We recently had the pleasure of interviewing an engineer who, at 75, is a model of what it means to be intellectually vigorous and fully engaged as we grow older. He considers himself to be only semi-retired because he continues to be involved in his company’s cutting edge research for the manufacture of battery powered and electrical equipment such as mobility vehicle controls, vehicle instrumentation, and the general area of zero emission transportation. He speaks of this work with tremendous enthusiasm.
He dates his passion for music back to when he was about 15 years old. That was around the time he started studying physics. He discovered that music enhanced his ability to achieve deep concentration. He is fully convinced that the scientific and musical worlds weave in and out of each other, and he likes to work with music continuously in the background. For him, music is the most compact language known to man–he compares it to the elegance of great math equations.
Here is just one story of the way he experiences this interconnection. He was working on a tough problem that eventually led to a patent. One evening he was struggling with it while he happened to be listening to a Mozart piece–he doesn’t remember the name of it, and Mozart is not a composer he normally listens to. But, when he woke up the following morning , quite inexplicably he knew how to solve his problem–a chord progression in the music had shown him the way.
Interestingly, the musical tastes of our engineer run far more to the music of J. S. Bach. He attributes this to growing up in a Lutheran family where Bach was the staple of church services. Also, as a mathematician, he is fascinated by the concept of Equal Temperament—the challenge of being able to play in all the sharp and flat keys—for which Bach is celebrated in his Well- Tempered Clavier —two books of preludes and fugues which cycle through all 24 keys.
But he also enjoys the type of jazz known as bebop, where the act of improvisation pays homage to a standard melody like “I Got Rhythm,” “Whispering,” or “My Funny Valentine.” For him, this distillation of the essence of something is akin to mathematical modeling.
Think about all this as you listen to two examples of “his” music. First is the mighty organ piece of J.S. Bach (often heard in horror movies!): the Toccata and Fugue in d minor.
And here is the “Misterioso” of composer-pianist Thelonious Monk which, our interviewee says, always makes him smile. The title has a deep resonance for him. Why? Part of the reason is that there is a mystery in quantum physics about the diameter of the proton which comes to mind when he hears this piece. Notice how the music itself adds mystery to the traditional 12-bar blues by the way Monk re-imagines not only pitches and rhythm but also musical texture–as piano, vibraphone, bass, and percussion interweave their sounds.