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Deirdre Gribbin interview

The composer tells us about her idea of setting our DNA to music

Ever wondered what your genetic code might sound like if it were set to music? Composer Deirdre Gribbin did exactly that. She has taken a fragment of human DNA and, inspired by the sequence of base codes from which it is constructed, has created a string quartet entitled ‘Hearing Your Genes Evolve’.

It is the result of having spent a year as artist-in-residence at the Medical Research Council’s Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge. There, among freezers full of samples, mice in cages and people in white coats, Gribbin witnessed, at first hand, scientists investigating the mysteries of DNA, the double helix structure that encodes our genetic make-up. That we share 85 per cent of our genetic make-up with those mice was just one of the fascinating facts she discovered. But how has she turned a 500-page print-out, representing a tiny fraction of the DNA sequence (of an anonymous participant in The Thousand Genome Project) into music? The answer lies in the four nucleotide bases whose combinations make up our genes. These four bases found in DNA are adenine (abbreviated A), cytosine (C), guanine (G) and thymine (T). They are appear in sequences of three and it is their multiple combinations that carry our genetic information (eg, ACG, CCC, TGC...). ‘As the shortened letters of these triplets are ACG and T,’ she says, ‘obviously three of those could be interpreted in a very musical way – except for the T, which I came to base around the key of E flat.’

If this sounds complicated, Gribbin and her scientific mentor, Dr Sarah Teichmann, will explain it all in an illustrated pre-concert talk about DNA. When analysed by computer, the four DNA base codes, ADCT, print out in four different colours – blue, green, yellow and red. So the Smith Quartet, which is going to play the work, will perform examples from the work wearing different coloured hats. As with all of Belfast-born Gribbin’s music, her inspiration comes from the real world and her experience of it. Her interest in this project stems from her six-year-old son, who was born with Trisomy 21: Down Syndrome. ‘The initial thing for me was having Ethan and being told he had an extra set of Chromosome 21,’ she explains. We all have 23 pairs of chromosomes, but Ethan has an extra chromosome with the twenty-first pair. Whatever genetic information is in Chromosome 21 will be my next project in terms of looking at things to interpret. Because it is not that there is something missing, but rather that there is too much genetic information. Something becomes over-wired and fuses: that is one of the negative effects. But in terms of positive effects, it enhances things: long-term memory, for example.’ Inspired by her son, Gribbin is soon to embark on a programme of research in Canada and America based around self-advocacy through music composition for young adults with Down Syndrome and learning difficulties. ‘Being able to write their own music, they become more confident,’ she explains. ‘Studies have shown that such kids are so much more integrated. I now know how marginalised people with learning difficulties are – they are invisible… I wouldn’t be doing this work if I hadn’t had Ethan.’

Just as the Genome Project is ongoing, so is Gribbin’s interest in its musical possibilities. ‘I have now developed a musical code and could write something really massive,’ says the composer excitedly. ‘I could even write an orchestral piece based on this way of working. This is just a prototype to see what could happen.’

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