• 2vn, va, vc
  • 22 min 30 s

Programme Note

World Premiere:
April 10, 2015
Parker Quartet
Harvard University
Cambridge, MA

Commissioned by Jeanne Guillemin in celebration of the Meselson-Stahl DNA replication discovery of 1958.

I: LOCI: memory palace
II: INTERLACING: twists and threads
III: HELIX SPIRAL: life force

Movements can be played together in the order listed above, any movement can be played independently as a stand-alone work, or any two movements can be played as a pair in any order.

Composer Note:
Helix Spirals for string quartet celebrates the Meselson-Stahl DNA replication experiment. Here is how Yale historian Frederic Lawrence Holmes described this singular achievement of Matthew Meselson and Franklin Stahl:

In 1957 two young scientists at the California Institute of Technology performed an experiment that provided convincing evidence that DNA replicates in the manner predicted by the model of the double helix proposed four years earlier by James Watson and Francis Crick. Its timely appearance, after several years of controversy about whether the two strands of DNA could come apart without breaking, not only settled the issue as it was originally posed but persuaded many, beyond the immediate circle of enthusiastic supporters, that the double helix was more than an “ingenious speculation.” Quickly known by the surnames of the two men who performed it, the Meselson-Stahl experiment became a classic model in the young field of molecular biology. It has been reproduced in schematic form in textbooks of molecular biology, biochemistry, and genetics for more than three decades. It is seen not only as a landmark but as possessing special qualities that lift it above the thousands of other experiments on which the modern biological sciences have been constructed.

Jeanne Guillemin and I spoke at length about the project and we agreed from the start that music is music and science is science. That being so, for a composer to use exact data (for instance, the code in a DNA sequence) and then assign pitch or rhythm to each data point, might result in something interesting but would, most likely, never be a strong musical composition which effectively, dramatically, expressively, and musically sculpts time over a 24-minute arc. If, though, one moves into the realm of metaphor, great synergies exist between science and music; and it was in this realm that Jeanne and I started our collaboration - celebrating that music can be an abstract and intellectual expression of nature.

The four string parts are equally and evenly virtuosic. There are many solo moments for each member of the quartet allowing the musicians’ individual skill, elegance and radiance to shine.

The three movements encompass a vast array of contrasting colors, motives, textures, rhythmic syntaxes, harmonies and counterpoints, such that each movement contributes to a larger, 24-minute gestalt.

Deeply honored to have been asked to compose HELIX SPIRALS, I spent eight months working on the music, which is dedicated with admiration to Matthew Meselson, Franklin Stahl, Jeanne Guillemin, and the Parker Quartet.

I: LOCI: memory palace -- 7 minutes and 30 seconds - In genetics, a locus (plural loci) is the specific location of a gene, a DNA sequence, or a position on a chromosome. In this movement, the string quartet plays many kinds of colorful sounds in a kaleidoscopic range of combinations and is, (metaphorically speaking) portraying loci with capricious, playful, energized, vibrant, resonant, and lively musical unfoldings.

II: INTERLACING: twists and threads -- 7 minutes and 30 seconds - In semiconservative replication, when the double stranded DNA helix is replicated each of the two new double-stranded DNA helices consists of one strand from the original helix and one newly synthesized strand. In this movement, the quartet “draws a picture” of DNA semi-conservative replication. Much of this movement is, by necessity, focused on pairs of instruments but the intricate contrapuntal lines are always enhanced with fleeting, supportive, plucked and bowed materials played by the other two musicians.

The movement starts with violin 1 playing “DNA STRAND A.” Forty-five seconds later, the cello takes over playing “DNA STRAND B.” [From here to the end of the movement, before every next helix episode, a gentle moment of calm serves as an aural guidepost so that the audience can clearly follow the form.]

After a quiet note in the viola, Violin 2 reiterates “DNA STRAND A” while at the same time the viola restates “DNA STRAND B” such that the whole DNA helix has been revealed.

After another quiet note in the viola, the cello plays the “leading DNA STRAND A” (which was previously played by Violin I) and the Violin 2 plays a new “COMPLIMENTARY LAGGING DNA STRAND.”

Next, the Violin I plays the “DNA STRAND B” (which was previously played by the cello and the viola plays a new “COMPLIMENTARY LAGGING DNA STRAND.”

By this point in the composition, we have arrived at two double helixes.

After a long quiet note played by the whole quartet, we enter the final episode in which Violin I and Viola link up to play “DNA STRAND A” while Violin 2 and Cello team up to play “DNA STRAND B.” In this final episode, we still have the original two DNA strands but they are amplified harmonically and emotionally by nature of the fact that all four musicians are playing.

III: SPIRALS: life force -- 8 minutes and 30 seconds - During a phone call with Matthew Meselson, just as I was starting to compose HELIX SPIRALS, he explained, with passion in his voice, that the DNA molecule “holds past memories and present times and that it is a key to the future.” “Links and chains” he went on to say. The helix spirals that give life, the DNA molecule encodes the genetic instructions in the development and functioning of all living organisms. In this final movement, the quartet conveys the beauty, richness and expressivity of life. The movement is extremely lyrical, intricately contrapuntal, utterly optimistic, and ever-renewing of its materials and transformations.
— Augusta Read Thomas