When music mutates musicians and audiences

Image: Gene Tree Trio musicians, Gideon Brazil and Adam Simmons, in rehearsal.

Sometimes you can find yourself in a familiar situation where you know what to do and it’s boring. Like when you catch the same tram to work every morning. Sometimes you can find yourself in an unfamiliar situation where you don’t know what to do and it’s scary. Like when you walk down a dark alley in a strange city.

Best of all, sometimes you can find yourself in an unfamiliar situation where you know enough to feel happy, curious and excited. Like when you travel to an exotic country with a phrase book in your pocket and friends by your side.

Well, that’s what it’s like to be a Gene Tree Trio audience member.

Maybe you feel the power of music and you’re curious about the way biology can describe our world. But you can’t imagine how the arts and the sciences fit together to create something new.

Once you experience a Gene Tree Trio performance or workshop, it’s going to become a lot clearer. And in a way, that’s the journey that the Gene Tree Project members went on too; from curious bystanders to polyglot participants.

In this article we’re meeting a Gene Tree Project musician Gideon Brazil (flautist and saxophonist) to understand how he navigated the big questions of The Gene Tree Project.

When composer and vibraphonist, Elissa Goodrich, invited Gideon to join the team he was immediately intrigued by the concept of exploring evolutionary biology and climate change by using the language of music.

Gideon says, “It’s inspiring to be involved in a project that deals with concepts that actually matter. It’s monolithic. It’s never-ending.” He adds, “Straight up, I was hooked into the science idea. But I wasn’t sure how it was going to take part in the music… It took me a while to realise what I was being part of.”

In the meantime, Gideon applied his skills as a musician and experienced improviser to the project, as well as his natural curiosity. As part of his creative process Gideon is always thinking about the art, being open to new experiences, and asking questions. As an artist Gideon is also thinking about how to invite the audience into that process too. Gideon says, “My role was to take people to places where we could ask questions. I was out of my comfort zone, but not overwhelmed.”

Gideon helps create the sound worlds in a Gene Tree Trio performance. He describes his role as contributing musical ‘hooks’ that help the audience understand where they are and then encourage them to explore beyond. As Elissa also explains, “The musicians are the conduit between the science and the performance. The role of the musician is to help immerse the audience into the experience.”

The choice of instruments can shape the audience’s journey. Gideon plays the tenor and baritone saxophones as well as the flute. The saxophones have big, resonant voices that fill the space with bold rhythms, while the flute is ethereal and creates an atmosphere of airy space. The gentle, melodic flute lends itself well to the concepts at the heart of The Gene Tree Project; the enormous impact of tiny shifts in genetic mutation.

Even the smallest ways that the musicians perform influence the audience’s journey. Workshop attendees from late 2017 may remember when the musicians traced their fingers along pictures of DNA strands. The minute sounds of skin rubbing and tapping paper become musical performances. It was an eye opening and ear opening experience for the musicians as well as the audience. Gideon says, “It made me approach my instrument differently.”

Gideon describes the experience of The Gene Tree Project as one where “it’s not just making music to ideas. Music can influence the science, and they interact.”

Science and Art blend to create something that is more personal for the audience and for the artists. As Gideon says, “By the end, I knew why we did it. And I was moved.”

Come and experience The Gene Tree Trio in June and be transformed too.

Upcoming gigs:
Sunday, June 17th, 5pm – 6pm, Lebowskis – Moreland City Band Hall (behind the Bowling Club), 16/ 22 Cross St, Brunswick, Victoria.

Tuesday, June 26th, 8.30pm – 9.30pm The Brunswick Green, 313 Sydney Road, Brunswick, Victoria.

Written by Cressida Bradley with Gideon Brazil and Elissa Goodrich

The magic of exchange

We’re having a quietly fertile time here at The Gene Tree Project.

We’re dreaming of new compositions and honing existing tunes. We’re busy building new partnerships with organisations and audiences. And we’re finding inspiration all around us. We would like to share with you some of the conversations and questions that we are contemplating.

For example, read this fascinating article, ‘Telling is Listening’ by Maria Popova about the magic of human conversation. It draws on the thoughts of Ursula Le Guin, a legendary author who passed away in January this year.

It reminds us of the exchanges that happen at The Gene Tree Project.

Exchange is such an important concept here at The Gene Tree Project. We talk about how genetic material evolves across generations. We see how information, skills and experiences are shared between our composer, scientist and dramaturge in the building of a story. We see how information, skills and experiences are also passed from musician to musician in the creation of the music. And how they are also transmitted between musician and audience through the performance of that music.

It is that last exchange that is so fascinating to the artists of The Gene Tree Project; the conversation between musician and audience.

How do you create an authentic performance – an immersive musical experience – that expresses the many beautiful and dynamic exchanges that have gone before, into making performance? And as a musician, how do you listen to the audience to continue that cycle of conversation?

We continue to listen, observe and question in our quest.
And, of course, we will continue to exchange thoughts with you.

Stay tuned for our next article in which we introduce Gabby O’Connor, a visual artist from across the Tasman who is an expert in the world of art and science exchanges, and indeed in exchanging art practice with participating audiences!  Gabby and Elissa have been spending time together, comparing notes and inspirations, and dreaming big …

by Cressida Bradley with Elissa Goodrich.

What happens when musicians split atoms

The Gene Tree Trio in performance: (left to right: Gideon Brazil on Saxophone, Elissa Goodrich on Vibraphone and Adam Simmons on Shakuhachi)

It’s time we learnt how The Gene Tree Project musicians smash atoms.

So far we’ve talked to team members: Composer and Musician (vibraphone), Elissa Goodrich; Evolutionary Biologist, Dr Anna Syme; and Dramaturge, Nadja Kostich.

Now let’s hear from the two Musicians, Adam Simmons (saxophones and shakuhachi) and Gideon Brazil (saxophones and flute), who complete The Gene Tree Project team.

Over the next two articles we’ll learn more about their point of view on the Project’s music making and performing process and how science links with music. In the next article we’ll talk with Gideon Brazil.

But first, we sat down with Adam Simmons for a chat over chai and short blacks.

Adam explained that when he and Gideon joined the team, Elissa, Anna and Nadja had already been immersed for weeks in the studio. With just a couple of weeks until the first performance the two musicians found themselves surrounded by rich conversation and an established cycle of listening, observing and questioning.

From the beginning Adam could see that this project was more than music. “Elissa needed musicians who would play more than just the dots”, says Adam, “While she has a clear idea of what she’d like to explore, there is this freedom as a musician to work out together how to get there”. He adds, “There was the invitation to do things outside what we normally do.”

And thus Adam was drawn into the culture of curiosity that the Project had carefully built from the beginning. Together with Gideon, Adam and Elissa created a trio of three skilled musicians who shared a sense of openness and delight in each other’s work. This happy result was no accident.

Elissa explains that she always prioritises the choice of musicians over instruments. She wants to work with people who will revel in the creative process. This suits Adam’s artistic process, “I like the experience of being engaged, the freedom to explore questions, find answers and contribute. That excites me.” Because Adam believes that it is the fundamental role of art to pose questions.

In a Gene Tree Project performance you see the musicians converse through their music, which in turn encourages the audience to engage through their own questions. Good improvisation allows the audience to see the creative development in the performance. The thinking and the working are on full display.

Adam appreciates watching and playing with musicians who are virtuosic enough to be daring, take risks, and come thrillingly close to failure. The Gene Tree Project musicians use their different skills, experiences and instruments to find out where sounds bleed together and where the music pulls apart. According to Elissa, this was also a crucial aspect in developing synergies between the science and the music when working with the musicians.

Much like in evolutionary biology, there are moments in the music where small or unexpected changes in tone and rhythm create a new species of harmony or discord. The music becomes a living organism, or indeed a split atom, that produces energy and has a profound impact on its environment, its artists and its audiences.

