Image by BacMap Genome Atlas

Illinois composer writes sesquicentennial music recognizing Carl Woese’s discovery of third domain of life

News Categories: 

by Jodi Heckel, Illinois News Bureau

Music representing one of the most important scientific discoveries made on the University of Illinois campus will be played on the historic Altgeld Chimes and the McFarland Carillon as part of the U. of I.’s sesquicentennial celebration.

Composer Stephen Taylor, a professor of music composition and theory in the School of Music, created a new musical work that represents the chromosome of an organism within Archaea, or a third domain of life discovered by Illinois microbiologist Carl Woese. His discovery led to a new understanding about the process of evolution.

Interim Provost Ed Feser asked Taylor to compose a piece for the sesquicentennial. Taylor said he quickly decided he wanted something that involved both carillons.

The compositions, titled “Archaea,” are part of the work Taylor did as a 2014 Guggenheim Fellow. His work has long been inspired by science, and in the last several years he’s been trying to make musical pieces that are science – in other words, turning data into sound, or DNA into music.

“Genetics is the ultimate set of data because it’s us. If it can make us, and every other bit of life on the planet, it should be able to make something that sounds decent,” Taylor said.

He used the genome map made by Woese and his team of researchers of Methanocaldococcus jannaschii, a tiny microbial organism living in extreme environments such as the boiling hot springs of Yellowstone, the icy Antarctic seas or volcanic vents in the ocean floor. The genes of M. jannaschii are arranged in a circular chromosome, and Woese color-coded each set of genes according to their function.

Taylor gave each color a separate musical motif. For example, one set of genes on Woese’s map of the chromosome occurs frequently and helps with information processing. Taylor said they are a foundational part of the music, and he gave those genes two notes at a perfect fifth interval. He represented the double helix shape of DNA by using higher octaves for the notes of genes on the forward strand and by making the notes of genes on the reverse strand one octave lower.

Taylor’s main composition – about 16 minutes in length – will be played on the McFarland Carillon, whose 48 bells are controlled automatically. In order to represent the circular shape of the chromosome, Taylor started with the top bells at the highest octave and worked down to the lower bells at lower octaves. At the halfway point of the piece, the lowest notes are played, corresponding to the genes at the bottom of the circular chromosome.

Taylor also wrote a shorter piece – a few minutes long – to be played by a human bellringer on the Altgeld Chimes. The shorter piece represents plasmids, or smaller circular chromosomes with extra genes, that occur in M. jannaschii.

Both compositions will be played at noon Feb. 28, the day of the sesquicentennial celebration kickoff.

The piece for the Altgeld Chimes has not been performed yet by a bellringer, but Taylor has occasionally played the McFarland Carillon piece on the bells there. He is able to control the carillon from his phone; he sometimes has it play his composition at the end of the day. He listens to it on his walk home from campus.

Founded in 1867 as a land grant institution, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign is both celebrating 150 years of transformative experiences and heralding an ambitious vision for the future through learning, discovery and public engagement. More information on our sesquicentennial milestones and festivities is available at http://150.illinois.edu/

Listen to Taylor’s “Archaea” composition for the U. of I. sesquicentennial celebration online at http://www.stephenandrewtaylor.net/mp3/Archaea-12-24.mp3.      

Share this news