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

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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

Secrets for Frankie

We thought you should know that we’ve been telling a few of our secrets to Frankie.

In the Jan/Feb 2017 issue of Frankie magazine out now, there’s an interview with the core team from The Gene Tree Project: composer Elissa Goodrich; evolutionary biologist Dr. Anna Syme; and dramaturg Nadja Kostich.

So pop the kettle on, get out the biscuits, and settle down for a good read.

In the article, you’ll find out how the evolution of the peppery moth during the Industrial Revolution in the late 18th century influenced our creative process and inspired thoughtful, complex and beautiful music.

The tale of the peppery moth is a poetic and disturbing story that came out of a world going through massive technological, social and ecological changes. Nearly three hundred years later and we’re in the midst of our own significant cultural, economic and environmental shifts due to climate change.

Let us just look at the biological impacts of climate change. Most ecological processes, including seasonal flowering, the diversity of crops, and animal evolution, are showing responses to the human made climate change.

How are the plants and animals around us adapting to the changes that we are imposing on the world?

Temperate plants are flowering earlier in spring and later in autumn. Similar timing changes have been seen in marine and freshwater fish spawning events and in the seasonal migrations of animals worldwide. (Source: Science Mag)

Some species are becoming smaller to favour a greater surface to volume ratio in the warm conditions. For example, the long-distance migrant bird the red knot (Calidris canutus), which breeds in the far north of Canada, Europe and Russia and winter holidays in Australia, is producing smaller offspring with smaller bills. In South Australia, the leaf width in soapberry (Dodonaea viscosa) has decreased. And again, scientists are observing colour changes in butterflies, dragonflies and birds. (Source: Science Mag)

When we hear these stories, our artistic and scientific impulses are sparked by the catalyst of change. The pursuit of knowledge challenges us to think about the world and how we fit in. And artists create new work by first observing, listening carefully, and then asking questions.

At The Gene Tree Project, we hope to bring our audiences to a greater awareness through our work. Through our music and our approach we want to expand your opportunity to make observations, ask questions and form decisions about how you can make a difference in this world.

What stories, images or sounds come to your mind of our world adapting to climate change?

written by Cressida Bradley with Elissa Goodrich, inspired by The Gene Tree Project team.

The two lovers

*Photo by Lisa Mansfield from Melbourne Music Week gig – Wednesday 16th November 2016 at Carlton Connect Initiative Lab14 Gallery …

Here is a photo from The Gene Tree Project’s recent premier performance. We had such a wonderful evening playing to a full house. If you didn’t get to see us, don’t worry we have more gigs in the pipeline. We’ll let you know as soon as details are confirmed.

In the meantime, join our mailing list by filling in your details at the Contact Us page and you’ll be the first to know.

And now on with the show…

The two lovers.

In our last article we quoted the actor/writer/living legend Alan Alda, who likened the sciences and the arts as long lost lovers. You can see his full address to the National Press Club here.

When we heard this speech we realised here at The Gene Tree Project that what we’ve been doing is reuniting these two distinct, beautiful and compatible souls.

As we said in our first article, the arts and the sciences have more in common that you might initially think. Both artists and scientists look at our world and ask, ‘How does this world work?’, ‘How do we fit into this world?’ and then quite often, ‘How can we make this world better?’.

These lovers weren’t always so estranged. Once there was a time when learned men and women were expert polymaths – equally schooled in the sciences and the arts/philosophy. There have been many famous examples throughout our history.

Here are just some of our favourites.

The Greek Hypatia lived in Egypt at the turn of the fifth century. She was a mathematician, astronomer and philosopher who taught her students to observe and question the world and its heavens.

Galileo lived in the seventeenth century; a famous physicist, astronomer, engineer, philosopher, mathematician and musician. His theories provide the cornerstone for so much of our understanding of the universe today.

And finally, the perfect personification of the Renaissance passion for the well-rounded individual – the genius da Vinci, who evolved our understanding of engineering, paleontology and anatomy with an artist’s eye.

So when did these two lovers lose touch?

It wasn’t until the 19th century that the term ‘scientist’ was coined. Until that time this group of individuals were called ‘Natural Philosophers’. While the individual sciences like Biology, Physics and Chemistry etc. were easily identifiable, and artists were obviously an established community, perhaps it is in the creation of this title ‘scientist’ that contributed to the two lovers drifting apart?

Each one found their passion and reward in their specialisation. Each one developed their own particular language that set it apart. And perhaps this encouraged the general public to choose sides and for schools to separate students according to their different talents?

However the separation and specialisation occurred, both the sciences and the arts have since suffered from the same misconceptions. For many in society, the arts and sciences are perceived as elite, intellectual and inaccessible. But in reality both the arts and the sciences help tell the story of who we are and where we come from. They also ask where are we now, and where are we heading?

The obvious distinction is in the language or the vocabulary that the two disciplines use. It is this sharing of language that has been so rewarding and inspiring for us within The Gene tree Project.

To explain the purpose of her craft, Elissa loves to paraphrase one of her favourite theorists Arnold van Gennep. She says, “we tell stories about ourselves, to ourselves, in order to understand ourselves.”

In this evolving world with its changing climate, and an irrational fear of the unknown and the other, we threaten to limit our learning if we don’t embrace all that the sciences and the arts can tell us.

At The Gene Tree Project we are speaking up for the pursuit of knowledge and understanding. We are embodying the beautiful reconciliation of the sciences and the arts and we would like to share that passion and its stories with you.

