Today, a cellist gives us a lesson in engineering
design. The University of Houston's College of
Engineering presents this series about the machines
that make our civilization run, and the people
whose ingenuity created them.
Friday night I went to a
Carlos Prieto cello recital. What a lovely evening!
Prieto played Shostakovich, unaccompanied Bach and
contemporary pieces. No fireworks. Just wonderfully
clean, cerebral playing. He drew us into that quiet
part of the mind where peace is. His Bach murmured
along with the delicate inequality of rhythm that
fine Baroque players use to stress ideas.
Prieto, in his business suit, was no entertainer.
He did nothing to put himself between us and the
music. He simply led in meditation. We met
afterward in the art gallery under Mexican Retablo
pictures. Primitive religous art -- kin to Bach in
its clean, complex simplicity. A classical guitar
quietly filled the air and sustained our inner
quiet while we ate Mexican desserts, looked at the
Retablo, and greeted Prieto.
He had the usual credentials: Rave notices from
Carnegie Hall, a history of important concerts,
world premiers. But what interested me wasn't in
the program: his MIT engineering degree -- his work
as an executive in a steel company.
We talked about MIT. "Did you know den Hartog," he
asked. My eyes went wide. Den Hartog is to the
study of mechanical vibration what Jascha Heifetz
is to the world of violin playing.
Years ago I worked on the aeolian vibration of
power lines. Power lines vibrate in the wind like
cello strings. That's a big problem. An undamped
line will dance in the air 'til it tears itself
apart. Den Hartog had shown how wind sets up
vibrations in large smoke stacks. That applied to
the power line problem.
Prieto would play piano trios with den Hartog and
his wife. When she was too tired to go on they'd
switch to violin and cello --- sometimes six hours
at a stretch. Suddenly I saw violins, smokestacks,
and power lines forming a vibrant whole.
I saw Prieto whole. He'd studied engineering and
played cello in the MIT orchestra. His life was no
hodgepodge, no jump from one thing to another.
Music and engineering were of a piece.
That showed Friday night. My wife, a string player
herself, looked at that soul-settling performance
and asked, "How often do you hear a program as
across-the-board difficult as that one?"
And I thought about engineering design. A
well-designed machine reflects the quiet confidence
of the designer. It reaches the grace and beauty
that lie on the other side of difficulty,
A good designer reveals passion within detachment.
May Sarton once spoke of passion in the odd words,
"Love distant, love detached, and strangely without
weight." That was my lesson on Friday. An
engineer's passions gained in intensity just
because they were under such control --and focused
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds