Hear the Music Behind Dan Brown’s Latest Novel

10.06.17
New York Polyphony
New York Times

The composer Gregory Brown describes himself as an introverted academic who prefers playing piano or walking his dog to standing in a spotlight. But you’ve probably heard of his older brother: Dan Brown, the author of blockbuster page-turners including, of course, “The Da Vinci Code.”

Gregory won’t be able to hide for long, though. His brother’s fact-heavy novels often send readers racing to Google, and the latest book, “Origin,” devotes an entire chapter to one of Gregory’s pieces: “Missa Charles Darwin.”

In the acknowledgments, Dan goes so far as to write that Gregory’s “inventive fusion of ancient and modern in ‘Missa Charles Darwin’ helped spark the earliest notions for this novel.”

That “fusion” refers to the form of “Missa Charles Darwin,” which follows the tradition of five-movement Latin Masses but substitutes much of the sacred text with excerpts from “On the Origin of Species” and other Darwin writings. The juxtapositions can be bracing, like “Kyrie eleison” (“Lord have mercy”) followed by the brutal line “Let the strongest live and the weakest die.”

The piece may sound like Renaissance polyphony, but its score also nods to modern science, transcribing the DNA of Darwin’s finches for the opening melody, for example, and adapting into musical variations genetic concepts like insertion, mutation and deletion.

“There’s this exploration of the edges of things,” Gregory Brown said in an interview in Boston. “Whether that edge is science and music, or religious and scientific, or sacred and secular.”

In a telephone interview, Dan Brown said that he’s “always looking for big themes,” and when he first heard the mass performed in 2011 at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Mass., “it got me thinking about creationism and this sort of battle between science and religion.”

He followed the idea until it became “Origin,” a thriller — starring his signature protagonist, the Harvard “symbologist” Robert Langdon — about a brazen scientist whose discovery about the source of life on Earth and the future of humanity threatens to upend the world’s religious order.

“Missa Charles Darwin” appears late in the book, after a wild night for Langdon that begins with a clandestine encounter inside a Richard Serra sculpture and ends at a computing center that holds the key to life’s origins. He enters the center and hears Gregory’s “Christian-style mass,” in which devout voices take their place alongside a celebration of natural selection.

The sheet music for “Missa Charles Darwin,” which makes music from DNA sequences and adapts scientific ideas in variations. Credit Matt Cosby for The New York Times
“This piece of art that fuses science and religion and makes them beautiful — I thought at that point in the novel, it was just this moment when you needed to rest and see that these two can intertwine,” Dan Brown said.

Spirituality and science often did overlap as the Brown brothers grew up. Their father, a math teacher, was an Escher obsessive who told them folk stories about clever mathematicians, and they turned pages for their mother, a church organist who provided Gregory’s first exposure to sacred music. He, in turn, began college as an aspiring scientist, and traveled to the Galápagos Islands, where he was awe-struck by a vermilion flycatcher and Lonesome George, the last known tortoise of his species.

“You get the sense that it hasn’t changed much since Darwin was there,” he said.

Studying geology also gave him a sense of the planet’s long, slow timeline. He ended up with “this feeling about time and our place on Earth that I’d never had before,” he said, which works its way into the “Credo” movement of “Missa Charles Darwin.”
 
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