In the key of life

Decatur-based composer finds musical inspiration in DNA

Even before
Pythagoras and Plato, philosophies of western civilization held that formal patterns in music were based on the same principles as patterns found in the natural universe. As recently as Mozart's era, composers were considered less "creators" of new works than discoverers of beauty in the natural order of the world, as revealed to artistic genius.

With the breakdown of traditional "classical" harmony in the early 20th century, composers like Paul Hindemith tried to formalize complex modern harmonic theory based on the universality of simple numeric ratios. Arnold Schoenberg and his followers promoted serialism as if it were an obligatory evolutionary path. Bela Bartok dabbled with the Fibonacci number series, where ratios of consecutive integers approach the "golden mean" as the numbers get larger. The "golden mean" was an ideal of proportional beauty in classic Greek architecture, but it also appears naturally in such phenomena as the spiral of a Nautilus shell and the patterns of seeds in a sunflower.

No surprise, then, that with the mapping of the human genome, a dozen or so 21st-century composers would turn to patterns found in DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) as inspiration for music.

One of those, 21-year-old Alexandra Pajak, is already gaining some national attention for her work. Pajak, a senior at Agnes Scott College in Decatur, is completing a double major in biology and music, so the pursuit of DNA-inspired music is a natural for her.

Pajak wrote a symphony for the college orchestra last year, based on the DNA of Agnes Scott, the college's namesake. The idea for the symphony came from biology professor Dr. Harry Wistrand, who also provided Pajak with the sequences. Her Symphony No. 1, Translations: The DNA of Agnes Scott premiered last November.

Curiously, it was when she first saw the movie Jurassic Park that Pajak, then 13, caught the composing bug. "At the end of the movie my eyes were tearing. I felt so moved by that music, I was shaking inside. I bought the soundtrack, and listened to it over and over again. And I knew I had to write music." In Athens, where Pajak grew up, she was influenced by the local music scene — from private piano lessons, to opera, to local bands.

Now she is on a second DNA-music project based on her internship at the National B Virus Resource Center with Dr. Julia Hilliard, biology/virology professor at Georgia State University. Hilliard's research has involved mapping the Herpes B virus (Herpesvirus simiae), which she released to the scientific community earlier this year. Pajak's music, based on the genome sequences provided by Dr. Hilliard, is partially completed.

Pajak's methods include assigning pitches to each of the four nucleotide bases: adenine (A), thymine (B flat), cytosine (C) and guanine (G). She also represents 20 amino acids by assigning chords types to each class: Hydrophilic amino acids, for example, are represented by major chords, and hydrophobic by minor chords.

"There is one really interesting part of the B virus genome: a palindrome [in a sequence of] 96 nucleotides," says Pajak. "If you take into account the complimentary strands, it's the same backward as forward. I found that interesting as a musician because there are musical palindromes too."

Pajak's and Hilliard's plan is to represent eight genes in electronically synthesized music on a CD. "The palindrome is first, and I think it will give people who are not familiar with DNA music a really easy grasp of what's in nucleotides," says Pajak.

The music will have its debut at the 54th annual meeting of the American Association for Laboratory Animal Science (AALAS) in Seattle during mid-October, and at an educational conference of the Association of Primate Veterinarians (APV) during the same week. The CD will be available by Oct. 12. Readers interested in purchasing a copy are invited to contact Pajak at her professional e-mail address pajakmusic@hotmail.com.