ASHLAND, ORE. — When Todd Barton was a kid and the Saturday cartoons were over, he'd turn down the television sound and play radio music, trying to synchronize it with the talking heads on the news programs.
His musical experiment might be called the electronic version of a child's first chemistry set.
Fast forward 40 years or so, and Mr. Barton is in the studio behind his house one night, a place packed with musical instruments, recording gear, and computer equipment. On a whim, he downloads the DNA data sequence from the International Genome Project website. He enters the first few lines of the sequence for chromosome 1 - the equivalent of 120 notes - into his MIDI sequencer (an electronic digital system), and a small "eureka!" goes off.
"Once I slowed it down enough so that I could get a grip on it, it began to sound like minimalist music I had heard and minimalist music I had composed," he recalls - especially when he began to expand and contract the rhythmic and pitch patterns, all the time "careful not to disturb the basic relationships."
That was a few months ago, not long after two teams of scientists had decoded the genetic information of our species, known as the human genome. Mapping the human genetic code was a scientific breakthrough, raising profound ethical issues. But it's also provided new avenues for creative expression, and, by extension, a way for scientists and artists to compare notes and appreciate each other's work.
That happens this weekend when Barton will present his "genome music" at a conference of world experts at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington.
To compose genome music, he takes the four letters of the chromosome sequence - A, C, G, and T, which represent the nucleotides or building blocks of genes - to create rhythm and pitch patterns in a chromatic, or any other, scale. (The T, which is not in the musical scale of A to G, becomes an F, using a simple repeating formula.)
Using computer-generated music samples and a graphic music synthesizer, this can result in the sound of voices, string instruments, brass, percussion, or anything that makes sound - with infinitely possible combinations - while studiously sticking to the DNA-based sequence of four base tones. The result, he says, is "we're-not-in-Kansas-any-more-Toto music."
For 32 years, Barton's day job has been resident composer and music director of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, one of the country's top theater organizations. OSF produces 11 classical and modern plays in three theaters here in southern Oregon over a nine-month season from February through October, drawing audiences from around the country.
Over the years, Barton has composed scores for more than 150 plays (including the full Shakespeare canon), worked with poet and novelist Ursula Le Guin, written the score for "Fire On The Mountain" (an award-winning film about the 10th Mountain Division in World War II), and composed music for the Kronos Quartet and other world-class groups. Barton has also written a film score for the Disney/Sarabande production of "Night John," as well as the sound effects for several books on tape.
A recent performance here typified the range of his interests. On alto recorder, Barton played music from the early 16th century, moved forward in time to Telemann and Bach, played traditional Zen melodies on the shakuhachi (a Japanese bamboo flute), and then used exotic wind, percussion, and electronic instruments to play his own recent compositions.
The way Barton makes genome music can be applied to any pattern or sequence, including those involving chaos theory, fractals, or just someone's name. For fun, he types "Brad Knickerbocker" into the MetaSynth audio software used to transform DNA data sequences into music. He tinkers and listens for a bit, then decides, "I could make this into a musical score for Robert Redford." I tell him I was thinking more of Al Pacino for my score, but Redford will do.
The results, like his early experiments with genome music, produce a sound that can be harsh and frenetic, or lilting and lyrical, or otherworldly and timeless.
"But can you dance to it?" asks an irreverent poster for Barton's genome music website (www.mind.net/music/genome/gen2.htm). Well, sure - as long as you don't care who's watching.
But that does raise a fundamental question: At what point does music become sound effects or vice versa? "It's all the same to me," he says, then elaborates:
"My working definition of music is much, much different than simply melody, harmony, and rhythm. [Minimalist composer] John Cage called music 'organized sound.' What comes to me is that music is just sculpting energy." It's a concept and a view, he adds, that could equally be applied to dance or the visual arts.
For a guy who started out using household sounds, then moved through Baroque madrigals to avant-garde minimalist music, the prospects of explaining his art to scientists at the People's Genome Celebration this weekend is very exciting.
Barton says, "I can't wait to meet all those hotshots at the Smithsonian."
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor