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Chronicle of the NonPop Revolution

The Essay
Show #419
Genetically Modified Music
David Gunn

The advent of the twenty-first century--and, shortly after it was recalled to correct serious configurational defects, the modified twenty-first century--saw composers of the non-pop ilk attempting to jump-start a discipline that had in recent decades faltered and grown moribund. Symphonies were out, karaoke was in; minimalism had been minimalized, gangsta rap was where it was ap; neo-Bach was dying, rock was rolling. But not until they saw a majority of private and public generosities begin to unfund their rooms and boards did composers seek out new stimuli for their musical processes. Of course, the search for different ways to harness events both acoustic and acoustoelectric is as old as many tenured faculty members, so many of the new ideas were mere recontextualizations of previously discarded ones. However, one intriguing method did generate widespread interest and, more importantly, generous subsidies. It came from the US Department of Energy's Human Genome Project: genetically-modified music.

Genetically-modified music utilizes a special set of technologies that alter the makeup of the musical organism to enhance desired traits, such as improved parallel thirds movement or increased resistance to repeated serial motifs. The enhancement of especial attributes has traditionally been undertaken through various compositional architectures, but conventional black-dots-on-a-page methods can be very time-consuming and often result in less than satisfactory constructs. Genetic modification, on the other hand, can create music with the precise desired trait very rapidly and with great accuracy. For example, a music geneticist can isolate an algorithm responsible for rhythmic intricacy and insert that algorithm into a different composition. The new genetically-modified piece will gain rhythmic intricacy as well but exhibit none of its progenitorís cadential treatments, at least on the surface. If one delves deeply enough--say, to the hemidemisemiquaver level--he will find similitude.

Not only can genes be transferred from one composition to another, but components from non-musical entities can also be used. Enzymes from a strain of yogurt authochthonous to an unnamed hamlet in the Catskills have produced musical sequences that are herbicide-resistant. An infinitesimal ort from a platter on which a lamb brains burrito sat festering in the sun for two hours during a catered wedding party in August of 2000 in the Houston suburbs turned a simple dull sine wave into a potential Pulitzer Prize for Music winner.

The process does, naturally, have its detractors. Some claim it's a violation of natural music's intrinsic values. Others worry about as yet unknown musicological impacts--the domination of compositional products by a few big music syndicates; the unintended transfer of musical defects through cross-pollination; the divestiture of common time. And then there was the discovery that music genetically modified by corn pollen was adversely affecting monarch butterfly larvae. In the thick of the controversy is, not surprisingly, the Mongo Music Proving Ground at the University of Hummock-on-Smythe in Southwesternmost Lincolnshire. There, scientists have tried to reverse the process by implanting sub-molecular musical modules into genome-sequenced laboratory rats. But, so far, the goal of their project, the long-sought musical mouse, remains unattainable. An even less successful experiment briefly engendered howls of outrage from the environmental community. A musical shaman visiting from Burma declared that dander from the feather of a spotted owl contained a "highly desirable gene." Although he declined to be any more specific, an eager bursar at the U of H-on-S still granted him a generous stipend to travel to the Oregon rain forest and fetch some dander. Alas, his real motives proved to be somewhat less altruistic. When he arrived at the forest, the shaman instead poached over a hundred of the endangered owls. He flash-froze most of them, stuffed them into refrigerated vats, and shipped them back to Rangoon, where they eventually wound up on the cafeteria sweet trolley of the Myanmar High Council. The rest he catapulted high into the air and sold as high-priced skeet shooting targets to the local anti- environmental crowd.

But that publicist's nightmare was an anomaly. Most genetically-modified music continues to keep a low profile (especially now at the U of H-on-S). If they didn't spot the required GMM label on its sheet music, cassette case or CD jewel box, most listeners probably wouldn't even know they were part of the recombinant DNA technology musical food chain.

Indeed, today's 419th episode of Kalvos & Damian's New Music Bazaar features specially generated tunes using genetical recontextualization techniques to minimize their derivative qualities while maximizing their nosal vibrancy. Is it worth the admittedly enormous effort? We'll let you be the judge--you, and also Kalvos.