It has always amazed me that all life, from Einstein to the humble avocado, arose from a simple four note code: DNA. Today, I am excited to announce this new open-source community art project I have been working on to turn our genetic codes into music.
As we all learned in grade school, high school, college, or at very least from the movie Gattaca, the information in DNA is expressed through four nucleotides: A (Adenosine), C (Cytosine), G (Guanine), and T (Thymidine). Therefore, by assigning a musical note to each nucleotide it’s fairly straightforward to turn genetic sequences into music. I first learned about this in the 1990s when I saw a scientist play the genetic sequence for insulin on the piano, but it was not until 2009 that my friend Liz Wade and I decided to make music out of our own code. The first step was to spit into a test tube and send it off to 23andme.com.
I was expecting the genetic sequences to come back as raw code, but instead 23andme.com analyzed my DNA and looked for genetic markers that predispose me to different characteristics or conditions. Some characteristics like Bitter Taste Perception have a good deal of research behind them while others, like the genetic marker for Avoidance of Errors, are much more speculative, but either way the themes represented by the different genetic markers provide great guidance on what the mood and tone of the music should be.
Step two, we started making music, first with Liz and her friends at Caddyshackattack and Peeper, but then later expanding it out to other musician friends of ours. My friend Liesel Euler provides the most stripped-down version of the genetic music by singing the different notes for the genetic marker that supposedly indicates a greater or lesser likelihood of developing schizophrenia. Check out Schizophrenia 1 and Schizophrenia 2 to see how Liesel approached the sequence and turned it into music. Next, check out Caddyshackattack’s brilliant transformation of the genetic marker (or rather, not to be too technical, but the FASTA sequence for the genetic marker) that research indicates can tell you if you have a greater or lesser risk for heroin addiction. What makes this first “blood music” song so great is how Caddyshackattack incorporated the “mood” of the condition supposedly represented by the allele into the music itself. Then check out my hero Amy Pickard’s take on the genetic marker for Bitter Taste Perception. Amy, a country singer with a heartbreaking voice, was the perfect candidate to take on bitterness. Finally, check out the amazing piece my friend Lyle Beers came up with using the genetic marker for Restless Leg Syndrome. The piece is made up almost entirely of pure code.
Now, with the official launch today of Geneticmusicproject.com it’s time to open up the art project to the world and see what comes in! There are an almost infinite number of ways that the sequences can be turned into music or other art but check out the About page for some ideas. I will consider the project a massive success if I ever receive awesome music inspired by the website from a person I’ve never heard of. I will consider it a success beyond my wildest dreams if I ever get some awesome Zydeco out of it. Experimentation is encouraged and different musical genres are especially favored (except for smooth jazz. Smooth jazz is the enemy of all life). So check out the website, read up on the different genetic markers and, if you like, submit your music and an explanation of how you composed it here. The project is a totally free labor of love that could lead anywhere, so I am excited to see where this thing ends up!