Grand science oratorio encompasses life and the meaning of the universe

Grand science drama encompasses life and the meaning of the universe

Origins of the Universe, of Life, of Species, of Humanity is possibly the only piece of music in the world where the words “deoxyribonucleic acid” are a first choice for the librettists.

Last week in Melbourne science meets art came alive with geneticist Jenny Graves’ oratorio for choir, four soloists and orchestra.

It was  a vibrant mash-up between the languages of science and music, introducing an audience of equal parts audiophiles and technicians to each other’s worlds.

Graves, Distinguished Professor and Vice Chancellor’s Fellow at La Trobe University, is an international leader in comparative genomics of vertebrates. This is her first oratorio.

For the musically-minded, deoxyribonucleic acid is DNA; for Cosmos’ science crowd, a librettist is the writer of the lyrics and an oratorio is a large scale piece of music for choir and orchestra.

The 100-minute musical event was a romp through, as the title suggests, life, the universe, and everything.

Deoxyribonucleic acid is a punchy line that the chorus belted out in the sixth of the 21 movement tribute to the science of life.

“When you write a libretto you don’t get many words, so every word has to mean something,” Graves told Cosmos. “It’s so important to get the right word in the right place.”

Four people standing and smiling
Left to right: Leigh Hay (co-liberettist and poet), Jenny Graves (librettist), Nicholas Buc (composer) and Peter Bandy (HCS musical director). Credit: Supplied

Graves wrote the piece of music with poet, and fellow Heidelberg Choral Society chorister, Leigh Hay. Graves inveigled the choir’s music director Peter Bandy into championing the idea over a lunch of sandwiches and rosé (Bandy immediately brought in New York-based composer Nicholas Buc), and gathered a growing crowd of supporters around the idea, including amateur singer and former Cosmos editor Elizabeth Finkel and the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute.

The final result was an event of cosmic proportions for the amateur choir, supported by an orchestra composed of musicians from the likes of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra and four prominent Melbourne soloists.

One night only

The oratorio opened with the tale – where else? – of the Big Bang.

It was a slow, quiet entrance that allowed tenor Robert Macfarlane’s repeated call of “nothing” to ring out around the choir’s explanatory response.

Buc didn’t want to open with a show of musical force.

“I wanted to draw out the nothingness of our origins in a longer way, and that’s why the first movement takes its time,” he told Cosmos.

Only then did it explode into the second and third movements about Earth’s molten, volcanic Hadean Era and emergence as a place where life could thrive.

Part two explained the emergence of life; the musical DNA explainer took pride of place, led the strongly feminist resurrection of Rosalind Franklin, the long lost third party in the discovery of the double helix.

The third part, ‘Of Species’, was where Graves, Hay, and Buc clearly had the most fun, drawing giggles from the audience at the antics of lyrebird mating practices and a cutesy rock wallaby folk song.

The oratorio opened with the tale – where else? – of the Big Bang.

But it’s also where their combined storytelling was most barbed and moving, illustrating in words and music the damage humanity is doing to our fellow travellers on Earth culminating with the penultimate movement Extinction.

The final part was a comic-then-sad-then-heartfelt tribute to homo sapiens, outlining in just three movements the evolution of man, the rise and fall of humanity, and hope for the future kindled by our ability to learn and understand our place in the world.

Translating science into music

Graves wants to see the music and lyrics in Origins adapted, to be used by teachers or the media to illustrate science to spread the good — evidence-based and peer reviewed — word.

But where Origins may make the most impact is in translating the languages of science and music to new audiences, following in the footsteps of the outrageously successful high school musical production E=mc2 out of Cape York.

Last week’s performance bubbled with a crowd the Melbourne Recital Centre likely doesn’t often see: music aficionados seated next to scientists, many of whom were in town for the genomics-fest conference held by the International Congress of Genetics.

Science, or the more romantic bits, has long been inspiration for musicians.

Graves was inspired by Haydn’s The Creation.

But other famous representations are Holst’s The Planets – parents will know the ‘Jupiter’ movement from the Bluey episode Sleepytime, film buffs will know it from 2001 Space Odyssey – the Barenaked Ladies’ History of Everything, and composer John D. Boswell’s electronic work A Glorious Dawn with Carl Sagan and Stephen Hawking.

Science, or the more romantic bits, has long been inspiration for musicians.

For Origins, it was important to find ways to represent the science through music, even when the concepts became particularly esoteric, Buc says.

“It’s imperative that the music does a bit of storytelling and a bit of heavy lifting of these concepts, because especially in the science world it’s all fine and well to talk about DNA and use scientific terms, but conjuring that in a musical way all of a sudden can break down that science heavy language into something you can react to emotionally,” Buc says.

“I had the most trouble with part two because it was very sciencey. Genetic mutations, DNA coding, all those kinds of concepts are less emotional and it was a harder code to crack.”

He responded by building the music using techniques based in maths, such as repetition, subtraction, addition, inversions that creates a minimalist landscape of sound.

The movement devoted to DNA, The Immortal Molecule, builds a musical picture by representing the four bases of DNA, ATGC with the notes A, D, G and C.

The whole section was constructed “robotically” rather than on the basis of how it felt, or sounded to Buc, and he says it was a very clinical way of writing music as he tested how sounds would work together, “almost like working out an equation”.

And translating music for the scientists

But if music is translating science for the lay people, then Origins is also an introduction for the non-musical to the art form.

With a background in writing music for film, Buc leans heavily into storytelling, and percussion with “30 to 40” different instruments in the piece.

Traditionally, percussion was used sparingly because it was considered the harshest, most aurally tiring sound in the orchestral toolbox, he says.

But for audiences today raised on jazz, electronic music and rock, percussion is a way to make orchestral sound relatable, and adds a quality and texture of sound unheard in, say, music from Beethoven’s time.

Percussion is the closest thing we have to getting a drum kit in there.

“To be honest, these days the more percussion a contemporary piece of music can use, it can be a bridging tool to people who aren’t used to classical music,” Buc says.

Percussion is the only place in an orchestra where things are hit, but they aren’t all drums.

“The science world is full of interesting creatures and colour, so it was the musical equivalent of highlighting these strange creatures musically. If you’re looking at DNA cells, maybe it needs a different type of sound,” he says.

A celeste, also known as a ‘bell-piano’, a harp and a glockenspiel gave him a chance to create “sparkles”.

“It really gave me a lot of creativity and scope to create those other colours. They can add a bit of magic by spanning a tingling bright register that a lot of other instruments in the orchestra don’t quite cover.”

So far, last week’s debut is the only outing planned for Origins.

But Graves is reaching into her science toolkit to get it into the global choral repertoire. She’s now measuring impact and writing applications (for awards, as opposed to grants) to get the attention of choirmasters around Australia and the world.

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