Sex and Dragons. The Griffyn Ensemble. CSIRO Discovery Centre, North-Science Road, Acton. 7pm, Thursday, August 11 and Friday, August 12. griffyn.iwannaticket.com.au or phone 0466 480 104.
"Curiouser and curiouser," Alice might well have exclaimed if she could have listened to the intriguing tale of sex determination in Australian bearded dragons, a subject being researched by a team at the University of Canberra.
The story certainly captured the inquiring mind of Michael Sollis, artistic director of the Griffyn Ensemble, because he saw in the organisation of genetic codes a similarity to the arrangement of notes in a musical scale.
"It all started last year when Stephen Sarre approached me and told me about the sex of dragons," Sollis says. "At first I didn't think it would really work as a program but then I thought that evolution is very like telling a story and that a sequence of base genes is like the notes in a musical scale."
Sollis has always been concerned with spreading knowledge and now combines his work of composing and running the Griffyn Ensemble with his job as artistic director of education of Musica Viva's school education program, travelling Australia to promote the importance of music education. The Griffyn Ensemble's August program during Science Week neatly combines music and science.
Stephen Sarre explains just how important his team's research has been in the light of continuing climate change. We are all familiar with the difference between male (XY) and female (XX) sex chromosomes and how they influence the sex of a baby. "But in birds it's the reverse," Sarre says. "The male has two of the same chromosomes called ZZ and the female has a W and a Z. And in reptiles, like the bearded dragon, there are all sorts of different determinations – like birds and also like mammals. In some species sex is genetically determined but in others it can be determined by temperature."
What the team has found is that if the eggs of the bearded dragon are incubated at high temperatures those that would have been males turn into females, which still have the male genotype but are functionally female.
Imagine the importance of this research as temperatures escalate and the balance of male/female populations of living creatures may change.
The concert will be a multimedia presentation with images and film clips adding to the enjoyment of the music selected by Sollis, including his new composition, "a musical extrapolation of what's inside DNA". A linking of reptilian scales with musical scales you might say.
There will be a reference to the works of Lewis Carroll in a song by Martin Wesley-Smith called Snark Hunting, a piece for instrumentalists and pre-recorded tape that Roger Covell in The Sydney Morning Herald described as "a work that embraces in its delightful sequence of high-speed parody most varieties of music from rock to music-box".
Then there will be a song by The Kinks, released in Britain in 1970. Lola became an unexpected hit for the group, although it received backlash because of its controversial lyrics, with the vocalist describing a person called Lola who "walked like a woman and talked like a man".
Masculine Women, Feminine Men is a jug band piece written in 1926. A jug band consists of a jug player and a mix of traditional and home-made instruments. The jug player buzzes his lips into the mouth of a glass or stoneware jug and changes pitch by altering the tension of his lips.
The lyrics of the song cover instances of sexual confusion: "Masculine women feminine men, Which is the rooster, which is the hen ... Knickers and trousers baggy and wide, Nobody knows who's walking inside ..."
A piece by Philip Glass describes patterns of nature, Ross Edwards sets an atmospheric Australian scene and a piece by David Lang, Death Speaks, tells of the profoundness of life and death.
"And there'll be a surprise piece by David Bowie," Sollis says. "It'll be a whole range of different music."
As a special attraction at the concert, founding Griffyn members Matthew and Wyana O'Keeffe on clarinet and percussion will join Michael Sollis, double bassist Holly Downes, soprano Susan Ellis and flautist Kiri Sollis together with a bevy of ecologists, geneticists and biologists.
Stephen Sarre says, "What I like about what Michael is doing is that he's mixing science with art. He's converting a scientific finding into a performance. It's so important that scientists try to spread knowledge and merging science and art is wonderful."