DROSOPHILA and the Evolution of Sensation

This event featured biologist Paul Garrity of Brandeis University, pianist Sophia Vastek, electronic musician David Ibbett, and cellist Stephen Marotto. 

Listen to a single neuron firing in the arista of a Drosophila fruit fly in response to a temperature drop --

This experiment was performed by Gonzalo Budelli in the Garrity Lab at Brandeis University.  Electrodes are attached to the extracellular dendrite of a single neuron located in the fly's arista. Apparatus is set up to allow for the temperature to be modulated between 25 and 30 degrees celsius. As the temperature drops below a critical threshold, the neuron begins to fire (this occurs around the 32 second mark in the audio to the right) - producing a train electrical action potentials which are transmitted to other cells. These signals are intercepted by the lab's electrode, which passes them through an amplifier and records them digitally. By converting these signals into audio, we are able to hear the function of the fly's nervous system in real time.  

These experiments are designed to unlock the mechanisms of sensation in the body and their roots in genetics. By performing these experiments on flies that have modified genes, the Garrity lab is discovering which genes are responsible for which aspects of sensation - cold, heat, humidity, taste, touch, pain. These genes are so ancient that they are almost identical to those found in humans, with new knowledge potentially leading to cures to conditions such as chronic pain.

Artistic Responses/Interpretations

Each of the musical works below were commissioned by Music of Reality, and written in direct response to the sonification heard above. 

Composers who contributed to this project:

Emily Koh | Clifton Ingram | Gio Piacentini | Sam Torres | Curtis K. Hughes | David Ibbett

[paean to a housefly trapped in the vestibule] by Curtis K. Hughes, performed by pianist Sophia Vastek 

[paean to a housefly trapped in the vestibule]

The brief piano piece "paean to a housefly trapped in the vestibule" is one of a large set of thematically interrelated works, but takes its primary inspiration from a recording of electrical impulses generated by a fly's neuron when exposed to cold. I found the rhythms in this recording to be fascinating, reminiscent of the urgent restlessness of jazz innovators such as Cecil Taylor, and also emblematic of the many unconscious polyrhythmic processes taking place inside any organic body.  In particular I am reminded of the sensation of having a nervous muscular twitch, which seems to rush ahead trippingly and irregularly against an unheard, steadier inner pulse. Transcribed approximations of some such rhythms are present throughout most of this tiny composition, along with some more freely hyperactive melodic lyricism. I am thankful to David Ibbett for sharing the recording of the fly's neuron.

 - Curtis K. Hughes

Two electronic Fantasies by David Ibbett - "Sparks" and "Caverns"

Moucheron by Clifton Ingram, performed by cellist Stephen Marotto


Moucheron concerns itself primarily with thresholds, musical and otherwise. Music emerges – hushed, effaced, or veiled, transfigured by technique – as flickering fragments of Couperin's Le moucheron (trans. "The gnat"). The delicate obstinance of the original clavecin writing has been protracted into the distantly warm, shifting thin light of a candelabrum, poorly viewed as if through a shuttered window.

- Clifton Ingram


After listening to the sonifications of neurons fired at a Drosophila fruit fly, I was inspired to watch the movie “The Fly” (1986) again. brrrundle, after Brundlefly—the hybrid creature of Seth and a fly in the movie, captures the quickly wavering sounds and evokes a sense of curiosity and fear.

- Emily Koh

brrrundle by Emily Koh, performed by cellist Stephen Marotto

Reflection by Gio Piacentini, performed by pianist Sophia Vastek


"Art takes nature as its model.” - Aristotle

 There is a direct correlation between the way music is produced by altering the frequencies of air molecules and how information is relayed from our senses to our brains and back through neural activity. My purpose with this one-minute “response” to an amazing audio snapshot of a fly’s brain reacting to temperature change was to represent this correlation in an abstract way instead of trying to reproduce it or even embed it in the piece. My response is more of a celebration of the amazing realization that these two apparently separate worlds of science and artistic expression and aesthetics are, in fact one and the same.   

- Giovanni Piacentini

Flarista by SamTorres, performed by pianist Sophia Vastek 

(from "Fly" + "Arista")

Technically and sonically, this piece is inspired by the sound of a neuron firing in a fruit fly.  However, I was most drawn to the idea of the fly’s awareness of its predicament while the data is being collected.   Do the fly's thoughts get drowned out by the sound of the neuron firing?  Is the fly having an existential crisis?  It is responding to a stimulus but does it know how it's responding?  What if it wants to respond differently?  Ultimately, such thoughts are futile - the response continues and overwhelms the will of the fly. 

- Sam Torres