The Mythology of Pax6

One thing I enjoy is looking at how scientific metaphors or imagery end up being used in other forms of expression that don’t in themselves necessarily have that much to do with science. How do the borrowings from science affect our appreciation or understanding of the works that use them?

It was with this question in mind that I was attracted to the two electronic music compositions made by Dara O Shayda showcased on the right. As their titles indicate, both of them were in some way inspired by “Pax6”, sometimes cited as a “master control gene” of eye development and evolution [see Gehring, 1996]. Indeed, the compositions are based on (or derived from) images described by Dara as “Pax6 gene and its protein binding” (although I think they’re actually representations of the Pax6 protein in its role as a transcription factor bound to a “cognate” DNA sequence).

The first composition, Pax6: Rain Dance, apparently represents the evolution of intelligent light-seeking life. Falling into three parts of roughly equal duration, each using synthesized sounds of a particular texture, a short narrative is provided on the Souncloud page. In the first section, rumbling noise (wind- or rain-like sounds?) apparently commemorate the very beginnings of life on earth:
“microbial life formed within the water droplets of the clouds circling high aloft the planet. The organic molecules from outerspace populated the clouds and thus rained for billions of years!!
This gives way to a chorus of trumpet-like sounds of which Dara says:
“Each absorption of each photon, trumpeted the insatiable love for one glance of That Divine Beloved”.
The piece closes with percussion sounds:
“Upon the absorption of light, trans-location of the protonic wave-front animated the incessant motility towards light, as though an aquatic dance, an aerial ballet”.

The second piece, Pax6: Lover’s Stutter, uses human voice-like sounds. Brief percussive interjections (the stutters of the title, presumably) are layered over a celestial choir. How (if) this relates to the narrative of the previous piece isn’t stated, but possibly the reference to a lover in the title harks back to the “insatiable love” Dara mentions in the explanation of the central part of Rain Dance. I’ll hazard a guess that in Lover’s Stutter, human life has appeared and with it the capacity to express a love of creation or the creator. Pax6 is seen as an ancient persistence linking humanity back to the very origins of life.

Dara says that the choice of Pax6 followed from the importance of the question of what evolved first: the eye or the brain:

“It seems there was the eyes first, according to some evidence obtained through molecular structure of the genome dealing with the construction of eyes i.e. the Pax6 gene.
So these THOUGHTS need to be expressed in musical forms, attempting to sonically render a world wherein the eyes were first.”

The idea of using images as the basis of the music appears to come from some research papers cited by Dara (see references below) on the possibility of innate prelingual association of particular sound types with spatial referents, shapes or textures. Dara says:
“More in toddlers, less in adults, we tend to associate sounds to shapes and textures and dimensions and shading ambience and so on. It is known that we associate taste to images and words, but recently it is becoming apparent that we associate sounds to shapes”

“I, like a toddler, associate sounds with shapes and textures, in a most strong fashion”.
Using images or shapes as the basis of sound generation is, for Dara, a way of translating thoughts into music:

“The final outcome of this form of music should be more creative thoughts on the part of the listener, a more wandering mind, more imagination…”

For me, that means thinking about how imagery, and in particular imagery of “Pax6”, informs this music. The possibility of innate associations between sounds and shapes is interesting, but there seems little reason to believe at this point that knowing this will help anyone much in composing. Using images to direct sound synthesis by some algorithmic process isn’t the same thing. In fact, you might say it’s the opposite because rather than grounding the sounds in bodily impulses, as using the innate associations might be expected to do, the use of algorithmic processes dissociates the sounds from bodily impulses. Rather than just making sounds ourselves, we make a machine and then listen to the sounds it makes. This is, of course, the direction of the whole history of instrumental music which, arguably, reaches its most developed form with algorithmic computer music. There’s an interesting parallel with the history of science which has moved steadily away from direct observation of phenomena with bodily senses to the building of instruments and machines and observing their abstracted representations of phenomena.

Considering Pax6, the phrase “master control gene for morphogenesis and evolution of the eye” that has been used to describe it [Gehring, 1996] is attractive because it conveys the strong impression that we have discovered something very definite, very conclusive and of great utility. It’s an expression of scientific triumph. However, it’s also hyperbole. In the detailed genetics of Drosophila eye development, for instance, several genes (some Pax6-like, some not) are critical for normal eye development but are also normally expressed in other organs while nevertheless being capable of causing development of abnormal eye-like structures when artificially expressed ectopically [see Fernald, 2004]. The expression “master control gene” is a gloss over the empirical facts, not a summary of them. Moreover, the sense of purpose conveyed by “master” and “control” implies a teleology that is quite at odds with the principles of evolutionary biology. In this expression, the language of triumphalism blurs our appreciation of the empirical basis of scientific understanding and runs against the conceptual foundations of science itself. Yet, it seems this may have been precisely what made Pax6 attractive as the motif for Dara’s pieces. “Pax6” started out as a shorthand way of summarising a set of empirical observations and a way of understanding how they are interrelated. Once it became known as a “master control gene”, however, there was a mythology around it. To put it another way: “Pax6” came to signify a myth.

Myths have always been the starting point for art. And it looks as though that remains true here. It is a mistake to think that the use of scientific terms or imagery mean that artworks are inspired by science. Rather, it is the non-scientific or even anti-scientific mythologies that grow up around science that provide the substrate on which new artworks grow.


Pax6 and Eye Development
  • Chow RL et al., Pax6 induces ectopic eyes in a vertebrate – Development 126:4213-4222 (1999)
  • Fernald RD, Eyes: Variety, Development and Evolution – Brain Behav Evol 64:141–147(2004)
  • Fernald RD, Evolving Eyes – Int. J. Dev. Biol. 48: 701-705 (2004)
  • Gehring, WJ, The master control gene for morphogenesis and evolution of the eye – Genes Cells 1, 11-15 (1996)
  • Gehring WJ, Chance and Necessity in Eye Evolution – Genome Biology and Evolution 3:1053-1066 (2011)
  • Halder G et al., Induction of Ectopic Eyes by Targeted Expression of the Eyeless Gene in Drosophila – Science 267:1788-1792 (1995)
Psychological linking of sounds and shapes
  • Dolscheid S et al., The Sound of Thickness: Prelinguistic Infants’ Associations of Space and Pitch – CogSci 2012: Proceedings of the 34th Annual Meeting of the Cognitive Science Society. Austin, TX: Cognitive Science Society: 306-311 (2012)
  • Maurer E et al., The shape of boubas: sound–shape correspondences in toddlers and adults – Developmental Science 9:316–322 (2006)
  • Ozturk O et al., Sound symbolism in infancy: Evidence for sound–shape cross-modal correspondences in 4-month-olds – J Exp Child Psychol. 114:173-86 (2013)

One thought on “The Mythology of Pax6

  1. Pingback: Pax6 Composition | Loss Of Generality

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