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CRISPR - The Musical

simon gray 2023-01-14, 19:44:55
Read this article aloud — 2099 words

My latest music semi-release - CRISPR - the musical - I'm reasonably proud of, but the process of creating it seems to me to be sufficiently interesting that I thought I'd write it up.

The story begins with one of my son's current favourite iPad games, There Is No Game: Wrong Dimension, where during the narrative of the game one of the main protagonist characters in it - GiGi - all of a sudden breaks out into what can best be described as a Big James Bond Theme Song. For a while it stayed in the back of my mind as being something impressive and amusing, until I developed an urge - an urge, I tell you - to make a Big James Bond Theme Song myself.


There are a number of archetypes in the James Bond song genre, but the one which is my favourite - which coincidentally GiGi's Song follows - is the Diamonds Are Forever archetype, perhaps most famously followed in the modern era by Adele for her theme song for Skyfall. My first task in creating my own song in the genre was to do a basic analysis of the oroginal template songs (having done the performer's course rather than the academic's course at music college I missed out on Schenkerian analysis, but, yerkno, I'm not completely thick) to create a template of my own, and from there concluded that what I wanted was a structure consisting of an 8 bar introduction, two verses of 12 bars each, an 8 bar chorus, an 8 bar middle, and two more verses followed by another chorus. Topping the song would be the Classic Bond Chord of a tonic minor 9th rendered as a pair of stabs, and tailing it would be that same classic chord sustained. And of course the song had to be based on the Classic Bond Chord Progression of, in my chosen key of Gminor, Gmin-Ebmaj-Cmaj7-Cmin7.


I also had to think of a topic for my piece, a title for the song, if you will; this was reasonably easy, because one of the albums I'm currently working on has title How It Works: The Universe, and is going to be a celebration of science and technology, and when I started this project it had recently been in the news that a little girl had apparently been cured of leukaemia using a gene editing technique, CRISPR, which I've been following for a while, so that seemed a perfect thing to celebrate with my song.


Now, there were two rather pressing problems which I also needed to solve if I was going to write a Big James Bond Theme Song - the fact that I have no capability in writing, erm, songs (or rather lyrics for songs), and never mind the fact I don't have a female singing voice, I can't actually sing very well; previous attempts at including singing in my music I'd either sung directly and made heavy use of Celemony Melodyne to drag as much of my singing into tune as it was capable of (and I have to say, it was not entirely successful…), or I've used a vocoder to complete avoid the problem entirely. For most of the latter, getting what sounds like a robot to sing the song was entirely within the aesthetic of what I was doing, but that could hardly work here. My immediate assumption was that both problems would be for me insoluble, so my starting point for the next phase of composition was to assume the best I could do would be to use the Spitfire Audio Epic Choir plugin just set to sing random vowels. However, solutions to both of these problems were conveniently quickly forthcoming!


Me deciding to crack on with this project happened to coincide with OpenAI putting into public beta a demo of their AI chatbot, ChatGPT; more for a laugh than expecting any useful output, I tried a prompt 'ChatGPT, please write me a song about CRISPR gene editing'. Whilst that initial output wasn't actually production-ready, it did actually have more potential than I expected it might:

Verse 1
With CRISPR, we can edit genes
Like never before, it's a scientific feat
Cutting and splicing with pinpoint precision
A revolution in biology, the future is vision

CRISPR, CRISPR, the gene editing tool
CRISPR, CRISPR, advancing science and health

Verse 2
From curing diseases to enhancing traits
The possibilities are endless, it's no longer just debate
From crops to humans, CRISPR can do it all
A brighter future is coming, thanks to this scientific call

CRISPR, CRISPR, the gene editing tool
CRISPR, CRISPR, advancing science and health

Some may have fears, but we must embrace
The potential of CRISPR, it's time to take our place
In a world of innovation, where anything is possible
With CRISPR, the sky's the limit, unstoppable

CRISPR, CRISPR, the gene editing tool
CRISPR, CRISPR, advancing science and health

Having had a better than expected first crack with ChatGPT, I concluded that what I could do would be to run the prompt several times, and from the several generations of text extract the better individual lines from them to create a cohesive whole, doing some minor editing in individual words and phrases to make them fit the tune and rhythm better. Which gave me a final outcome of:

Verse 1
In the lab, in the dark,
those scientists they're working on a spark.
They can cut and splice that faulty DNA.
With CRISPR possibilities are vast they say.
With CRISPR they can surely fix those genes,
but are they sure we all know what it truly means.

