The Land Owns Us

Nishant Singh

This piece explores the relationship of humans to the world around us by sonifying DNA sequences of ten organisms we interact with in some way in our daily lives. You will hear sounds from the DNA of human, house centipede, northern cardinal, brown marmorated stink bug, yellow sac spider, house fly, house mouse, cladosporium (a common indoor fungus), American cockroach, and rock pigeon. I use the COI (cytochrome c oxidase subunit 1) gene as it is classically used in evolutionary biology to delineate species boundaries.

The larger the degree of difference between the COI sequence of two organisms, the farther apart their relation, and vice versa. I overlay the DNA sequences on top of one another, and in their sonification, the similarities and differences in the sequence become apparent aurally.

Parts 1&3 highlight the differences among sequences. While the human sequence plays throughout, sequences of the other organisms are played only at points where they differ from the human sequence. So 'gaps' in the sound, when only the human sequence is playing, denotes that all 10 organisms are identical in that part of the sequence.

Part 2 is the opposite, it highlights the similarities among sequences. The human sequence plays throughout and sequences of the other organisms are played only at points where they are the same as the human sequence. So, oppositely, 'gaps' in the sound, when only the human sequence is playing, denotes that all 10 organisms are different at that part of the sequence.

I overlay the piece with the voices of Aboriginal elder, Bob Randall (The Global Oneness Project 1 & 2), conservationist, Rachel Carson (The Silent Spring of Rachel Carson - CBS Reports), and evolutionary biologist, Stephen Jay Gould. Bob Randall brings an indigenous perspective on human relationships to one another, to all life around us, and to the land itself through deep time to redefine western perceptions of ‘family’. Rachel Carson is credited to essentially awakening the West to problems with human industry and the impacts pollutants on natural systems. Stephen Jay Gould is hugely influential in critiquing a bias among evolutionary biologists to think of evolution as a machine of forward progress allowing life to continually adapt to its surroundings, instead of considering it as basically a ‘happy accident’ in which adaptation plays a small role. Taken together, these voices critique the dominant settler colonialist, capitalist narrative of human’s top position in the [nonexistent] hierarchy of life and land.


Database page for each sequence used:

JN034123.1 - Human FJ527882.1 - House centipede DQ434507.1 - Northern cardinal MF537239.1 - Brown marmoratedstink bug JF887130.1 - Yellow sac spider KX230684.1 - House Fly FJ660819.1  - House mouse MN661341.1 - Cladosporidium HM386405.1 - American cockroach KC576925.1 - Rock pigeon

The piece also features Northern Cardinal & Rock Pigeon calls from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology

HUGE shout out to Matt Kariatsumari & Michelle Macklem of Constellations, Akash Bansal, and Margot Fabre for their comments on every draft of my piece. 

Things that inspired this piece

  • Antoine Bertin in his multiple DNA sonification pieces enlightening me to process I had considered but never seen carried out.

  • Laurie Speigel - Music Mouse, with her synthesizer that essentially translates mouse movement to sound.

  • Everything that Moodymann has ever produced.

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