John draws inspiration from neuroscience and genetics to compose all original music for the piano and Fender Rhodes. Released on March 1st, 2018.
Full Album Liner Notes
CRISPR is my debut solo piano album. The inspiration for this album came from my deepest artistic desire, which is to combine art and science, in some way, and observe the results on the other side. For this particular project I wanted to use my platform as a performing artist to talk about science. I feel that science and art are intimately interconnected and explicable only by reference to the whole, so in combining music and genetics, for example, in some way I’m exposing a truth about the human perspective.
All of the compositions in this album are written and performed by me, and most are inspired by a scientific topic that I’m either fascinated with or feel deserves attention.
1. “Edna Welsch” is the great grandmother of a dear friend who never new his great grandmother outside of her life with Alzheimer’s disease. He commissioned me to write and record a piece in her memory. This piece starts with a theme that represents all the memories a person has through their life. Then the piece switches to a long solo section that begins at the inception of neurodegeneration. The improvisation slowly becomes more aggressive, percussive, and polyrhythmic, representing the havoc occurring inside the brain of a person with Alzheimer’s disease, ultimately ending abruptly. However, I believe that there is a resilience in the human spirit that prevents, even Alzheimer’s disease, from taking away the essence of who we are. That essence is represented by the repetition of the opening theme, but in a different key center, displaying that although we’ve ended in the same place that we started we have been changed by our experience.
2. “CRISPR” is also the title piece of the record. It’s literally an acronym for Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats, which is describing a section of DNA in bacteria. The sequences contain snippets of nucleic acid from viruses, which led to the question of how this virus DNA got mixed inside bacterial DNA; it was a big mystery! The answer to this riddle elucidated the keys to genetic engineering. Extrapolating the CRISPR/cas9 system from bacteria to plant and mammalian DNA has the potential to transform the world in good and bad ways. The piece has these repetitive bass motives, which is mimicking repetitive nucleic base pairs in CRISPR. It’s also in a fast 5/8 time signature, which is an asymmetric time signature, so it moves unsteadily from one half of a bar to another. For me that represents the uneasiness or struggle with balancing “construction” with the capacity for destruction.
3. “Samantha’s Song” I first started writing when I had my first trip away from Sam after we’d started dating. I went to visit my family in Mexico for a few weeks where it was, at the time, really expensive to make phone calls from Mexico to the United States. We would email almost everyday, but in my emotional state I asked my stepmom if I could play their little Casio keyboard and from there came the first half of this piece. The second half came right before my wedding, as I wanted to perform the finished piece for her, which I did!
4. “HeLa” is a dedication to Henrietta Lacks and her family. Henrietta was diagnosed with cancer when she was 30 years old. Scientists were able to turn cells from her tumor into the first ever immortalized cell line, named HeLa, which was an enormous discovery of great impact. It was the first time that you could perform tests on living cells without the patient being literally attached to them. The possibilities were endless. You could test cancer-killing drugs without harming the person, for example. The problem was that these cells were taken from her and cultured without her consent. She died later that same year, 1951. Her family was not made aware of the existence of the cell line until much later, almost 25 years later. In addition, very little care was taken to inform the family of the importance and significance of the cell line. At some point Henrietta’s genome was made public, and once again without the family’s consent. It wasn’t until 2013 that the director of the NIH reached an agreement with the Lacks family. As a graduate student in Alzheimer’s research I worked will HeLa cells. I worked with them A LOT! I was so familiar with these, yet I had no clue where they came from. There was a great book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot, and movie based on the book that brought light to this issue; Oprah portrayed Henrietta in the cinematic adaptation.
