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Sounds of HIV: Mu­sic Tran­scribed

From DNA (Az­ica) Com­posers take their in­spi­ra­tion where they find it, and for Alexan­dra Pa­jak that has proved to be in the ge­netic code of the hu­man im­mun­od­e­fi­ciency virus. “Ev­ery seg­ment of the virus is as­signed mu­si­cal pitches that cor­re­spond to the seg­ment’s sci­en­tific prop­er­ties,” ex­plains the 23-year-old Pa­jak, a for­mer mu­sic ma­jor who is pur­su­ing a mas­ter’s de­gree in clin­i­cal so­cial work at the Uni­ver­sity of Ge­or­gia. That yields a se­quence of ba­sic mu­si­cal ma­te­rial — sin­gle notes or scales — that rep­re­sent HIV’s 9,181 nu­cleo­tides and the re­sul­tant amino acids. Thus armed, Pa­jak di­vides this pa­rade of tones into 17 move­ments (52 min­utes), adds touches of har­mo­niza­tion, sets some of the pitches in coun­ter­point, and dis­trib­utes the mu­sic among the six in­stru­men­tal­ists of the ap­pro­pri­ately named Se­quence En­sem­ble. You may be sur­prised to dis­cover that HIV sounds vaguely like the mu­sic of Janácˇek. Still, this virus is no Johnny One Note: part of a sec­tion de­voted to “Pro­tein 1” sug­gests Co­p­land with a han­gover, and “Pro­teins 5 and 6” seem to have been loi­ter­ing at a John Tesh con­cert, God love ’em. Of­ten the mu­si­cal gram­mar of this DNA seems out of kil­ter — the sort of thing that sounds odd when, for ex­am­ple, Chi­nese folk songs are ar­ranged as pi­ano con­cer­tos or string quar­tets. But, of course, we al­ready knew this par­tic­u­lar virus marches to a dif­fer­ent drum­mer.

— James M. Keller

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