The origin of Gregory Brown's music of 'Origin'

Special to the Union Leader
November 08. 2017 1:08PM
Exeter native Gregory Brown composed DNA-based music that became a centerpiece for his brother Dan Brown's new book, “Origin.” 

Dan Brown , the Seacoast writer behind the bestseller “The DaVinci Code,” returns with another tale of secrets, clues and the existential intersection of science and religion.
Bestselling writer Dan Brown discusses 'Origin'
PORTSMOUTH — The Music Hall welcomes back the Seacoast's Dan Brown, the bestselling author of “The Da Vinci Code” and “Inferno,” to discuss his latest book, “Origin,” in a Writers on a New England Stage program at 7 p.m. Thursday.

In this latest chapter of intrigue and adventure, Harvard symbologist Robert Langdon is deciphering a world riddled with layers of existential questions. The lines between science and religion loop in a blur of a confusion one minute and tantalizingly clues the next.

“In keeping with his trademark style, Brown interweaves codes, symbols, science, religion, history, art and architecture with a decidedly fresh twist; the art is modern and the science taps into the coolest cutting-edge technology available today,” according to the book's publisher Doubleday.

The book starts with the unveiling of a discovery that “will change the face of science” as we know it, hosted by Edmund Kirsh, one of protagonist and scholar Langdon's first students at Harvard. But the meticulously orchestrated evening, set in Bilbao, Spain, erupts into chaos, and Kirsch's precious discovery teeters on the brink of being lost forever. Langdon embarks on a perilous quest to locate the cryptic password that will unlock Kirsh's secret, which involves navigating dark corridors of hidden history and extreme religion and coming to terms with one of humankind's most enduring questions: Will God survive science?

Brown previously penned the No. 1 books “The DaVinci Code,” “Inferno,” “The Lost Symbols,” “Angels and Demons,” “Deception Point” and “Digital Fortress,” several of which have been translated to blockbuster big-screen versions featuring actor Tom Hanks.

Tickets to Thursday's program at 28 Chestnut St. are $40-$42 and include a signed hardcover of “Origin.”

The literary evening will include an author presentation followed by an on-stage interview with Virginia Prescott, host of New Hampshire Public Radio's “Word of Mouth.” House band Dreadnaught will be play.

For details, visit or call 436-2400.ngland stop on his book tour.

Gregory Brown is admittedly used to playing to a smaller crowd.

Not that the Exeter-born composer has had any shortage of success. His creations have been performed worldwide, including at Carnegie Hall’s plush Weill Hall.

But his work is being exposed to an even larger audience — readers of the most recent book by his brother, bestselling author Dan Brown. Gregory’s real-life composition “Missa Charles Darwin” became a point of inspiration in his brother’s novel “Origin,” now on store shelves.

Gregory Brown’s music is just as intricate and engaging as one of his brother’s gripping narratives. A traditional five-movement mass written for an unaccompanied male vocal quartet, the piece uses Charles Darwin’s texts, including some from “On the Origin of Species,” as lyrics. But Brown didn’t stop there. He also used the DNA sequence of one of Darwin’s finches to create part of the melody line.

The Phillips Exeter Academy graduate who now lives in western Massachusetts, talked to NH Weekend about the project.

How much have you and Dan been impacted by your parents in your respective career choices? It seems like their interests in math, music and religion have persisted with you two.

Our parents have had a huge effect on how my brother and I have become creative adults and also on how our creativity expresses itself.

For me it was largely through my dad’s love of M. C. Escher’s artwork with its amazing and inventive symmetry (and math-inspired constructions), coupled with the canonic works of Bach that my mother would play on the organ.

In our family the impulse to create and solve puzzles is everywhere. My mom and dad and I were always doing crossword puzzles, sometimes racing against each other, sometimes collaborating. Those puzzles and cryptic structures often show up in my work.

My religious experiences as a kid generally consisted of sitting with my mom at the organ during services, quietly watching. I later had some church jobs of my own and took joy in music-making and in supporting a group of people who made the time to come together to contemplate their place in the universe and in their communities.

What was the genesis of “Missa Charles Darwin?”

Craig Phillips, who sings bass for New York Polyphony, came to me with the idea. We talked about the texts for a couple of weeks, and then I dove into the work very quickly.

I sketched out a plan for the entire work and then set about working on the movements one by one. There was a lot of workshopping with the singers and subsequent revisions. The whole process lasted several months.

Is this the first time you and Dan have been able to work together on a project?

We always talk about our work with one another, but this is the first time that conversation has been quite so public. It’s been a great thrill for me to be able to reach a larger audience and to be in conversation with his work in this way.

Dan told me in late spring last year that (the composition) had been an inspiration for him and that he was considering including it in the book. It was a complete surprise to me. It still hasn’t entirely sunk in, if I’m honest. My audience is usually several orders of magnitude smaller.

Using the texts as lyrics is one thing, but transcribing DNA to introduce as part of a melody line is quite another. How did that evolve?

Using DNA was one of the earliest ideas I had. I needed something that would serve as a starting point and a central idea — something that could appear at various points in the work and bind it all together, musically and conceptually.

The actual translation of DNA to music is a simple process. It was harder to figure out which bird to use! I tried a handful of other finches first before I found one that created a melody that worked well with the text. One of the finches I had hoped would work was the Vampire Finch, but it just wouldn’t work melodically. Once I had a melodic fragment that worked, I then had raw material that I could use elsewhere in the piece.

Was it a conscious decision to do a project so deeply dictated by biology and geology?

One of the reasons that the project appealed to me so immediately was its mixture of music and science ... It was a way for me to speak honestly about my passion for the form and for the great works that use this form so beautifully, while also speaking to my passion for science. Placing the two in the same room, so to speak, was a way to create a dialogue between the two.

Your recent project with Exeter poet Todd Hearon, “un/bodying/s,” seems to be equally as intricate in its concept.

“Un/bodying/s” is a 30-minute cantata for 24-voice choir centered around the Quabbin Reservoir and former Swift River Valley in western Massachusetts (where areas were flooded to create a water source). The density and richness of Todd’s text is so inviting to a composer, and I had a great time exploring the musical possibilities his text presents...

Any childhood memories from growing up in Exeter that spawned or fed some of your lifelong interests, music or otherwise?

I treasure having grown up as part of a community that had such amazing opportunities to experience the arts firsthand through concerts, theater and galleries. It made the idea of being a creative person seem like a possibility to me as a kid, and even though I didn’t end up becoming a full-time creative person until much later in life, having the example of such great and pervasive art as a child ... was foundational.

I am a huge believer in the value of participation in the arts for young people. I was lucky to get good training in the Exeter public school system and through private lessons. The importance of early musical training has shown promise for fostering cognitive gains and flexibility in all areas of intellectual growth.

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