As Adam explains, the beautiful, flawed perfection of good and risky improvisation can only succeed when the musicians have first done the work to develop their skills and build trust in each other.

That is why you can see an essential balance of knowledge, passion, and curiosity in The Gene Tree Project that allows the team to collaborate, share stories, and evolve the ties between the arts and the sciences.

Hear Adam, Elissa and Gideon in performance as the Gene Tree Project Trio at:

Paris Cat Jazz Club – Basement  

6 Goldie Place, Melbourne CBD,

8.30pm, Wednesday, October 11th, 2017

For bookings and info: Paris Cat

Written by Cressida Bradley, with Elissa Goodrich and Adam Simmons

Gene Tree Project – 2021 plans

Some exciting news! Gene Tree Project will be presenting a large-scale immersive performance season in partnership with St Martins Performing Youth Arts Centre and The Royal Botanical Gardens – Melbourne, flagged at this stage, for November this year.

As we commence this next phase of Gene Tree – we will be exploring with the children of St Martins YPAC workshops and the primary school children of Dandenong Primary how their relationship to evolution, to resilience, adaption and extinction brings to light new questions around the science of evolutionary biology, of our world in climate emergency, and of how sound, music, rhythm and story-telling enables ways of asking, resolving and inspiring.

“Gene Tree: Listen. Now. Again is a live musical experience of evolutionary biology. Created and conducted by kids, the performance combines stories, music and a physical score, to lead audiences on an adventure into the life and death patterns of Earth’s Gene Tree. This interactive and immersive journey digs into the threat of climate crisis. Kids who live on the front line of addressing this global challenge share their stories of change, adaptation and hope to uncover what connects us to each other and to the natural world.”

Wishing all readers a safe and healthy new year.

Duck at the Royal Botanic Gardens – Melbourne (12.2020), Moth hovers on the pavement (10.2020)

Gene Tree Project trio opens for Extrasensory – National Science Week

Gene Tree Project in trio opened the special event Extrasensory at Victoria Parliament – Elizabeth Hall – for National Science Week and the Royal Society of Victoria last week (10th August).

It was a terrific evening of sensory science experiments, exhibitions, science magicians and music performances, and with over 200 participants and volunteers and over 1000 public audience members!

As we continue to find, audiences love hearing the music live, and especially when it is coupled with the composer’s illustrations of the science underpinning the original compositions – the peppered moth and the inherent rhythms found within evolutionary biology.

Here is a link to the wonderful musician Adam Simmons playing shakuhachi at the soundcheck: 

This year Gene Tree continues to build our musical set of climate science-inspired new music, and to reach our larger project – of engaging children and adults with the science and questions surrounding the climate emergency and the science that underpins the planet’s survival.

Currently Elissa is focused upon doing this via the St Martin’s Youth Performing Arts Centre – and explorations of key themes of adaptation and survival through children’s performance workshops for ages ranging between 9 year olds and up to  – 18 year olds.

More on this in coming articles….

Meanwhile, from our performance last week:

Images: Gene Tree Trio (Adam Simmons, Gideon Brazil and Elissa Goodrich) at Victoria Parliament – soundcheck for Extrasensory – National Science Week


Gene Tree news flash!

We have exciting news. Gene Tree Project is ‘branching out’!

