DNA in Music

DNA in Music

for flute, string orchestra & harp





Composer Dirk Brossé will tell you that writing music is easy. It is finding inspiration that can be hard. Inspiration can come from many sources. Since music is an aural art, it often comes from sounds, like the Parisian taxi horns in Gershwin’s An American in Paris. But inspiration can be found anywhere. For Atlas Eclipticalis, John Cage looked at a star chart and imagined note heads on a vast, cosmic staff. The inspiration for DNA in Music, set for flute, strings and harp, came from a conversation Brossé had with cell biologist and Nobel laureate Sir Paul Nurse. 

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In 2016, the Flemish life sciences institute VIB was celebrating its 20th anniversary with an unusual public symposium entitled “Science Meets Life.” The final segment was called “Science Meets Music,” and Brossé was enlisted to provide a closing concert including a commissioned work. During the preparation, Brossé had the opportunity to speak with a number of scientists, including Nurse, and their conversation turned to DNA. It contains a deceptively simple code built from just four “letters,” but it is responsible for both the incredible diversity and relatedness of all life forms on earth. It could be a wonderful metaphor for music as well. Brossé explains that he began with a simple question:  

“If DNA is the backbone of all living organisms, then what is the DNA of music?             DNA consists of four subunits or ‘nucleotides’, represented by four letters: C, G, A and T. While music is determined by various parameters such as pitch, rhythm, tone color or form, the true DNA of music is sound. This brought me to Pythagoras, the ancient Greek who is the father of both mathematics and music theory. He discovered that every sound, whether it’s a knock on the door or a vibrating string, consists of a number of overtones. I came to realize that these basic tones are the true DNA of music. 

“That’s why my composition is based on four basic tones, representing the nucleotides.     They are presented at the beginning of the piece but – just like in DNA – they quickly disappear in combinations that are always changing. Sometimes the tones are clearly present, but a moment later they may be cut or and pasted or ‘manipulated’ somewhere else.     Listeners will hear very dynamic, organic strings of notes, recalling the billions of variations of C, G, A and T.

“The flute is the oldest wind instrument around. Its earliest ancestors were the bamboo forests of Indonesia, where the wind whistled through splits in the canes. The oldest flute ever discovered was made of a cave bear’s thighbone. Just like DNA was present at the beginning of life, the flute played a key role in the dawn of music. Apart from that, the flute has a very festive, almost fairy-like sound as well.

The flute is supported by strings and a harp, but these instruments never dominate. I wanted to make the flute central, make it sound naked. It’s a very technical composition: not hard to listen to, but definitely hard to play. The piece requires great virtuosity from the flutist. It is a genuine tour de force.”

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Solo flute / string orchestra / harp



Commissioned by the Flemish life sciences institute VIB 


World premiere by Prima La Musica, conducted by Dirk Brossé & flutist Wendy Quinlan, 

on October 5, 2016, at BOZAR, Brussels.


Dirk Brossé  


Available on a rental base form the composer


Live recording with Prima La Musica, conducted by Dirk Brossé & Australian flutist Wendy Quinlan, available.

Live recording with The Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia, conducted by Dirk Brossé & American flutist Mimi Stillman, available.


Instrumental Music / Works for Soloist(s) and String Orchestra