Coming up in July are three opportunities to hear a remarkable new choral work in which singers sing parts derived directly from their own genetic code.
The new piece, Allele, by Michael Zev Gordon, with text by poet Ruth Padel, will be performed by the New London Chamber Choir (NLCC), under the direction of James Weeks. The London premiere on 13 July is part of a public event at the Royal Society of Medicine entitled Music from the Genome, and will also feature discussion between the composer and poet on the challenges of creating this unique work.
Allele was scored in Sibelius, and I caught up with the composer to find out more about this work and how Sibelius helped him realise his creative vision.
Music from the Genome is also the name of a Wellcome Trust-funded piece of original scientific research that investigates the genetic determinants of musical ability. Dr Andrew Morley, director of the project and a consultant anaesthetist, is comparing DNA samples from 250 choral singers, including the NLCC themselves, with those of 250 non-musicians. Preliminary results from the study will be announced at the lecture and may support the idea that musical ability depends in part on differences in brain biochemistry.
Allele is a 40-part unaccompanied choral work, employing the fundamental principle of natural proportionality, the Fibonacci sequence. Poet and author Ruth Padel, who wrote the text, also uses proportionality in her chosen poetic form.
Composer Michael Zev Gordon is one of the leading lights in composition in the UK today, and splits his time between his career as a composer and as an educator, working not only as a professor of composition at the Royal College of Music in London, but also as Senior Lecturer in music at the University of Southampton.
Michael said, “The work takes strands of genetic code, turning the varying order of the four constituent DNA bases into musical patterns. Most of the human genome is common to us all, but at certain points in the sequence there are tiny variants that may lead to our individual characteristics – including musicality. These crucial variants of genes are called ‘alleles,’ hence the title.”
I asked Michael how Sibelius had helped with the creation of the work. “Sibelius has been incredibly helpful in writing Allele,” he said. “I’ve increasingly used it not only as a notation tool of hand-written manuscript, but as a composing medium too. In this piece it’s been more helpful than ever, because of the sheer complexity of managing the textures – 40 parts, divided into eight choirs of five voices each, in a potentially unlimited number of arrangements and voicings.”
Handling such a large ensemble is no mean feat, even with software like Sibelius to help you, but Michael was more than a match for the challenge. “I could write, change, move around materials flexibly and quickly – and just to be able to see all the parts fully laid out from the beginning was very useful. When it came to making the vocal scores, Sibelius allowed us easily to make varying sets with one choir enlarged in each and the other seven reduced, so all could fit on the page.”
However, Michael is not blind to the perils of using software as a compositional tool. “The one general danger to consider is that being able to change things so easily, it can allow you to put off making decisions. Handled carefully, Sibelius is a truly liberating tool.”
Michael has also written an article about the process of composing Allele for The Guardian, which you can read here.
Allele receives its London premiere at the Royal Society of Medicine on 13 July. It will also be performed on 9 July at the Diamond Light Synchrotron, Didcot, presented by Oxford Contemporary Music and Oxford Inspires, and on July 10 at the Cheltenham Music Festival.
Peter Roos, San Francisco
Interesting – though it leaves me wondering how exactly the genetic code of the singers was used to write the music, and how the fibonacci sequence plays into all of this.