Thursday, March 1, 2012

Immerse yourself in a 'warm pond' of music

An artist's rendering of a young planet, similar to how Earth may have been 3.5 billion years ago. NASA/JPL CalTech/R. Hurt

By Carol Clark

Take musicians and their instruments, chemists and their research, a composer and his computers and random acts of audience participation. Gather these ingredients into an otherworldly, “warm pond” atmosphere and stir. No one knows what the final result will be of “First Life,” a multi-media imagining of the chemical origins of life by Steve Everett, Emory professor of music and a composer.

“We know that the performance will be a unique experience, but beyond that, this piece is full of unknowns, which is what I really like about it,” Everett says.

“First Life” debuts on Sunday, March 4, at 7 pm in Emory's Schwartz Center for Performing Arts. The composition was supported by the Center for Chemical Evolution, which is funded by the National Science Foundation and NASA. Scientists from Emory and Georgia Tech are leading the center’s efforts to answer one of the most intriguing questions in science: How did life begin? How could molecules from the chemical inventory of early Earth, some 3.5 billion years ago, have self-assembled into new molecular entities, eventually leading to the building blocks of life?

Video below shows a computer simulation of molecular assembly produced by Martha Grover's lab. We added the sound of a crowd assembling in a concert hall.


“Molecules aren’t static. They’re vibrating, just like sound,” Everett says. “That’s one reason that music is an ideal way to create metaphors for this research.”

Everett, a former math major, who relies heavily on computer engineering for many of his musical compositions, began work on “First Life” by cracking open biochemistry books. He also talked extensively with the Center of Chemical Evolution’s Martha Grover, a chemist and bio-molecular engineer at Georgia Tech.

“A biological organism has the ability to respond to its environment and learn from its past experiences,” Grover says, “while human-designed systems are typically more rigid and thus less ‘intelligent.’”

Grover is developing probability models for certain chemical bonds, and combinations of those bonds, that could happen under certain conditions.

Joseph Haydn's musical handwriting, from the original copy of Gott erhalte Franz den Kaiser.

Music also relies on probability formulas, Everett says. Joseph Haydn, for example, produced more than 100 symphonies, and much of his music has a similar sound, because he composed using a rule-based system. Each piece was a variation on those rules.

“Composers embed logical, organic patterns into the music,” Everett says. “Listeners respond to these patterns on a cognitive level, and they may experience a sense of beauty and the sublime, or even discord, because of them.”

Through a process known as computer sonification, Everett turned Grover’s models for chemical assembly into sounds. He then limited the resulting random pitches to a few musical scales, to create pieces to be played by the Vega String Quartet.

One of the pieces in “First Life” is titled “Methane, Ammonia, Hydrogen, Water.” The different chemicals are represented by different sounds played loudly, then softly, with little order. “But whenever the composition goes into a mezzo forte, they start to lock into a repeating rhythm,” Everett says. “They don’t quite make it, though, and they go off into chaos again.”

Watch a video, below, of conversation between musician Steve Everett and biochemist Marth Grover.

The music from each of the stringed instruments will stream live into a computer synthesizer during the performance. Everett will control the synthesizer, and combine the resulting sounds with percussion and live audio-visual displays. Actual research from the Center for Chemical Evolution will also be narrated by Grover and David Lynn, chair of chemistry at Emory and another key scientist at the center.

The audience will also play a role in the performance of “First Life,” although Everett is withholding details to ensure as much spontaneity as possible for the event.

The sonic interpretations of the chemical research will be mixing with the brain chemistry of listeners. Each person present may have an entirely different reaction, and some reactions may not be entirely positive.

“I’m interested in exploring new potential reactions to sound,” Everett says. “Science isn’t trying to be pleasant and enjoyable, it’s trying to answer questions by exploring the unknown. I hope that the audience will walk away with a lot of questions, but also the desire to learn more about the research at the Center for Chemical Evolution, and why it’s so important.”

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