Alongside continuing the music composition of Gene Tree Project and expanding the wonderful ensemble of musicians  – composer / devisor Elissa Goodrich is now working with Nadja Kostich in partnership with St Martins Youth Performing Arts Centre to create a large-scale installation performance work Gene Tree: Listen. Now. Again with the company for 2020/21. This new expanded collaboration will engage children in both Gene Tree workshops and performances.  Elissa is an APRAAMCOS Art Music Fund 2018 composer recipient in support of Gene Tree: Listen. Now. Again


Image: Gene Tree Project Quartet between sets at The Brunswick Green, July 2018. L to R, Elissa’s vibraphone, Adam Simmons (shakuhachi), Elliott Folvig (electric guitar), Gideon Brazil (flute).   Picture by Elissa Goodrich


The Audience

*Image: Elissa leads the audience in conversation in the Gene Tree Project workshop #1 in Carlton Connect Lab14 artistic research residency (September 2016), image – Tess Hutson

So far we have met from the Gene Tree Project: our Composer/Musician Elissa Goodrich, our Evolutionary Biologist Dr Anna Syme and our Dramaturge Nadja Kostich. In our next article we’ll be meeting our Musicians Adam Simmons and Gideon Brazil.

This week we’re meeting an unexpected member of the Gene Tree Project; the Audience. Yes that’s right, the audience of the Gene Tree Project plays a role in the creation, appreciation and life of the work.

That is because connection and dialogue is at the heart of the Gene Tree Project. As an audience member you are invited to join the conversation with the artists, with yourself and with each other.

As we revealed in the last article, the team were inspired by the interrelatedness of everything. That’s an expansive concept that encompasses the biological patterns created over millennia, the role of each organism in an ecosystem, how the world responds to and influences climate change, and it comes right down to our personal stories and the impact of the decisions that we make everyday. For the artists, it also became about the culmination of their musical choices.

In the studio, the team engaged in honest dialogue to explore and interweave the artistic and scientific experience. Each one brought their separate knowledge. But together they observed, listened and asked questions. And together they became like one organism.

Then it was time to welcome an audience into the process. In September 2016 there were two workshops that invited small groups into the studio.

That’s when I became a Gene Tree Project audience member for the first time. It was not like any other performance I’d attended. Unlike a traditional concert, where the audience sits quietly and claps in the appropriate places, this workshop was more like a creative conversation.

The audience moved through the space as we read the artists’ and scientists’ notes displayed on the walls and the floor. We sat amongst the performers. We participated in the music making. We contributed thoughts and we performed. We observed, listened and asked questions. We became part of the organism.

Then in November 2016 I had another opportunity to become an audience member at a Gene Tree Project concert.

At first glance, this may have looked more like your traditional performance where the audience sits quiet, still and separated from the artists, I now knew better. This was another occasion to exchange, respond and connect through musical performance.

The connection occurs on a biological level. Sound is a vibration. It’s a physical experience that only exists once the sound waves are received by our bodies. Our warm, spongy bodies also absorb sound to soften the hard reverberation of a concrete performance space. During a performance we engage all of our senses; our sight, our hearing, our touch, our smell, our balance and our awareness of time.

The connection occurs on an intellectual level. As we listen to the music and the stories we ask ourselves questions and draw upon our knowledge. We let our imaginations wander, remember and become inspired.

The connection occurs on an emotional level. We allow ourselves to feel wordless and transported. We share an experience with our fellow audience members, friends and strangers alike.

All of these connections happen simultaneously, and sometimes unconsciously. Our breath changes in response to our thoughts and emotions. We get goose bumps. We smile in pleasure or frown in concentration. We shift in our chair and stifle our coughs.

As an audience member, your presence changes the resonance and mood of the space, and ultimately the work. Your thoughts, your body, and your senses change your perception of the work.

The artists respond to the audience’s experience. You might not be aware of it, but you are in constant conversation with the performers, with yourself and with your fellow audience. And together we share that resonant, golden silence between the musicians’ last note and the crack of applause.

We are all part of the work.

It’s a detailed, subtle and complex conversation that takes time to absorb and understand. It’s a conversation that searches for answers and embraces the experience. And it’s a conversation that sends out tendrils to connect you gently to the music, the science and the world around you.


Written by Cressida Bradley with Elissa Goodrich and Nadja Kostich.