But what do you think?

We invite you to tell us below how you understand the relationship of the sciences and the arts…

Written by Cressida Bradley and Elissa Goodrich, inspired by The Gene Tree Project team.

Why do things break?

Photo: Gabby O’Connor

This is an edited excerpt from a paper originally presented at Double Dialogues Creative Symposium  called “Why do things break?” at the J.M. Coetzee Centre for Creative Practice, University of Adelaide, October 13th-15th, 2016.

Why do Things Break? – a composer’s approach to genetic breakage – mutation and bottlenecks

By Elissa Goodrich

Why do things break, fall apart, fall down, disintegrate, splinter, corrode, degenerate and devolve?

In my artistic residency for “The Gene Tree Project” at Carlton Connect Initiative Lab 14 in Melbourne with Dr Anna Syme and Nadja Kostich we have been delving into these processes, breaking into the scientific approach and asking from an artistic viewpoint how evolutionary science traces, restores and confounds patterns.

We’ve been asking, do living creatures, organisms actually break or do they expire or adapt?

And I’ve been asking myself, what are my musical, compositional responses and creative impulses when confronted by a primary scientific approach to evolutionary science – that of breaking down patterns of evidence and information to then restore or indeed create patterns anew?

Indeed, the artistic process itself in this project is one of constantly breaking down existing patterns and knowledge, of both evolutionary science and the compositional process, in order to remake, create, adapt.

When species fall out of symbiosis with their habitat, or when their habitat greatly changes, species enter a bottleneck. In this bottleneck, many, many individual living species die off, they just don’t make it through. However, for those few that do make it through, most often there is a proliferation of genetic mutations.

Modern humans went through a genetic bottleneck 60,000 years ago. We nearly didn’t make it.” (to quote from the lecture “Human Evolutionary History in a Global Context: Progress & Challenges”, by paleoanthropologist Professor Bernard Wood, in July 2016).

Mutations are an evolutionary attempt at adaption, but mutations can also be viewed as a genetic mistake, a misfiring! Mutations can provide the keys to life, or they can kill a life. Whilst mutations are in effect a form of damage, it is the damaged (the lucky damaged few) that survive.

So, damage, or breakage, is a vital, necessary part of survival, not merely at a human, emotional, or, dare I say it, a creative level, but it is also vital from the point-of-view of evolutionary science.

Now, how on earth do I express that, and respond to it musically?

The answer lies partly in returning to what I feel converges in the practices of science and arts-making (or at least what constantly converged for Anna, Nadja and me in our residency). To Look, to Listen (or observe) and to Question, over and over and over again, Look, Listen, Question, and to Make, to Look, Listen and Ask again. To Experience…

Alan Alda (a science advocate as well as an actor and playwright) in his lecture “Science belongs to all of us” for the National Press Club Address, ABC, March 2016, asserted that the arts and the sciences are like two long lost lovers wishing to reunite.

At The Gene Tree Project we are creating the space for these two lovers to talk and, together, discover the world anew.

(Written by E.Goodrich, edited by C. Bradley– 2016)

We invite you to experience a live performance at Melbourne Music Week of our musical response to a genetic bottleneck!, “Passing through – Dance in the Bottleneck” by Elissa Goodrich (2016) for soprano sax (Adam Simmons), tenor sax and flute (Gideon Brazil) and vibraphone (Elissa Goodrich).

You will get to experience this live piece as well as many others that are a growing part of The Gene Tree Project.

Book now, spaces are limited

The Gene Tree Project: The art of science and music
As part of Melbourne Music Week

When: Wednesday November 16th, 6.30pm
Where: Carlton Connect Initiative Lab14 Gallery, 700 Swanston St, Carlton
Tickets: $15 / $20

Book now, spaces are limited

Performance at Melbourne Music Week

Come to our performance of the Gene Tree Project: The Sound of Art and Science
Wednesday November 16th, Melbourne Music Week 2016

Elissa Goodrich – compositions / vibraphone
Gideon Brazil – saxophones / flute
Adam Simmons – saxophones / shakuhachi

in collaboration with

Anna Syme – evolutionary scientist consultant
Nadja Kostich – dramaturg

When: Wednesday November 16th 6.30pm.
Where: Carlton Connect Initiative Lab14 Gallery, 700 Swanston St, Carlton.
Tickets: $15 / $20

Book here!

Co-presented with Creative Spaces Arts Residency Program, City of Melbourne, and Carlton Connect. And Melbourne Music Week.

This project is supported by:
Creative Victoria, Australia Council for the Arts

Coming events…

Join us at our upcoming events and gigs:

Double Dialogues Creative Symposium
Elissa is having a paper presented at Double Dialogues Creative Symposium which is called Why Do Things Break? The paper, called Why do Things Break? – a composer’s approach to genetic breakage – mutation and bottlenecks, is based on her experience of the Gene Tree Project residency at Carlton Connect’s Lab 14 in Melbourne.

It will be presented at the J.M. Coetzee Centre for Creative Practice, University of Adelaide, October 13th-15th.

Lunchtime concert St Paul’s Cathedral
Come to a lunchtime performance by Elissa Goodrich & Adam Simmons at St Paul’s Cathedral in Melbourne.

Where: St Paul’s Cathedral, corner of Flinders Lane and Swanston Street, Melbourne
When: Wednesday 9th November, 1pm
Tickets: Entry by donation