GENEWATCH
 
MUSICAL GENES
By CRG staff - interview with Greg Lukianoff
 

Genetic Music ProjectGreg Lukianoff is a founder and the curator of the Genetic Music Project, a community art endeavor in which musicians convert genetic code into songs. Greg volunteered pieces of his own code, taken from test results from consumer genetic testing company 23andMe, uploading them to the website for musicians to use as a starting point. Although musicians are free to get more creative about the way they convert the genome into music, the first few songs on the site assign a note to each of the four nucleotides (A, C, T, and G); pick a FASTA sequence (which uses those four letters as a shorthand way to express a piece of genetic code) associated with a certain trait (such as likelihood of baldness or schizophrenia); and just see what series of notes emerges. 

When Greg spoke to GeneWatch in May, the Genetic Music Project had been live for less than two weeks-and he had already received a song from a stranger in Denmark. To learn more about the project, listen to the songs, and even upload your own music, visit www.geneticmusicproject.com.

 

The process starts when you get a genetic test-yours was from 23andMe-and when you get the results back, you select a chunk of the genetic code and assign a note to each of the four nucleotides. What does that first piece of code look like? What does it represent?

The genetic test is selecting the FASTA sequence for certain genetic markers [see top of image at right]. What you're getting back is, to the best of my knowledge, the entire FASTA sequence for an allele. So I put that up there, and I indicate what conditions those alleles are associated with-which provides a lot of opportunities for metaphor and tone for the music that people submit.

For instance, when I found out that there was a particular genetic marker for bitter taste perception, I found the FASTA sequence for it, put that up, and sent it to my friend Amy, who is an unbelievably talented country artist. If someone was going to sing a song on the theme of "bitter," who better than a country singer?

I was really surprised that nobody had already made a community art project out of genetic sequencing. I knew that people had been making music out of genetic code-for example, the composer Alexandra Pajak wrote an album based on the sequence of the HIV virus-but given that DNA is part of this wonderful organic system that grows by its own nature, that seems to be perfect for a community art project, something that you just put out into the world and see how it does. Of course, there's an element of unnatural selection to it-I'm curating the website-but at the same time, I don't know where it's going to end up.

You provided the code; who writes the music?

When the site first went up, pretty much all of the music came from friends of mine who were excited about the idea. Having someone in Denmark upload a song was something else. My big hope is that it continues to grow, and that people recognize that you can go well beyond taking the four individual "notes" from the nucleotides (A, C, T and G).

Using the computational brilliance of genetics, you can create more and more complex art. The different nucleotides could stand for pitch, or you could even take a bunch of nucleotide sequences and relate that to the 64 different settings of a Casio keyboard and let the code tell you which instruments to use. So there is a tremendous amount of fun to be had with this, and hopefully it will grow organically.

I'm particularly interested in getting different genres of music, too. I'd really love to get a rock song, for example.  I think when people think of 'genetic music,' they would first think of some sort of atonal electronica, but as we've already shown, it can work out in so many musically interesting ways.

Is there any genre that you think wouldn't work for this project?

I think you could figure out a way to make any genre work. The only genre I'm not interested in hearing is smooth jazz. Because smooth jazz is terrible.

But with real jazz, I actually think that the surprising twists and turns of the FASTA sequences would be perfect for jazz saxophone.

One of the things about the musicality of the genetic code is that it does surprising things. For example, the piece on heroin addiction is just based on the first ten nucleotides of the FASTA sequence for a gene that is supposed to indicate that you may be more easily addicted to heroin. When she played that, just the first ten nucleotides, it was really haunting. Then it can start to get interesting, where you can stumble into themes. It sounds very traditional, but then it will run maybe one or two notes longer than you would expect. You end up hearing some surprising musical things come out of it.

Are you coming at this more from the science or music side?

I wouldn't pick one or the other. I'm sort of a science hobbyist-it's the degree that I never got but always wanted to. So I sort of came at it from the science side rather than from the music side. The inherent musicality of the information behind all life just seemed irresistible.

Have you learned more about music or genetics?

I think I've learned a lot about both. There were certainly things I didn't know about genetics, and there were plenty of things I didn't know about music. That's one of the things I'm trying to be open about, that I'm neither a musician nor a scientist!

The difference between this website and others, really, is that we decided to just put it out there and see what happens with it, to encourage people to be creative and apply their own approach-but also to teach everyone, including me, about the science and the music behind it.

I noticed that one of the FASTA sequences you posted is supposed to be the genetic marker for "longevity." Am I right to figure you're taking 23andMe's test results with a  grain of salt?

One of the things 23andMe does is indicate the amount of research behind the traits. For some there has been a lot of research and for some there have been only tiny studies. They're good at explaining it, and this is something I suspect I'll eventually be asked; but I try to make clear that I'm not vouching for the accuracy of the information, I just think it's a great starting point.


 
 
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