Art exhibit to showcase musical works based on genetic sequences

By Bryan D. Hance
Arizona Daily Wildcat
January 31, 1996

It is musical chemistry, where the building blocks of life are transformed into sound.

It's genetic music.

David Lane, University of Arizona student and musician, has taken genetic sequences from a variety of sources and turned them into music.

In a nutshell, "Genetic sequences are transcribed as music from the actual genes," he said.

Lane said as researchers uncover the genetic sequences of living things, the sequences are entered into public databases, such as one maintained by the National Institutes of Health. This is where Lane obtains the sequences used to create his music, he said.

Every living thing contains DNA, which stores all the information about that living thing in chemical code. DNA is composed of four basic chemical compounds, nucleotides, which are grouped together as amino acids.

Using a Macintosh computer, a Kurtzweil synthesizer and a Yamaha sequencer, Lane created a twenty-note musical scale based on chemical properties of those acids. The result is music based on a certain genetic code.

The process could be explained further, Lane said, but doing so would divulge trade secrets.

Lane's music will be used in "Merged Realities," an art exhibition billed as "A Synthesis of Art and Science," which begins this Friday at the UA School of Music's Crowder Hall. Dance performances have been choreographed to two of his songs, and a visual and spoken word presentation will accompany a third.

The music can vary depending on the sequence source and the way Lane decides to arrange the work. Some songs sound heavy and tribal while others are softer and calmer in nature.

Lane began experimenting with genetic music after taking an introductory biology class with UA Professor Martin Hewlett in 1994.

"I just got hit by lightning, basically," Lane said.

Hewlett said that genetics appeared to have significance to Lane, who already had previous musical experience.

"It just seemed like music to him," Hewlett said.

Lane's first attempts sounded similar to classical music, Hewlett said, but later works exhibited a wider diversity of sound.

"I was just totally struck," Hewlett said. "It was a combo of jazz, Latin, rock ... It really struck me."

Both Lane and Hewlett said they can now actually "hear the data," in genetic music. That is, they can determine what DNA sequence is being played by the musical qualities of the piece.

"You're able to recognize actual parts of the structure," Hewlett said.

Lane said when he listens to "normal" music he occasionally finds himself thinking, "That sounds like a piece of DNA."

The music has been improving as Lane had learned more science, he said. Lane, who works for the UA Bursar's Office, is also taking twelve units in molecular biology, cell biology, and physics.

"Basically, everything I take, I apply," he said. "The dividing line between what's work and what's fun is blurring."

Although the music has become more complex, Lane said he has not corrupted or manipulated the genetic sequences he uses to suit his needs.

"I have kept the genetic information intact," he said. "The point is to let the genetics speak for itself. I want to stay as true to the genetic structure as I can."

Hewlett said he has watched Lane pursue more and more complex genetic music since he first began experimenting in the area.

"This has been a driving passion now since the last year and a half. It's great to watch," Hewlett said.

Lane will continue to pursue genetic music as he learns more about the field, he said.

"DNA is music. There's a musical component somehow to life. Intuitively, I know it's there."