The brainchild of one of Australia’s most lauded geneticists, La Trobe University’s Professor Jenny Graves AC, the choral work, called Origins of the Universe, of Life, of Species, of Humanity, re-tells the creation story from a scientific perspective.
The Heidelberg Choral Society of Melbourne commissioned brilliant young Melbourne-born composer Nicholas Buc to write the score and acclaimed biomedical animator Drew Berry has designed a stunning visual background.
The work will be conducted by Peter Bandy on Tuesday 18 July 2023 at the Melbourne Recital Centre during the International Congress of Genetics (16-21 July) with major support from La Trobe University where Professor Graves is a Vice Chancellor’s Fellow.
La Trobe University Acting Vice-Chancellor, Professor Susan Dodds, said that the performance will be a highlight of Professor Graves’ brilliant career.
“Professor Graves is one of Australia’s most lauded scientists, with decades of world-class research behind her,” Professor Dodds said.
“Now she has turned her hand to bringing one of the great pieces of classical music into the 21st century with her unique scientific take on the Creation story. La Trobe University is enormously proud of her and to support this significant new work, which will have long-term impact for science education and communication.”
The origin of Origins
Moving outside her comfort zone of award-winning genetics research, Professor Graves has co-written the libretto for a secular re-telling of the origins of life on earth.
A passionate choral singer for decades, she met her husband, John Graves, when a fellow graduate student at University California Berkeley wrote Nucleoside Story – an “academic” take on West Side Story – set in two science departments at war with each other. Professor Graves sang Maria to her future husband’s Tony.
Professor Graves loves singing the classics, including Haydn’s Creation, but began to wonder, “Why are we still singing about Adam and Eve when there’s so much gorgeous science out there that explains our origins?”
She came up with what she thought was a “preposterous idea” – to rewrite Creation from a science perspective, teaming up with poet and fellow chorister Leigh Hay, who helped her write the libretto.
The conductor of their choir, the Heidelberg Choral Society, approached renowned Australian composer, Nicholas Buc, who works from Melbourne and New York, and he was commissioned to write the music.
“Jenny’s idea was pretty wild,” Mr Buc said.
“It’s a composer’s dream to write a major work like this, but also a nightmare because the canvas is so huge.”
The work, which is 90 minutes in length and comprises 21 movements in four parts, will be available for use in teaching biology, genetics, evolution, and for science media, as well as performances around the world.
Professor Graves said the performance will be a unique musical exploration of the Big Bang.
“It will take us from the warm little pond where life began through the discovery of DNA structure, including a duet between Watson and Crick and a plaintive aria from Rosalind Franklin to evolution, with a dramatization of Darwin and his hysterical hecklers, and all-Australian examples like our crazy animal fossils, sexy lyrebirds, and speciating rock wallabies,” Professor Graves said.
“It ends with a call for understanding nature and ourselves, and a hope for a better future for humanity. A night to make you think, despair, laugh and celebrate the role of science in our understanding and stewardship of our beautiful little planet.”
About Professor Jenny Graves AC
Professor Graves is an eminent Australian scientist. In March this year she was awarded the Ruby Payne-Scott Medal, her second prestigious career award from the Australian Academy of Sciences.
In 2017, Jenny was awarded the Prime Minister’s Prize for Science and in 2019 was elected to the US National Academy of Sciences. Professor Graves’ research focusses on the genomes of Australian animals.
Through her study of kangaroos, platypus, Tasmanian devils, dragon lizards and more, she has made fundamental discoveries including how one X chromosome is genetically silenced in female mammals, and how genes determine sex.
She is (in)famous for predicting that the Y (male) chromosome is decaying and could ‘self-destruct’ in a few million years.
More information and tickets for Origins of the Universe, of Life, of Species, of Humanity on 18 July can be found at the Melbourne Recital Centre’s website.