Verse 2
With CRISPR we can cut,
the genes that cause us pain and rut.
In the lab we're working on our better tool,
and now it changes the game, no one's fool.
To a future where we can cure what ails us.

a breakthrough in science.
helping us to find the cures.

Verse 3
In the lab, we're working late.
On a breakthrough that could change the fate
of diseases that plague the human race.
We're using CRISPR to alter our DNA.
We cut and paste, rearrange the code.
It's a delicate process but we're on the road

Verse 4
to a cure for cancer
a fix for inherited traits.
CRISPR's leading the way, we won't be late.
From the smallest microbe to the tallest tree,
CRISPR can target the DNA you see.
Cure diseases, crops to feed us all.

a breakthrough in science.
helping us to find the cures.

Now, I'm not going to claim that the lyrics here have the elegance of Leonard Cohen or the 'who else could write a rhyme with Nabukov' of Sting, but considering some of the lyrics of some proper songs in the Big James Bond Theme Song genre, I don't think they stack up too badly!

The singer

The next problem for me to solve was a singer. Since starting the work I remembered I'd in the past temporarily had Realivox Blue, a phone-based singing speech synthesiser; I tried it again but it wasn't great, to be honest. But during a conversation in a Facebook advert about Blue I became aware of an alternative - Synthesiser V, which on listening to the demos I considered nothing short of awesome in its realism. Additionally over Blue, the method of working with it allows the user to program in the melody for the song (or import a MIDI file), and then enter the lyrics using natural spelling rather than having to type phones. Also unlike Blue there are a growing list of voices - male and female - available for it; I decided that Solaria was probably the best fit voice for the project.


My usual composition workflow for electronic music is to work directly in Ableton Live, adopting a combination of improvisatory and looping techniques, however since this was going to be a more traditional strophic orchestral song, whilst I could have worked in Live, the more sensible thing to do was to properly score it out; my tool of choice for this is MuseScore, because it is both very good, and also free.

Because I tend to be working on multiple album projects at once (and I don't get much free time in order to do my music production work) it can be a while between my finishing any given piece and it actually seeing the light of day. So what I've been tending to do of late with some pieces is reach a point where I think it might be "provisionally, 'good enough', to share as a first draft', and I'll put together a YouTube video for it. So in this instance I've paused at a point where the orchestration is fairly basic, mostly just working through the chord progression, and actually not a great deal of woodwind and brass action; what I'll do in due course as I move to completing the album will be to return to the score and do some more filling in, adding a few more lyrical lines in the woodwind, some curnchy long notes in the brass, etc. But for the time being I exported the piece out of MuseScore as a MIDI file, to then import it into Live to allocate virtual instruments to each part - a combination of Ableton's orchestral sound packs, some Kontakt orchestral libraries, and other instruments - and then mix and export the audio file.

The video

For the video, clearly I wanted to have something in keeping with a classic James Bond opening title sequence, however I don't know any ladies who might have been prepared to dance naked in silhouette for me and my camera, and even if I did, that kind of thing isn't really appropriate for the 121st Century of the Human Era. So as an alternative what I decided to do was incorporate a video of classic oil wheel projections with the lyrics of the song. But that on its own seemed a little on the boring side, and since the song is about DNA editing, adding a third component of images representing DNA to be overlaid into the oil wheel and the lyrics was the obvious thing to do. But for a five minute song that would need quite a few images, and sourcing enough of them at a good resolution with the appropriate reuse permissions may well have been as much work as composing the song itself would have been. AI came to assist me once again, as I have access to the Stable Diffusion image generation tool, so giving it the prompt 'DNA double helix, clean background' and running it enough times until I'd got what felt like enough images to make for a sufficiently interesting video. Editing all that together with two bars per image made for what seemed to me to be a satisfying snappy progression of images without turning it into a sensory overload film.


Well, given to all intents and purposes this song started off almost as a joke, I'm quite pleased with how it's turned out, even as a first draft. I look forward to making time to finishing the album and finessing the song further!

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The code behind this site is a bit of an abandoned project; I originally had lofty ambitions of it being the start of a competitor for Twitter and Facebook, allowing other people to also use it turning it into a bit of a social network. Needless to say I got so far with it and thought who did I think I was! Bits of it don't work as well as I'd like it to work - at some point I'm going to return to it and do a complete rebuild according to modern standards.