Research project combines music and science

Initiative for Advanced Research in Technology and the Arts

In the music composition studio, two large computer screens display jumbled letters and numbers in an array of flow charts. Crisp, chiming notes come from the speakers, making sounds that could be heard in a space film soundtrack.

These noises and charts are the results of composition senior Caleb Rehmet’s extracurricular project, converting the genetic data of roundworms into sound.

Composition senior Caleb Rehmet — photo by Nicole Arnold, NT Daily senior staff photographer

The three-phase project began this semester as a collaboration between Rehmet and biology senior Irán Román, who both share an interest in music and genetics.

“It’s for my own research,” Rehmet said. “Irán [Román] sort of semi-commissioned me to do this, just to find out if there is a possible way to actually have an alternative method for studying a specimen using sonification, or sound.”

Rehmet will be showcasing his research today for University Scholars Day at the Gateway Center.

It will be challenging to explain his processes that incorporate genetics, composition and programming, he said.

Rehmet is working with the hif-1 gene of small roundworms, referred to as C. elegans. DNA found in the worms’ genetic data consists of nucleotides, or molecules, that have an alphabetical label.

Rehmet translates the alphabetic data into numerical data through various programs.

A string-based synthesis instrument then reads the numerical data and produces a sound corresponding with the numbers. As the genes inside the worm move and interact, a sequence of sounds is created.

“If a scientist were to listen to it, and they hear a certain timbre or certain pitch relationship, they could tell, ‘Oh, this is this kind of relationship, this is this kind of interaction,’” Rehmet said.

Román said that although he values the actual results, he is more interested in the act of combining biology and music, and creating a living piece of art.

“What Caleb is achieving through his project is very valuable from the standpoint of expanding what interdisciplinary can do, by interactions of fields that are so apart from each other in our society,” Román said. “By bringing together these worlds, you get other possibilities.”

Rehmet is involved in the Initiative for Advanced Research in Technology and the Arts, a research cluster at UNT dedicated to exploring artistic expression through technology.

The field of visualizing scientific data is well established, said iARTA coordinator and composition professor David Stout, but a subsection of data representation through sound has only recently developed.

“There is considerable interest to see, or hear, just how effectively this may aid researchers in data-driven fields,” Stout said. “Composers, especially electronic composers, are well suited to help carry out this inquiry.”

Rehmet’s ambition to take on this project will benefit his own compositions skills, as well as the scientific and artistic communities, Stout said.

Rehmet said he hopes to complete a phase each semester, eventually developing usable techniques for creating music and for looking at genetic data.

“What I hope, ultimately, is to find a way that will be effective, that will be great to scientists and to artists,” he said.

— Melissa Wylie, Senior Staff Writer, NT Daily