Science meets music: a composition for the 45th FEBS Congress

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During a ‘welcome’ session of the virtual 45th FEBS Congress (3–8 July 2021), which was planned before the COVID-19 pandemic to take place in Ljubljana, Slovenia, participants were introduced to an intriguing piece of music: it was composed especially for the event by local scientist and composer Veronika Kralj-Iglič and was inspired by the code of the first open reading frame of SARS-CoV-2. You can discover the piece, performed by the Spectrum Quintet, via the embedded video below. In the following Q&A, Veronika Kralj-Iglič tells us how science and music overlap in her life, and explains the background to the composition.

A Q&A with Veronika Kralj-Iglič

 What is your background as a scientist and composer/musician?

In my family, music was considered an essential issue. My mother was a piano teacher and my uncle was an orchestra and chorus conductor, and a composer. I studied piano and (transverse) flute at the Conservatory in Ljubljana. However, I did not decide on music as my profession, but studied physics and am now a researcher and a teacher at the University of Ljubljana. The fields of my interest are theoretical, experimental and clinical studies on biological membranes and related systems, in particular at the nano-scale.

How do you combine your interests in science and music?

Music has become integrated into my work as a scientist particularly through scientific events. For example, music has been introduced into minisymposia Socratic Lectures, organized since 2008 as the final event of certain biomechanics courses at the Faculty of Medicine and the Faculty of Health Sciences, University of Ljubljana. The idea of these minisymposia was to present excellent science to students, to involve students in scientific work, and to round off the excellence of the event with music in which the scientists and the students were actively involved.

Since 2018, our research group, the Laboratory of Clinical Biophysics at the Faculty of Health Sciences, University of Ljubljana, has been a partner in the H2020 project Ves4us, which studies extracellular vesicles in microalgal systems. Within this collaboration, in 2019 and in 2020 two minisymposia were organized in Naples, Italy, with accompanying art and cultural events. In these events, compositions written for the occasions were presented together with classical pieces and pieces characteristic for the nations of participants.

What led you to compose ‘SARS ORF1’? 

In conversation with Prof. Janko Kos, the 45th FEBS Congress Chair, during a coffee break at a science promotion event two years ago in Nova Gorizia, Slovenia, we found music to be a subject of mutual interest. Prof. Kos told me that he studied violin. I thought that it is a pity that there are many scientists who are excellent musicians and yet we are unable to hear their performances, and I talked about the performances at the minisymposia in Italy. We came to the idea that for the upcoming FEBS Congress, a programme could be made with scientists themselves providing the music. In the following months I recruited some scientists who would be willing to take part; however, due to COVID-19, musical activities were reduced. When the date of the 2021 FEBS Congress approached, Prof. Kos asked me whether our plan for the music was still valid. As I had originally in mind to write a piece for a chorus, at first I answered that this does not seem feasible, but after some days, I came to a conclusion that composing a piece for a small ensemble could also present something meaningful for the event.

How did you go about the composing?

I took a published code and reverse code of SARS-CoV-2 ORF1 and translated it into notes. I played it on a piano and added small changes to put together a pleasant melody. To determine the rhythm, I was inspired by two great compositions that I have listened to over and over in the last year while working at a computer: the 2nd movement of the Schubert Symphony 9 and Arietta of the Beethoven piano sonata No. 32. The composition is written for wind instruments whose sound comes over well in an on-line computer presentation, and since the sound reproduction depends on the body movements of the musicians, the type of instrument, the recording and processing, I thought that it is best to highlight the sound of each instrument alone. I tried to keep the composition short, as simple as possible and easy to play. Then, symbolically, I expressed our wish that the virus ‘goes to sleep’. The initially happy code is repeated by flute, oboe, clarinet and bassoon and the reverse code is modulated by these instruments. Then the code is played again, by horn, but it is somewhat transformed into the minor mode, followed by a slightly dissonant harmony that eventually ceases.

What has been the reaction of scientists, musicians and others?

Once the music is written, it should have its own life. I am very happy that this little piece was performed by such excellent musicians (the Spectrum Quintet) and listened to by those who connected to the ‘Welcome to Ljubljana’ session at the 45th FEBS Congress. I hope it was pleasant to hear. Yet, it would prove vital only if someone wishes to listen to it again.

What would you like listeners to experience or contemplate from the composition?

The might of small particles that shape our lives and the hope to kindly address the origins of their action by our insight and creation.  

Top image of post: part of the Veronika Kralj-Iglič;'s score from ‘SARS ORF1’.

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