Music from the Worm Farm: Neurobiology meets new music
Can worm brains tell us something about our own? Can music be inspired by worm research, illuminating the intricate interplay between synapse and mood?
Music from the Worm Farm was a fascinating and experimental collaboration, drawing on science and music to explore the connections between the brain and the body, and between ways of doing scientific research and composing music. It was a research and development residency project, involving composer Keith Johnson and neurobiologist Dr Stephen Nurrish. Funded by the Wellcome Trust, the project culminated in a public performance of the musical work, performed by ensemble [rout] and pianist Philip Howard at the Dana Centre in the Science Museum in March 2009.
Keith composed two bodies of work in the eight months he was resident in the Nurrish Lab; A book of mutants for the piano, 18 mutated versions of a short piece by Bach, and two works for ensemble [rout] which use research data to control the integration of two songs, one by Mahler and the other by Joni Mitchell. Both were performed at the concert, and the composer’s blog below chronicled their genesis.
Stephen Nurrish’s lab in the MRC Cell Biology Unit at University College London uses tiny worms to research how brain chemistry relates to movement. Keith Johnson has been working in the lab and responding to the ideas and processes they use.
Stephen Nurrish said: “My lab studies how brain cells talk to each other – the release of chemicals from one brain cell to another causing a change in the receiving brain cell. One such chemical in the human brain is called serotonin, and having too little serotonin is thought to lead to abnormal behaviours such as depression, aggression, eating disorders, and alcoholism. If we could better understand what effect serotonin has on brain cells then we could design new, more specific drugs to treat depression.
“We investigate how serotonin works by using the small nematode worm Caenorhabditis elegans as a model organism. C.elegans also uses serotonin in its much simpler brain (302 cells versus over 10 billion in humans) and we have identified genes that are needed for serotonin's effects in receiving brain cells. These genes are also present in humans. We continue to search for more genes required for serotonin's effects and to understand how the genes we've already found work.”
Keith Johnson commented: “For a composer, the idea of how brain states relate to behaviour is enormously intriguing. The mechanism whereby moods or ideas communicate themselves from interior states into external manifestations is a source of real creative fascination for me. Music has long been thought to have privileged access to internal states of being, either as an expression or as a trigger of them. There is also a sense in which music possesses an innate physicality, not just because it sometimes makes us want to move and movement is often necessary for its performance, but because it can have a kind of form that embodies ideas.
“These ideas of the mental and physical are embodied through the transformations that particular musical ideas undergo in a particular work. For instance, the piano music I have been writing has been a response to the use in the lab of deliberate mutations to their model organism. They use these to examine the internal workings of the motor neuron. I’ve made systemic changes at root level to various different musical parameters to generate mutations in my own model organism, The C major Prelude from The Well-tempered Clavier Book 1 by Bach, to explore the ideas of musical locomotion and mood.
The ensemble pieces Porous with travel fever / PMA and serotonin and Still ist mein Herz / Aldicarb take this further, using data from experiments that focus on how the worms move, to control the bringing together of the final part of Der Abschied from Das Lied von der Erde by Mahler, and Hejira by Joni Mitchell. The first song ends in a state of static acceptance and contentedness, the other is powered by a discontent that expresses itself in movement. Their combination serves to explore the relationship between movement, stillness and mood in a more sophisticated way, both musically and conceptually.
“As part of the project, we created a CD to document some of the work. It contains some of the very first electronic studies I made, some pieces from A book of mutants played by Philip Howard and Blue light/ white flags, an electronic piece developed from one part of Still ist mein Herz/ Aldicarb. More details can be found below at http://www.wormusic.info/2009/04/music-from-worm-farm-cd.html.”