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

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.

Dance in The Bottleneck

We’ve got a treat for you.

Listen to one of our tracks, ‘Dance in The Bottleneck’.

It’s taken from a rough live recording in the first music session in September 2016. Composed by Elissa Goodrich and performed  by Elissa, Gideon Brazil and Adam Simmons.

What’s the story behind a bottleneck?

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.

Now go and hear a proliferation of genetic mutations in our music.

How can we do better in maths and sciences?

photo: The Gene Tree Project public workshop #2 in Carlton Connect Lab14 artistic research residency (September 2016), image – Tess Hutson

The latest international test results for maths and science in schools have been released and Australia isn’t doing so well.

The Study observes the maths and science results from years four and eight provided by more than 60 countries. In Australia, more than 570 schools and more than 16 000 students at Year 4 and Year 8 were involved. (Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS): https://www.acer.edu.au/timss).

The results show that, since 2011 in Australia, year four maths results have fallen 10 places from 18th to 28th. At a year eight level Australia has fallen five places in both maths and science to sit at 17th. Year four science has seen no change and we sit in 25th place (source: The Guardian).

Before we go further, we need to address the limitations of ranking.

As Julie Sonnemann, School Education Fellow at the Grattan Institute, and Dr. Peter Goss, School Education Program Director at Grattan Institute say, “These results only show student achievement, not student progress (growth over time), which is a far more important measure of the value-add of an education system, as well as student resilience for later life.” (‘International maths and science rankings: keep calm but change direction’, The Guardian, 30/11/16).

However, the study of trends is useful if we want to address and ultimately change our maths and science education.

Sonnemann and Goss say that ‘These test scores are not everything: we want our children to develop broader skills and resilience for success in both work and life. But they do tell us something about the practical knowledge and skills our kids have in maths and science. And these core skills matter too.’ (‘International maths and science rankings: keep calm but change direction’, The Guardian, 30/11/16).

So, let us continue.

Maths and science are important for our future. If we want to expand our understanding of how our world works and how we fit into it, we are going to need our students’ curious minds to continue to explore the rich skills of science, technology, engineering and mathematics. These kinds of subjects and careers are often referred to as STEM.

Education experts are offering their educated solutions, which include:

  • Provide appropriate funding in the right areas (source: The Guardian)
  • Improve training for teachers (source: The Conversation)
  • Train specialist teachers (source: The Guardian)
  • Make the science curriculum engaging, current and relevant to the students by discussing the personal or societal implications of science. (Source: The Conversation)
  • Get scientists in the classroom to give students the experience of science practice. (Source: The Conversation)
  • Use different ways to explore knowledge that will engage critical thinking, including the arts. (Source: The Conversation)

It is the final strategy in particular that catches our eye.

The Gene Tree Project would like to add an ‘A’ for the arts to the teaching of STEM. We would like to turn STEM into STEAM, something that is happening more and more in our schools. Because teaching is not just about information, it’s about inspiration, it’s about creating curious minds.

At The Gene Tree Project we believe that the arts offer another way for students’ curiosity to be stimulated, for students to find, understand, connect with, and express knowledge.

We believe that the Arts provide students with the opportunity to re-interpret their understanding and refine their critical thinking. The arts allow students to experience and understand processes, facts and outcomes at an intellectual as well as physical and emotional level. The Arts enable students to explore how knowledge relates to them in their world. And the Arts engages all of the senses to create unexpected experiences and new pathways to memory.

The relationship of the arts and sciences to education is a complex and important conversation that we at The Gene Tree Project are manoeuvering with delicacy and curiosity.

And we are always interested in hearing about your interesting and positive experiences of learning and educating across the sciences, technologies, engineering, maths and the arts. What inspires you to learn?

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


Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) by ACER

‘Three ways to boost science performance in Australian schools’, in The Conversation, by Russell Tytler, Professor of science education, Deakin University, 2/12/16.

‘International maths and science rankings: keep calm but change direction’, in The Guardian, by Julie Sonnemann, School Education Fellow at the Grattan Institute, and Dr. Peter Goss, School Education Program Director at Grattan Institute, 30/11/16.

‘Teaching — It’s about Inspiration, Not Information’ in Medium, by Tina Seelig, Creativity, Innovation, & Entrepreneurship teacher at Stanford, 12/12/16.