Music Major Creates Award-Winning Computer Composition Based on DNA

June 24, 2009

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June 25, 2009 — How does DNA sound? That was a question University of Virginia music professor Judith Shatin posed to her spring computer composition class, inspired by the 're-new' international digital arts competition.

The competition, held in Denmark in late May, called for "sonifying" a segment of DNA. Music major Juan Mendez's response, a piece named "Twisting," won the competition.

Sonification is an emerging interdisciplinary field in the arts that enhances the perception of data through sound – an important area in computer music, Shatin said. "Sonification is a way to recognize patterns using sound, rather than vision. It is the counterpart to visualization."

Sonification also has practical and scientific applications. Some recognizable examples are the Geiger counter, sonar and tools that detect volcanic activity.

According to the re-new festival's Web site, the organization "seeks out artistic practices that not only respond to scientific or technical developments, but that try to influence the way in which we experience, understand and embody these technologies." Awards were given in the artistic and scientific categories.

Both undergraduate and graduate students in Shatin's class each created a unique composition "sonifying" the same sequence of DNA.

Shatin said the focus of the class was to "develop the students' ability to understand more advanced principles of computer music, using an open-source software that would enhance their understanding of extant music and also allow them to develop their own music."

Mendez began working with the DNA of baker's yeast. The assignment was to take the DNA letter combinations and musically distinguish them. His sonification conjures a mental vision of DNA structure, he said. "All parts of the structure maintain their individuality, but stream together in a dissonant harmony."

Armed with only his high school knowledge of DNA, Mendez researched how the different proteins match together to develop a mental image of the iconic double helix with the ladder-like structure running up the center.

His goal was to "create in sound the motion of the double helix," he said.

"Juan invented a combination of timbres or quality of notes that is very appealing and it clearly demarks the different DNA sequences and sounds very musical," Shatin said.

Using RTCmix software, he assigned virtual instrument parameters to each letter in the sequence, creating a data stream that could be read by each of the individual instruments. Final musical shaping and coloring was conducted using Logic Express. He said he also needed to learn Pearl computer language to create the code and algorithms for the project.

Mendez said he enrolled in the class after completing a fall class with Shatin that introduced him to music and computers. "It was a crash course in audio engineering and composition techniques. I like the freedom it gave me," he said.

He had no idea the spring course would actually entail computer coding.

"I am glad I did it. I loved it. It was challenging and very satisfying," he said.

"What's unusual about Juan is that he is a relative newcomer to this type of programming," Shatin said. "He did this in a way that was very musically striking."

Mendez, 27, is a 10-year veteran of the Marines. After two tours of duty in Iraq, he is a helicopter crew chief in the Marine Reserves. He came to U.Va. after completing his associate's degree at Piedmont Virginia Community College, with the help of Reserve Tuition Assistance Program.

He graduated from the College of Arts & Sciences in May, which will allow him to become an officer and a pilot.

After completing his reserve summer training this month, he is awaiting the birth of twin daughters while he seeks a commission as an officer in the military. He lives in Stuarts Draft with his wife, Shelley, who works at U.Va. in the office of the associate vice president for business operations, and their 2-year-old daughter.

A musician who plays the guitar, bass and occasionally drums, Mendez said the experience will be invaluable in recording his own music.

— By Jane Ford