There is no question that HIV is an ugly virus in terms of human health. Each year, it infects some 2.7 million additional people and leads to some two million deaths from AIDS. But a new album manages to locate some sonic beauty deep in its genome. Sounds of HIV (Azica Records) by composer Alexandra Pajak explores the patterns of the virus's nucleotides as well as the amino acids transcribed by HIV, playing through these biologic signatures in 17 tracks.
Genetics- and science-inspired music are genres unto themselves, and everything from proteins to meteorite compositions have also been translated—if not always melodiously—at least tonally. Pajak took as her basic formula the National Institutes of Health's record of the retrovirus' genome and the thousands of coded letters which get transcribed by an enzyme into DNA in a cell once it's infected. But her latest work goes a step farther than simply plunking out the nucleotide-based notes (A, C, G and D, which fills in for thymine) on the keyboard.
In addition to the basic base pairs, she explains, "I assigned pitches for the amino acids," which are manufactured once HIV enters a human cell. She ordered the 20 directly encoded amino acids based on their affinity for water (with arginine as the most hydrophilic and isoleucine the most hydrophobic) and gave them notes on the A minor scale based on this property. In the piece, Pajak occasionally layers amino acid and nucleotide phrases with different instruments to create musical interest, although she has kept the sequence of the notes true to the genome.
Pajak decided to compose the piece in a minor scale to acknowledge the profound sadness the virus causes. Her past DNA-based pieces include a profile of the West Nile virus. She became curious about the HIV genome, especially when its complete structure was sequenced to single-nucleotide resolution in 2009, and decided to explore it "just for myself to see what it would sound like."
Starting from a science-derived script for notes is "somewhat easier" than beginning a composition from scratch "because the pitches are already there," says Pajak, who is a graduate student in clinical social work at the University of Georgia and composes the music in her spare time. "I just have to think up some instrumentation, some rhythms, the tempo," she adds. At the same time, though, she says, just double-checking that all of the 9,181 nucleotide-turned-notes were in the right place added a little pressure. She felt a larger "sense of responsibility" taking on HIV than other previous genome-based music projects. "Just knowing that the disease is so devastating and personal," she says, "I just wanted to make sure all the notes were right."