The Dramaturge

*Image: Nadja (in orange) immersed in the middle of the Gene Tree Project workshop #1 in Carlton Connect Lab14 artistic research residency (September 2016), image – Tess Hutson

In our last article we studied how the Gene Tree Project team members, Composer/Musician Elissa Goodrich and Evolutionary Biologist Dr Anna Syme approach change and adaptation in their professional lives.

Over the next coming articles we’ll be introducing you to more members of the Gene Tree Project team, including the musicians and the audience.

Yes, that’s right, the audience. You might not have realised as you sit in a Gene Tree Project workshop or gig that you, as the audience, play an important role. But, more on that later.

Right now we’d like to introduce you to Nadja Kostich who is the Dramaturge at the Gene Tree Project. Recently we all sat down with a cup of tea on sunny day at the edge of a garden and talked about her role in the project.

And it had to be asked, what is a Dramaturge? Her answer was elegant and deceptively simple; to help the performers keep clarifying the core idea of the piece.

Like all Directors, Artists, Scientists and Performers, Nadja has her own work style that she brings to her pivotal role. And if you’ve read our previous articles, it will be a style that you’re familiar with too.

She observed, listened, asked questions, and then observed again.

As Elissa, Anna and Nadja started to collaborate in the studio back in July 2016 this cyclic pattern quickly emerged. It was a culture that later embraced musicians Adam and Gideon when they joined the team in September 2016.

Assuming this thoughtful and gently provocative role allowed Nadja to respond to the knowledge and experience in the room, both the artistic and the scientific. Nadja’s role was to honour everyone’s individual strengths and qualities, and to ensure that they were woven into the fabric of the piece.

And it was her role to anchor the conversation and information back to the emotional heart of the piece; the human condition. Nadja says, “I kept honing it back to our stories. Not necessarily to use them, but to come back to the personal.” She also guided the group to consider our bigger, shared story. Nadja says, “Through Anna we were able to lift out of the personal to observe the timeline of evolution.”

By moving between these two perspectives on life, the micro and the macro, Nadja helped the team identify connections and patterns to shape the work’s narrative. By discovering the relationship between the personal and the global, between the small moment and the centuries of time, the team saw the interrelatedness of everything.

They contemplated how organisms respond to change and how an action creates a reaction. They asked if there was stillness and silence in biology as there is in music and the everyday. And they thought about their own impact on life.

Nadja believes the success of the Gene Tree Project’s work is that it allows us all to experience that dialogue. Whether we’re an artist or audience, we can observe, listen, and ask ourselves questions that encourage us to connect and participate.

Then perhaps, just perhaps, we can all benefit from our own inner Dramaturge.

Written by Cressida Bradley, with Elissa Goodrich and Nadja Kostich.


Read on to discover how, as an audience member, you are part of the Gene Tree Project’s work.

Three responses to change – the professional approach

*Image: Dr. Anna Syme leads the conversation during The Gene Tree Project public workshop #2 in Carlton Connect Lab14 artistic research residency (September 2016), image – Tess Hutson

In our last article we revealed the three genetic responses to changes in the environment:

  1. Remain unchanged and not survive.
  2. Change but not survive.
  3. Change and survive.

That got me thinking about how we, as individuals, respond to changes in our work environment. In particular, what happens when an Artist and an Evolutionary Biologist encounter challenges in their creative process or research?

Perhaps the Artist can’t make a creative idea work in reality? Perhaps the Biologist has collected data that contradicts a hypothesis? How do they respond when there is a significant change that threatens the successful completion of their work?

  1. Unchanged and not survive:
    Do they choose the professional equivalent and not survive? Do they lock up the studio or the lab and never work again?
  2. Change but not survive:
    Do they make decisions that still lead them to dead ends and failure?
  3. Change and survive:
    Or do they use the challenge to ask different questions that find unexpected answers that lead to success?

I asked our Gene Tree Project Composer, Elissa Goodrich, if she has ever had to cope with creative challenges. And I asked our Gene Tree Project Evolutionary Biologist, Dr Anna Syme, about a time when her research didn’t go to plan.

