music in cascading rows of notes with perhaps slightly different pitches to indicate which stream of information it belonged to would not only create some beautiful rippling music throughout the universe but also prevent a gamma ray burst, a supernova, or some other temporary cosmic interference from destroying the integrity of the transmission. Playing with the idea of conveying information in beautiful and creative ways, I think, is at the heart of the Genetic Music Project.

A future step of the project that I look forward to is the potential to remix the nearly dozen songs that Genetic Music Project has already produced into a mashup or other mix. This doesn’t violate the rules one little bit, as such a mashup would be the harmonious interplay of different interpretations of genetic codes, memes, styles, and cultures and is a fitting tribute to the dizzying diversity of life and its potential produced by those four simple notes.

Meanwhile, I’m still dying to receive some new kinds of music. I would love to hear a rock song, and I think the code for open “bitter sense perception” naturally lends itself to the bluesy saxophone or trumpet. And let’s never forget about the zydeco. Go forth and musicify!

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