The Griffyns do it!

By “do it” I mean, yes, “it”, that is “sex”, but I don’t mean they literally did it. They can be cheeky at times, but not that cheeky. No, the sex we’re talking about here is strictly reptilian. Let me explain …

The Griffyn Ensemble’s second concert for 2016 was designed to align with National Science Week (as they’ve done before, as in their 2014 Do you believe concert? ). Titled Sex and Dragons, this one came about, said artistic director Michael Sollis to The Canberra Times

 … when Stephen Sarre approached me and told me about the sex of dragons … 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.

Water Dragon

Water Dragon (not the Bearded Dragon, but closely related!)

And so was born a concert which explored the sex determination of the Australian (Central) Bearded Dragon. Now, if a musical concert inspired by and, in fact, teaching about sex determination in reptiles sounds like an impossibility to you, you don’t know the Griffyns. This was one of their multimedia concerts: it combined a musical program (of course) with video footage of reptiles and interviews with scientists from the University of Canberra (UC) about their “cutting edge research into the genomes of reptiles”. This includes exploring how high temperatures cause sex reversal in the embryos of the bearded dragon. What does all this mean – for the dragon, for us, for the world in fact?

So, what do you know about the ZW sex-determination system? No, not XY, but ZW. I knew nothing, but now I understand, at least, how much more complicated reproduction and sex determination is than I had realised. Throughout the program, interspersed with music, several UC scientists explained their passion for dragons and for the research they are undertaking, research which expands our understanding of how sex is determined. As they described their research, they also provided insight into the scientific research process – how you often find what you expect to find, but also about how “the more you look the more you see”. The exciting thing about this research is not just that the sex chromosome can be overwritten by temperature but that this happens in the wild. Scientists have been able to create sex-reversal in amphibians in the laboratory but in the dragons this happens naturally in the wild, which means that what they are doing has real relevance in nature. I can understand why that is exciting!

But, it wasn’t all science. There was music, and Michael Sollis, in addition to doing the interviews and filming the videos, devised a musical program that offered an often humorous or whimsical – but also serious – commentary on the science.

The program started with most of the ensemble performing Philip Glass’ “Knee Play 5”, a “counting song” which conveyed the codification aspect of the scientists’ work, particularly in relation to mapping genomes. This more formal “scientific” song was followed by one reflecting on the human implications of sex-determination and sex-reversal, The Kinks’ hit “Lola”! It was sung by Susan Ellis with a thoughtful expressiveness that balanced humour with something more sensitive and poignant.

As the scientists “took” us into their dragon laboratory, and with footage showing what “characters” these dragons can be, clarinettist Matthew O’Keeffe played Ross Edwards’ “Binyang” accompanied by Wyana O’Keeffe on clapping stick, providing an evocative Australian desert setting for our bearded dragons. I do enjoy Ross Edwards, and Matthew and Wyana did him proud.

The central – and longest – piece of the concert was another Australian composition, “Snark-hunting” by Marth Wesley-Smith, using percussion, flutes, double bass, and keyboard. Again, it combined seriousness with, in referencing an imaginary animal, a touch of humour. Arranged by Sollis, it was wrapped around more scientist interviews and delightful dragon footage.

Which is the rooster/which is the hen? (Leslie/Monaco)

And so the scientific narrative and musical journey continued. We learnt about sex-reversed animals and how their insides don’t match their outsides, how at high temperatures all dragon embryos become female and, most fascinating, that the sex-reversed female dragons are the most bold. Bolder than the shy “natural” females and bolder too than the males! But, sex-reversed females, who are also more fertile, don’t have the female chromosome so cannot produce female offspring. We also heard how the Y-chromosome is losing its genes and that in certain spiny rat species the sex-determining gene has already moved! There was also talk of a “loving” gene, and the fact that the female relatives of gay men, we’re talking humans now, have significantly more children than other women. In other words, this research into sex-genes, and how they work, has a long way to go.

Somewhere here, a whimsical little music box played “when you wish upon a star”. What a cheeky little insert that was.

Back to the music, the snark piece was followed by Sollis’ clever “Bearded dragon” which represents, musically, the secret genome code the scientists are developing. The number sequence is embedded accurately in the work Sollis said and could be decoded if you had the skills!

The next three pieces of the program were an eclectic mix, starting with the amusingly appropriate jug band piece, “Masculine women, feminine men”, led with classy aplomb by Susan Ellis. (Quite a different look to the YouTube version I found below!). This was followed by two quieter, more reflective pieces, by American composer David Lang – “lend/lease”, featuring Kiri Sollis on her favourite piccolo and Wyana O’Keeffe on percussion, and the soulful “you will return” from “death speaks” with Susan Ellis.

Ch-ch-ch-ch-Changes (Bowie)

What does all this mean, the BBC apparently asked our scientists? Well, for a start, it simply increases our understanding of chromosomes, reproduction and sex-determination. Each piece of evidence changes our knowledge. A scientist’s job, in fact, is to be ready to change their views on the basis of new evidence.

And, of course, when we think temperature, we have to think climate change. What impact might this have on sex-determination in dragons (and potentially in other species)? The jury is out. Dragons have experienced climate change before, and are still here, but this human-induced change is faster. Will they survive this one? Then again, their evolutionary response is comparatively rapid, so … The questions are many as you can see.

The concert ended with the ensemble performing David Bowie’s “Changes” interspersed with a little more counting, nicely bringing together science and emotion to conclude what was a satisfyingly coherent and tightly performed show. “Time may change me,” wrote David Bowie, “but I can’t trace time”! True, but we sure can enjoy beautifully performed, entertaining, provocative concerts like this with the time we have.

Other (very different) YouTube versions of some of the music:

Griffyn Ensemble: Founding members Matthew (clarinet) and Wyana O’Keeffe (percussion) joined Michael Sollis (director), Holly Downes (double bass), Susan Ellis (soprano), Kiri Sollis (flute).

10 thoughts on “The Griffyns do it!

  1. I understood some of what you were writing about, and I could probably sing (badly) the chorus of Lola. Question about Binyang – that is one of the alternative spellings of Kim Scott’s Benang. Is there a connection?

    • Haha Bill, I understand some of it too! I hope it makes sense to those who understand this stuff fully!

      No I don’t think there is a connection, “binyang” is apparently an old Sydney Aboriginal word for bird. So, it is indigenous, as the clapping sticks probably hinted, but that’s the extent of the connection I’d say.

  2. Oh those Griffyns! You never know what they will get up to! Who’d have thought you could make a concert out of sex determination and dragons? It sounds quite fascinating though. And this is only the second concert of the season? How will they manage to top it?

    • Yes it will, I think, Meg. A couple of years ago they did a collaboration with a new music Swedish group, Pearls before Swine. It was exciting – though the music was more demanding. That’s one of the things I enjoy about the Griffyns – the variety – from challenging music to challenging ideas and everything in between. You just never know what you’re going to see and/or hear.

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