5. “Spirit Guardian." One theme that is recurrent when reading about Alzheimer's disease is the “loss of self” and for obvious reasons, since Alzheimer’s is a neurodegenerative disease. In the book Musicophilia, by the late neurologist Oliver Sacks, Dr. Sacks makes the case that dementia is not just about the loss of self, but also about the preservation of self. Alzheimer’s patients can demonstrate a response to music that’s shocking to see. You’re watching someone who looks sick and sullen all of a sudden come alive in their own skin; the film Alive Inside was also very inspiring, which shows examples of this occurring. I quote Dr. Sacks in Musicophilia “It is as if identity has such a robust, widespread neural basis, as if personal style is so deeply ingrained in the nervous system, that it is never wholly lost, at least while there is still any mental life present at all.” This idea of preservation of self, that Dr. Sacks speaks of, inspired me to write this piece, because music may be the guardian of our spirit.
6. “Elegy For Chad.” Chad was my PhD major professor. I worked in his lab for 5 years. I was a mess of a kid when I started in his lab and I came out a professional scientist. He was an incredibly hard working and driven man. I learned so much from him and he continues to be a huge inspiration in my life. At the age of 40 he passed away from a battle with cancer. When he passed, the only way I knew how to express my sorrow was to cry and play music. The piece was mostly improvised with a few motivic ideas to tie it together.
7. “Polymorphism.” A polymorphism is the condition of occurring in different forms. For example, the German shepherd dog can be white, black, or sable, but it’s still a German shepherd. In genetics a gene at the same spot in a chromosome can be slightly different for me than for you. Some forms of a gene occur more frequently in a population than others, and some forms may have different risk probabilities associated with them than others. In my dissertation I studied a protein whose gene had a polymorphism associated with depression and PTSD, the FKBP5 gene. So, this led me to think of songs that occur in different versions or iterations. Jazz can be polymorphic like that, specially over a Standard from the Great American Songbook, as the melody is the driving force and the inspiration for the ensuing improvisations; the musicians repeat the form of the song over and over. Also, there are compositions that have a theme and variations like Mozart’s theme and variations on “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.” And then some pieces have contrasting minor and major sections. Years ago I fell in love with a piece called “Natalia,” which is a Venezuelan waltz written by Antonio Lauro, a great Venezuelan composer that wrote a lot of music for classical guitar. The song has contrasting major and minor sections, and when I was writing music for CRISPR I challenged my self to write a song in the vein of “Natalia” and “Polymorphism” is what came out. There is a lot of Erick Satie, Chopin, and Antonio Lauro in this piece, kind of like a big gumbo of different influences. When I listen to it I imagine someone reading out of Anna Karenina and describing these 19th century settings. And yes, it has a minor key and a major key section, hopefully giving it a polymorphous quality.
8. “Isaiah” is a piece inspired by my son. When my wife was pregnant, we must have been 48 hours or so from delivering. Sam was in the hospital hooked up to one of the machines that tracks fetal heart beats and you could hear it. It was loud, and beautiful. I had not idea what he looked liked, even though for 9 months he had lived next to me inside his mother’s womb, but his heartbeat was so strong and fast. I didn’t know that toddlers and babies have much faster heart rates than adults. I took out my iPhone and recorded a good minute of Isaiah’s heart beating fast and steady, and each beat drawing us closer to our first meeting. One compositional philosophy I like to play with is the juxtaposition of contrasting elements like the old and the new. I challenged myself to write a piece on my computer using the keyboard as the piano keys, no more than an octave. Then, the idea came to put the heartbeat with the melody, since the melody has this baroque feeling to it, almost like the collection that Ana Magdalena Bach curated of her husband’s work, intended for children. So when I listen to it there are these two contrasting things occurring, one is the new heart of a beautiful baby boy, and the other is this child’s melody reminiscent of something written 300 years ago.
9. The title “Gamma Frequency” is inspired by a Radiolab episode called “Bringing Gamma Back.” It talks about a rhythm that neurons get themselves into. They often fire together in bursts at certain rates per second, and it turns out that these rhythms are correlated with different types of mental states, like the alpha rhythm, which is most detectable during relaxed wakefulness, especially when the eyes are closed. It turns out that a high frequency rhythm called the gamma rhythm is important for working memory and attention, and this rhythm happens to occur less often in people with Alzheimer’s disease. This explains why the tittle of the podcast episode was “Bringing Gamma Back,” because neuroscientists at MIT had hypothesized that if there was a way to restore and augment gamma rhythms in the Alzheimer’s brain, there might be some improvement in brain biology and consequently behavior. I had written a blues several years ago and I thought that this would be a cool name for it!
