UCL computer scientist creates installation that ‘Sounds like DNA’ for play

5 March 2014

A UCL computer scientist has produced an interactive installation, ‘Sounds like DNA’ in association with the art-science theatre piece ‘How to be Immortal’. In this piece of new writing, produced with advice from UCL medical researchers, Penny Dreadful Productions explore themes of immortality, genetics and cancer. The show is currently touring the UK.

The web installation (located at ) was developed by Dr Nicolas Gold (UCL Computer Science) in collaboration with Penny Dreadful Productions, and generates music based on different genetic characteristics adjusted by the user. It interprets real, publicly available DNA samples that these characteristics have some connection to, and creates music that reflects a combination of them. For example, moving the ‘height’ slider, which controls rhythm, makes it more likely that more complicated rhythmic patterns will be introduced into the piece, while altering the ‘build’ slider makes the music thicker.

The writer of ‘How to be Immortal’ Mira Dovreni was keen to develop new ways for people to connect through science through their own experience. Her piece incorporates three true-life stories about love, death and DNA, ranging from the daughter of Henrietta Lacks coming to terms with her mother’s cellular immortality to a modern couple facing terminal illness. Live music and compositions based on DNA sequences, complemented by video animations give the audience a multimedia experience of these scientific facts. The interactive digital piece provided by Dr Gold completes this by allowing people to interact with genetic code themselves.

The show’s developers checked their ideas for incorporating science with UCL medical researchers with experience in cancer research, Gareth Ackland and Ana Gutierrez del Arroyo (UCL Clinical Physiology, Division of Medicine).  The scientists contributed ideas, proofed the script, clarified concepts for the writer, and are attending some of the post show question and answers sessions. They invited the team into their lab to see what working in a busy modern lab is really like, and let them see the immortal HeLa cells for themselves.

Mira Dovreni, the founder member and artistic director of Penny Dreadful Productions says:

“I wanted to explore what genetics and DNA actually mean to people in a very personal way – and how these ‘scientific concepts’ underpin every aspect of our lives. I also wanted to try out new ways of experiencing science, so that the audience not only understands it intellectually but ‘feels it’. The stories and particularly the music seemed to be an ideal way of doing this. “

Dr Nicolas Gold is a multi-instrumentalist in his free time as well as incorporating music computing in his research and teaching at UCL. He said:

“While the music is of course an artistic interpretation, it is inspired by the science and created using algorithms. I hope it will help to spark mutual interest between musicians, engineers, and scientists.”

The show is currently touring the UK until 23rd March, and is at the Soho Theatre, London, from 4-9 Mar. Tickets are available online.

‘How to be Immortal’ was developed with The Lowry and West Yorkshire Playhouse; created in association with The Albany, Harrogate Theatre and Jackson’s Lane; and assisted in development by UCL scientists: Gareth Ackland, Ana Gutierrez del Arroyo, Nicolas Gold, and medical historian Duncan Wilson.

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