It’s just after closing on a Friday night at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History in Washington. In the darkened auditorium, a jazz quintet is building a rhythmic floor on a soft, steady percussion line and lilting piano chords. Composer-conductor Jacob Varmus steps in on trumpet, twirling a feverish melody above the beat — establishing a pattern between notes and time, then moving on to a variation of that idea.
Meanwhile, on a large projection screen above, a looped animation shows a double helix of DNA being ripped apart, the bonds between base pairs broken, copied and then aligned with their opposites, rapidly producing new double helices to be replicated. The pace is frenzied but constant, while the calming voice of Dr. Harold Varmus notes how important it is that errors occur.
“Mutation is essential to species diversity just as stylistic variation is essential to the arts,” he declares as the music slows to a background drip. “Without genetic error, there would be no evolution. Without variety, there would be no development in art, literature or music. Variety is essential to progress.”
This rare disciplinary cross-pollination performance art is “Genes and Jazz,” a concert that pairs a Nobel laureate’s considerable medical expertise with his son’s original jazz pieces.
Dr. Varmus, president of the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York, sits at one end of the stage, reading from a lectern and cycling through PowerPoint slides, nature videos and cellular process visualizations created by animator Drew Berry. The science is basic and accessible — a cursory glance at cells, evolution and cancer — and in some sense serves as accompaniment to the quintet at the other end of the stage.
“Sometimes I feel that what I’m doing with the science is providing something to go with the music,” Harold Varmus says in an interview before the show. “Jacob has written new music, he’s broken new ground with this, so there are ways in which we complement each other here.” Jacob released his debut album, “All the Things We Still Can Be,” in 2006, and has a forthcoming album called “Terminal Stillness.”
The spark for this performance was an invitation Harold Varmus received from the Guggenheim Museum in New York to give a science lecture as part of its long-running series, “Works & Process,” for which artists and innovators are asked to talk about their creative process. As co-recipient of the 1989 Nobel Prize in physiology for his work on cancer research, he was well-suited to talk about intellectual discovery.
But speaking about science at the Guggenheim concerned him because the other events in the series all had an artistic thrust. “The idea of giving a routine science lecture seemed pretty bland,” he says. He asked his son to join him, and the hybrid was born.
In this bond between father and son, doctor and musician, the esoteric metaphors shared by science and music are made available to all. As an art form, a jazz work is a living work; a song is never a final conclusion, but an ongoing exploration of structure, variation and process. Patterns are created, experimented with and allowed to evolve. Indeed, much of the language used to describe jazz comes from biology and genetics, the studies of life and how it forms.
And despite his career as a doctor and scientist, Harold Varmus is passionate about language and the arts. Before settling on medicine and cancer research, he completed bachelor’s and master’s degrees in literature.
“As someone who’s grown through a period of such deep enchantment with literature that I expected to spend my life working on it,” he said. “I realize the divisions in the nature of activities may not be as profound as some people may think.”
Indeed, if one can suspend disbelief to imagine and acknowledge the vast stores of genetic information shared by ants and humans (to borrow an example from his presentation), the similarities between art and science don’t seem so farfetched.