The pandemic reached a new milestone this spring with the rollout of Covid-19 vaccines. MIT Professor Markus Buehler marked the occasion by writing “Protein Antibody in E Minor,” an orchestral piece performed last month by South Korea’s Lindenbaum Festival Orchestra. The room was empty, but the message was clear.
“It’s a hopeful piece as we enter this new phase in the pandemic,” says Buehler, the McAfee Professor of Engineering at MIT, and also a composer of experimental music.
“This is the beginning of a musical healing project,” adds Hyung Joon Won, a Seoul-based violinist who initiated the collaboration.
“Protein Antibody in E Minor” is the sequel to “Viral Counterpoint of the Spike Protein,” a piece Buehler wrote last spring during the first wave of coronavirus infections. Picked up by the media, “Viral Counterpoint” went global, like the virus itself, reaching Won, who at the time was performing for patients hospitalized with Covid-19. Won became the first in a series of artists to approach Buehler about collaborating.
At Won’s request, Buehler adapted “Viral Counterpoint” for the violin. This spring, the two musicians teamed up again, with Buehler translating the coronavirus-attacking antibody protein into a score for a 10-piece orchestra.
The two pieces are as different as the proteins they are based on. “Protein Antibody” is harmonious and playful; “Viral Counterpoint” is foreboding, even sinister. “Protein Antibody,” which is based on the part of the protein that attaches to SARS-CoV-2, runs for five minutes; “Viral Counterpoint,” which represents the virus’s entire spike protein, meanders for 50.
The antibody protein’s straightforward shape lent itself to a classical composition, says Buehler. The intricate folds of the spike protein, by contrast, required a more complex representation.
Both pieces use a theory that Buehler devised for translating protein structures into musical scores. Both proteins — antigen and pathogen — have 20 amino acids, which can be expressed as 20 unique vibrational tones. Proteins, like other molecules, vibrate at different frequencies, a phenomenon Buehler has used to “see” the virus and its variants, capturing their complex entanglements in a musical score.
In work with the MIT-IBM Watson AI Lab and PhD student Yiwen Hu, Buehler discovered that the proteins that stud SARS-Cov-2 vibrate less frequently and intensely than its more lethal cousins, SARS and MERS. He hypothesizes that the viruses use vibrations to jimmy their way into cells; the more energetic the protein, the deadlier the virus or mutation.
“As the coronavirus continues to mutate, this method gives us another way of studying the variants and the threat they pose,” says Buehler. “It also sho
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