Music from the Genome: Cloud Atlas as Biological Symphony
March 15, 2015 § 2 Comments
Describing his composition of Cloud Atlas Sextet to his friend Sixsmith, Robert Frobisher writes, “Boundaries between noise and sound are conventions…. All boundaries are conventions…. One may transcend any convention” (Mitchell 460). It is this excerpted sentence that I identify as crystalizing the agenda of David Mitchell’s fantastic 2004 epic Cloud Atlas. By “crystalizing,” I mean that this description of musical composition allows for one to connect the six narratives of Cloud Atlas beyond the characters’ reading of one another’s life stories. The six seemingly separate narratives are, in fact, radical examples of this transcendence of formal conventions. What I would like to briefly examine here is the musical nature of this novel, but not music in the conventional way of thinking about it, but rather in considering genetic code as music. In what way is Cloud Atlas exhibiting a musical composition in its novelistic formation, and in the connections between the narratives?
Michael Zev Gordon’s 2010 musical composition “Allele,” collaboratively conceived of by the project Music from the Genome, has been an unexpected but wonderful discovery during the writing of this blog post. Music from the Genome project is an excellent example of interdisciplinarity in that it marries genetic science with music and poetry; the project not only examined the genetic characteristics of choral singers, but also translated DNA coding into music accompanied by lyric written by poet Ruth Padel. As Music from the Genome’s website explains, “the results of DNA analysis from 40 members of the New London Chamber Choir were used to create a major new choral work, ‘Allele’…. Each singer’s musical part was created using the results of their own personal genetic analysis” (http://www.musicfromthegenome.org.uk). The project essentially sings the language of the human genome, with each singer giving voice to their biological identity.*
Listening to “Allele,” a mix of individual voice, choir, and repetition can be heard, similar to the six voices presented in Cloud Atlas. In Mitchell’s novel, each of the narratives has its own individual voice—a unique DNA sequence—yet they are all interconnected not only through reading one another’s stories, but also arguably on a biological level, through shared memories and birthmarks. Furthermore, the title of the novel echoes Frobisher’s Cloud Atlas Sextet, connecting it to a grand composition of six musical voices. Cloud Atlas seems to be a musical project similar to “Allele,” where six separate voices—and with them six separate biological lives—are mixed together and interwoven into a single composition and choir. Their connection exhibits the transcendence of conventional boundaries that Frobisher privileges in his own musical composition; they blur the boundary between individual voices in coming together in a single composition, while also arguably blurring the boundary between individual genetic sequences in their repetitions of one another—think of the comet-shaped birthmark and the stories and memories of their past lives that each experiences.
* The audio track “Allele” is well worth a listen (here is the link to the website’s audio player: http://www.musicfromthegenome.org.uk/audioplayer.html)