On the 5th March 2020, EASTBIO first-year PhD student Eddie Martin organised a concert with a difference. The performers? Researchers in the fields of Biological Sciences and/or Music. Their instruments? Computer programming languages. The audience? Enjoying a healthy mix of inspiration, entertainment, and bemusement.
This event welcomed all to the diverse and overlapping worlds of sonification, algorithmic music composition, and live-coding/algorave. I will now interrupt this article for some basic definitions:
Sonficiation – Turning data to (non-speech) sound. Think heart-rate monitors or Geiger counters.
Algorithmic Music Composition – Writing music using an algorithm with minimal human input. (Mozart used grids and dice. Nowadays we use computer programming languages.)
Live Coding – On the spot interactive programming for artistic improvisation.
Algorave – A subculture centred on live coding, and also a term for a club nights or gig featuring live coding.
Eddie Martin, a student at the University of Edinburgh, hosted the event and performed first. He shared three pieces from his research, each of them turning protein sequences to sound. His first piece showcased his method of sonification with simple instrumentation (1 – link at bottom of page). He followed this with a poignant and educational sonification of the molecular cause of Huntington’s disease (2). Eddie finished with a spectacle: a live-mixed performance of his Human SARS coronavirus replicase sonification, accompanied by a 3-d animated viral visualisation (3).
Dr. Michelle Phillips (Royal Northern College of Music) and Dr. Nicholas Weise (Manchester Institute of Biotechnology) shared their collaborative project ‘Music and Mutation’. This work involved the sonification of DNA nucleotides, and the audience were treated to a video of their compositions performed by a string trio (4). This work investigates the audience’s perception and response to algorithmically composed sonification pieces, especially in non-scientific contexts. the work simultaneously investigates the use of sonification as a tool to teach difficult Biological topics, such as codon optimisation.
Dr. Shelley Knotts (Durham University), a renowned live-coder and international performer, treated the audience to two pieces. The first was ‘Molecular Soundscapes’ (pictured), a collaboration with computational chemist Dr. Agnieszka Bronowska (Newcastle University). This performance included sonification of molecular biological properties and drug design processes in Dr. Bronowska’s work (5), and a demonstration of software developed to visualise and interact with the sonification.
Shelley’s second piece of live coding was ‘AlgoRIOTmic Grrrl!’, a remixing and repurposing of ‘90s Riot Grrrl music to create angry dance music which evoke the revolutionary spirit of feminist punk. This work highlights the need to create space for women in electronic and computer music scenes and draws parallels between algorave and punk subcultures (6). Shelley’s performance provided a raucous and mischievous note to end the evening on.
This event was kindly supported by EASTBIO and the Festival of Creative Learning.