While Elissa and Anna mostly work in very different environments, they share a philosophy that strengthens and sustains them in times of change: There is always value in the experiment.

Elissa’s creative approach is collaborative. She surrounds herself with similarly talented artists who can listen, observe and ask questions. This process allows them to trust in their skills and experiences as they seek out answers and find the courage to say, ‘I don’t know’.

In fact, Elissa is drawn to the beauty and mystery of that question, ‘I don’t know’. Rather than dictate a particular musical outcome or final product, Elissa is interested in allowing the work to find its own path. A sense of curiosity pulls her on and reveals joyful discoveries along the way.

When the curiosity and joy abates Elissa looks for another way into the musical conversation. Sometimes she finds there is nothing left to explore or to be found. And that’s fine, because not everything needs to evolve into a performance or a recording. The experience is still enriching because she can take what she has learnt and what is interesting, and explore it further in future projects.

Dr Anna recalled a project where she was researching marine crustaceans called ostracods that live in shallow, to very deep, seas. Some species have eyes and some don’t.

They hypothesised that the eyes could have been lost. This often happens with deep-sea or cave-dwelling animals. But they were also interested in whether they could have been lost and re-gained, even multiple times. Using DNA and also observing physical features, they found ways to test this statistically by inferring evolutionary relationships and the trajectories of eye presence/absence over millions of years. However, there were several models to use and their results did not agree.

To continue with the research they used both models and added new information from each of the different models. While this meant that the enormous final paper didn’t have one nice result, and took years to get published, it did clearly show that the models could make a large difference to the outcome.

Anna was not disappointed because she doesn’t define unexpected results or failure as bad. On the contrary, she defined success as the simple but profound realisation that you know more than you did before.

Let’s remind ourselves of the three responses to change: Remain unchanged and not survive, Change but not survive, and Change and survive.

Both Elissa and Anna have experienced challenges in their work and both of them have chosen to change, or more accurately adapt, and to keep adapting in order to learn, evolve and find joy in the discovery.

Written by Cressida Bradley, Elissa Goodrich and Anna Syme, inspired by the whole Gene Tree Project.

Three responses to change – the genetic approach

Evolutionary Biologists tell us that living things have three genetic responses to significant changes in their environment.

  1. They can remain unchanged and not survive.
  2. They can change and but not survive.
  3. They can change and survive.

We see this in the natural world as it responds to the changing climate. For example:

  1. Unchanged and not survive: The Bramble Cay Melomys (Melomys rubicola) is a small rodent likely to be the world’s first mammal casualty of climate change. It once lived on a single island in the eastern Torres Strait of the Great Barrier Reef. It lost about 97 percent of its habitat due to rising sea levels and recently seems to have disappeared.
  2. Change but not survive: The red knot (Calidris canutus), migrates to Australia in the northern winter, is producing smaller offspring to better regulate its body heat in an increasingly warming climate. Unfortunately this also reduces their chicks’ ability to forage for food and therefore decreases their chance of survival. So while one genetic change is appropriate for a particular shift in the environment, it could be placing the whole species at a greater risk of extinction. We’re not yet sure if the red knot is changing for the better or worse. We’ll have to wait and see.
  3. Change and survive: As we mentioned in our last article, a British species of peppered moth changed its wings from white to black to better camouflage itself on the sooty trees during the Industrial Revolution in the 18th century.

These are responses on a grand scale where a whole population, even an entire species, are impacted by changes in the environment.

When a species does change, it’s not consciously done, but rather it’s because the surviving individuals pass on those genetic changes to help them survive (or not).

It led me to think about how we as individuals respond to change in our lives.

And even on a more conceptual level, how does an Evolutionary Biologist and an Artist deal with challenges in their research and creative process? What are the experiences and the resulting learnings that help us survive and thrive? And what happens if we remain unchanged?

We’ll explore this idea in our next article. Subscribe to this blog and watch this space.