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CoronaCode Music

by Mark Temple

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The Prize 01:29
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about

Mark Temple
CoronaCode Music

Limited Edition 12" Vinyl Album coming soon, CD available on request.

All my life I’ve been involved in either music or molecular biology. Now at the crossroads between these, between science and art, I see great scope for insight and creativity. In my latest research, “Real-time audio and visual display of the Coronavirus genome” published in the journal BMC Bioinformatics, I reveals how audio can be used to reveal functional properties of the coronavirus genome. This audio also sounds musical. This project followed earlier work I had published generating audio from human DNA sequences in the paper An auditory display tool for DNA sequence analysis. This time, I wanted to apply those techniques to the virus sweeping the world to see what might be revealed. In other words, this was the difficult second album!

Assigning notes to the ‘words’ in the Coronavirus genome
Genes of the coronavirus are like biological book chapters; they hold all the words that describe the virus and how it might function. These “words” are made from strings of chemical letters scientists refer to as G, A, U and C. This viral “book” is over 30,000 characters long. Some of these characters come together to form what scientists call a codon, which is a sequence of three RNA letters that corresponds to a specific amino acid. In a human cell these amino acids are joined together to make proteins. But to stick with our analogy, let’s just say they come together to form “words”.

In my work, I assigned notes to these RNA words to generate audio; I had wondered if this might helps us understand what the words mean. I devised an online tool to hear the sound of coronavirus doing two things most genomes do: the first is called “translation”, which is where the virus makes new proteins. The second is called “transcription”, which is where the genome of the virus copies itself.

The work has been popular on prestigious Science blogs including Nature Index, IFLScience, the Conversation, Forbes and many others. There are several things you can hear: the start and end of genes, the regions between genes and the parts of the genome that control how genes are expressed. Other researchers have written about this extensively in the coronavirus scientific literature but this is the first time you can distinguish between these regions by listening.

Revealing relationships between structure and function
So, what’s the point of all this? As a research tool the audio helps supplement some of the many visual displays that exist to represent genomic information. In other words, it helps scientists understand even more about the virus and how it operates.

From an artistic point of view I think an equally valid question is: does the audio sound musical? Now that I have finished the scientific research part of this project, I listen to the coronavirus genome with fresh ears, and from a musician’s perspective I been surprised as to how musical it sounds. Unintentionally, I have used biological sequences as a generative source of music.

I don’t mean to trivialise the pandemic by thinking about the virus in musical terms. As a molecular biologist at Western Sydney University, when I think about the virus I see RNA sequences, and it’s my job to see relationships between structure and function. I don’t see patients in the clinic and I’m not researching a cure – these things are not my domain.

Taking the genome to the recording studio
This is where the fun begins, as a musician, I have also taken the audio data or ‘generative music’ into the recording studio, away from the research lab, to reveal other perspectives on the coronavirus. The coronavirus audio is pulsating and incessant without overt musical passages, there are few sections that sound like introductions, crescendos or musical themes, but working with other musicians I have tried to tame the sequence; to make it subservient to musical knowledge, ideas and human spirit.

I returned to the trusty drum kit that once drove my old band The Hummingbirds and this now beats the viral sequence into submission. We mixed the computer-generated audio from the coronavirus genome with real guitars and drums played by real people. The result sounds more musical than I thought it would and it reminds me of the pulsing music of postRock or MathRock. I still hear genes and other viral characteristics within the science data but music wins out in the rehearsal studio.

As a musician, this project has been rewarding but as a scientist, I hope sonifying the coronavirus genome helps people think about its function in new and helpful ways. I was determined to create something almost beautiful out of something so awful. Let’s hope we will soon be able to return to work and go out to see and listen to live music again. Let’s soon return to live more “normally” and enjoy the parts of life that engage us intellectually and creatively.

Making actual music with science data and musicians

In recent months I have finished some recordings where we have taken the science audio and thought of it as generative music. To this we have added drums, guitars, bass, synths and keyboard to make real instrumental music. We have composed with the sequence and chopped it up and made it repetitive. We have add musical themes to entire gene sequences. We have mixed up tempos and played with time signatures. Sometimes the sequence is loud and dominating but most often we ride the incessant repetition and tame it with music.

© 2022 Mark Temple

credits

released March 2, 2022

Mark Temple’s “Biological Exploding RNA Sequence Inevitable” are featured on the album.

Peter Veliks – Guitar and devices. Music producer and multi-instrumentalist.
Matthew Tow – Guitars. Singer-songwriter of Drop City and neo-psychedelic rockers the Lovetones.
Paul Scott – Bass. Singer, songwriter and pop luminary from Montana and Pop Mechanix.
Tim Byron – Keyboards. Music writer and academic from School of Psychology (UOW).
Mike Bain – Synthesizer. Academic from School of Computer Science and Engineering (UNSW).
Mike Anderson – Guitar. Lead instrumental of surf twang band Los Monaros.
Mark Temple – Drums. Academic from School of Science (WSU), member of the Hummingbirds.
Coronavirus Genome – Tone-Synth. Computer-generated audio derived from biological sequence information.

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