Friday, May 10, 2019

The music of life--more than a collection of notes

My composer friend wants to be quite modern about creating beautiful music.  He doesn't like to use computer programs for composing but he has devised another 'modern' way to compose, given that, in writing a piece, he often changes his mind.  Scratching out notes on paper to replace them with 'better' ones makes for a real mess on the working pages, and he'd then have to transcribe his work onto new pages, and that in itself introduces room for mistakes.  So he had an idea.

He purchased a set of notes and musical symbols, printed individually on a kind of flexible plastic.  Copies of each possible note and notation element were in boxes in a little tray.  As he composed, he merely took each required note from its place in the tray, and used its static electricity to place it on a page with printed staff-lines.  If he changed his mind, it was easy to remove or replace a given note, and put it back in its box in the tray without generating an inky mess on the page and having to keep starting over to make his work-in-progress legible.  

But there turned out to be a serious, indeed even tragic, problem.  He liked working in his studio, right in front of a window giving him an inspiring view of his garden.  But, after days of work composing a comparably ethereal and beautiful piece, a gust blew through the window, riffled the pages, and shook all the notes off the page and onto the table!  What a scattered mess!  And what a heartbreaking loss of all that work!

Of course, you could say that the composition with all its beauty was in some sense still there, right before him: all the required notes were indeed still there--every one.  But they were in a pile, no longer with any order from which he could reconstruct the composition just by picking the notes up and placing them back on the page.  So, it was literally all there---but none of what mattered was!

As my composer friend told me this story, it occurred to me that this was analogous to the 'pile' of DNA letters (As, Cs, Gs, and Ts) that is found by sequencing people with and without some trait, like a disease.  The letters differ greatly among individuals with the 'same' trait, because they don't have the trait for the same genetic reason.  And the sampled individuals' genomes vary in literally countless ways that have nothing to do with the disease.  Unlike the score, the 'letters' are still in their original order, but genes don't make a score as far as we are concerned because, unlike an orchestra, we don't know how to 'play' them!

In a sense, each person we see who is playing the same tune, so to speak, is doing so from a different score.  Some shared notes may be involved, but they are all jumbled up with shared, and not-shared, notes that have nothing to do with the tune.

And yet we are widely promised, and widely being trephined to pay for, the idea that looking through the jumble of genetic 'notes' we can predict just about anything you can name about each individual's traits.

Indeed, unlike the composer's problem, there are all sorts of notes that are not even visible to us (they are called 'somatic mutations').  We yearn for a health-giving genomic 'tune', which is a very natural way to feel, but we are unable (or, at least, unwilling) to face the music of genomic reality.

And, of course, this mega-scale 'omics 'research' is all justified with great vigor by NIH, as if it is on the very verge of discovering fundamental findings that will lead to miraculous cures, indeed cures for 'All of us'.  At what point is it justified to refer to it as a kind of culpable fraud, a public con job?

By our bigger, bigger, bigger approach, we have entrenched 'composers' trying to read scores that are to a great extent unreadable in the way being attempted.  We are so intense at this, like rows of monks transcribing sacred manuscripts in a remote monastery, that we are committed to something that we basically have every legitimate good reason to know isn't the way things are.