In Defense of Nonsense

As of this writing, most genetic music is concerned with the stretches of DNA that code for proteins. I have no particular objection to this approach, but my interest in rhythm las led me to focus on the vast regions of the human genome that do NOT generate proteins.

Because they have no immediately apparent purpose, these stretches of DNA are sometimes referred to as nonsense or junk DNA. Nonsense DNA attracts me for a couple of reasons. For one thing, it repeats its pattern many times along the strand where it appears. It also makes up a large portion of the human genome.

If one is exploring rhythmic patterns, as I am, then these are good conditions indeed. A nonsense pattern will be long enough to elude instant identification yet short enough to become familiar on repeated listening. It can thus be repeated for long periods of time and still be interesting to the ear. In other words, the main characteristics of nonsense DNA make a good match with the aesthetic demands of rhythmically based music.

The source material for “A Thousand Apologies” is one of the so-called Alu sequences, which are the most common non-coding DNA sequences in the human genome.

In converting this sequence into an audible rhythm, I made some personal selections, as anyone engaged in genetic music must.

I employed the concept of a metrical model as described in “A Striking Resemblance,” although rather than using stressed and unstressed tones, I used two tones a half-step apart, which approximate the qualities of stress and non-stress. (The ear hears the higher tone as an accented tone.)

In keeping with the behavior of a replicon, I translated in two opposing directions from a midpoint in the genetic sequence and so created two voices. Then, in a crude mimickry of biology, I doubled these two voices and introduced them at different times, as in a round. So there are really two identical Alu “duets” playing on this sample. This choice conforms to the behavior of replication, during which many Alu sequences are being activated within the nucleus at any given time.

Some of my choices amount to outright liberties. I standardized the “four-beat/pause” pattern observed in DNA dissociation as “four-beats sounded/two-beats silent” -- purely a convention on my part. For timbre, I chose a DJ scratch sample, then alternated it with the sound of a drum kit. I did this partly for fun, but also to allow the listener to hear when the sequence repeats.

The sample contains the Alu sequence repeated three times.