This album was successfully crowdfunded on Kickstarter on the 15th of May, 2017, thanks to the kindness, generosity, and adventurousness of the following people:
Abigail & Joel Rudolph, Alan & Renee Feinman, Alex Nas, Alex Spassoff, Alexandra N. Walters, Alfred Sheppard, Anastasia Mikhalochkina, Andrew Allen, Andrew Lauzon, Ashley Villa, Austin Llewellyn, Bárbara Clary Zayas de Culbertson & Gregg Culbertson, Barbara Cherry, Barry August, Beatriz Sandow, Betsy McOmber, Bette Gregg, Brian Fisher, Brittany Maxwell, Bruce Gunia & Cynthia Hinson, Bryan & Lori Hughes, Casey M. Bethel, Chantal Hayden, Chris Ashby, Chris Rottmayer, Christiana Drapkin & Bob Walker, Cleta Clark, Dave Rudolph, David D’Antonio, Dawn Clement, Deborah O. Edwards, Derek O’Hara, Diana Ingersoll, Dīlee, Donnie & Ashley Welsch, Doug Waltonbaugh, Eslyn Casler, Frances Fowler, Frank Wells, Fuensanta & Carlo Garcia, Gabriel Bush, Gail Kiltz, Gates Levatte, Gavin Benke, Glenn Saraydar, Ingeborg Mooney, James Miller, James & Carolina Suggs, Jane & Ron Olds, Janet Minker, Jay Wilson, Jean-Baptiste Cauneille, Jenni Hope, Jody Marsh, Joe Hervey, Joel Bustamante, Joel Freisinger, John & Oksana Johnson, John Rodriguez, Jon Christensen, Joseph Hayes & Jennifer Greenhill-Taylor, Joshua Barnett, Judian Plantijn, Judith Magono, Kathleen Griffin, Kay Aude, Keith Arsenault, Ken Snyder, Keyton Wayne Porras, Krishna Reddy, Larry & Lindsey Griffin, Laurence Shapiro, Lisa Casalino, Maggie Fignotti Robinson, Mahdi Al Husseini, Marcia Gordon & Dave Morgan, Jim & Maria Mason, Marilyn J. Parnell, Mark Feinman & Gloria Muñoz, Markus Fontein, Markus Jöbstl, Marty & Michiko Morell, Matt Hudson, Matt Sanchez, Meghan Lock, Michael Feinman, Milene Brownlow, Muhammad & Gigi Adityanugroho, Pam Brandon, Parmvir Bahia, Paul M. Phillips, Peggy Musial, Rachel & Mark Blatt, Raphael Brenna, Ray & Kathy Biscoglia, Riad Abdulsalam, Ric Craig, Rick LaBarbera, Robert Regan, Roberta & Graham & Lillie Shelor, Robin Sisk, Ruth Losoviz, Sabah Karimi, Sammy Barbour, Sandy Peterson, Saumyaa Mittal, Sean Lux, Shaina Otero-Strouts, Sharon Bruns, Shelly Mittal, Shirley McAllister, Steve Malkin, Steven Belcher, Steven Hurowitz, T-D Swenson, Ted Feinman, Terry Nikodem & John Mayeux, Tom Kersey, Tom Mieczkowski & Susan Mary Fraser, Jorge & Betty & Tony Orozco, Viviane Silverman, & Whitney James & Bob Alger.
Thank you so much!
This album was also funded in part by the Arts Council of Hillsborough County. To find out more about how they support the arts go here: tampaarts.org.
Special thanks to Alejandro Arenas & Mark Feinman for your incredible help and support with this project; I couldn’t have done it without you. To Samantha O’Leary, thank you for your love, input, and patience as I work through this project. To my mother, Julia Campos, without you there is no life, no piano, and no music; thank you for being the best mom anyone could ever ask for.