by Bryan Hay
Illustration by Brian Stauffer
Members of the Lafayette Chamber Singers gather in a circle as their conductor, Jennifer Kelly, leads them in reciting the words to “You Are the New Day,” gently moving the singers toward a
deeper discovery of the textual phrasing, forward motion, and nuanced inflection and dynamics in the madrigal-like piece.
“Softer,” she says. “More ‘cooooing’ sound in the text. There’s no vowel diphthong until you’re set to release.”
Before long, the singers break free from the support provided by the keyboard accompaniment and create intimate musical lines artistically liberated in a pure, a cappella choral sound.
For the engineering majors in the ensemble— Elias Mueller ’19, Scott Paulis ’17, and Michael Bennett ’17—it is another opportunity to build, create, and overcome challenges, only this time
within the framework of intervals, key signatures, text painting, and rhythmic accuracy.
“The engineering mindset really helps give more understanding to music,” says Bennett, a bass and a civil engineering major from Berwyn, Pa. “You’re working a problem and solving a situation until you arrive at something that’s satisfying and has uniformity. Here you’re engineering a very creative application.”
At Lafayette, engineering and the humanities have walked side by side for 150 years, and there’s a bond that connects the disciplines of science, mathematics, and equations to music, theater, and art.
“Making music, much like engineering a solution, is about making everything fit and seeing that all the gears are working together in harmony,” says Kelly, director of the arts and associate professor of music. “If one of the gears isn’t working, you have to solve the reasons behind that and make sure all of the individual components are well oiled so that the design is as the composer intended.”
She says the entrepreneurial mindset that’s developed at Lafayette brings together all of the experiences available on campus in an unbroken linear and circular direction.
“That’s why the performing arts and engineering have always enjoyed such a close tie,” Kelly notes. “Everyone brings different ideas to the chorus, which is one of the most widely diverse student organizations on campus.”
Willem Ytsma ’16, from Bethlehem, Pa., who is pursuing a double major in mechanical engineering and art, knows well the path between Acopian Engineering Center and the Williams Center for the Arts on nearby Hamilton Street. He’s been involved in interactive theater performance and lately has been working on a new synthesizer interface using an Android app that takes user information and puts it into a sound wave that can be manipulated by fingertip.
“Engineering informs my art and vice versa, and helps me make modifications in all of my work, whether it’s drawing, photography, painting, or video,” says Ytsma. “They both came at the same time for me; they’ve always been with me. I would draw and paint and play with Legos making complex machines, always fascinated by the automation process and putting things together.”
In a very personal project, he’s working on an art piece using decaying VHS tapes, which will be a home video about his father, who died in 2011. “It involves themes of death looped together to remember this important person in my life. The degraded picture data and corrupted audio signals is a reminder that life disintegrates,” Ytsma says.
Daniel Sabatino, assistant professor of mechanical engineering, who spent nearly a decade in aerospace research, didn’t consider the linkage between engineering and the arts and humanities until he arrived at Lafayette in 2009.
“My world was small,” he says. “When I came here, my perspective quickly became much broader. I could see how other disciplines approached something new, and suddenly it seemed very familiar to me.”
Sabatino, who has taken courses to learn piano, drums, and trumpet, says mastering the rudimentary basics of engineering or the arts doesn’t turn you into a great performer or an outstanding engineer.
“We try to put students into an environment where we’re asking them to do more than just demonstrate that they’ve learned a skill,” he says. “For engineers, it’s about encountering things they’ve never seen, recognizing the concepts they would apply, and building an approach to answer the questions: Will it work? Can it work better? Is this the only way we can do this?”
The questions are not that different when you talk about the arts, he notes.
“If you set out to sculpt something, you don’t go out and create a sculpture exactly as someone else has done,” Sabatino says. “Students here are really interested in the broader experience and discovery. They’re taking lessons and courses in music and art because it’s the culture, but it’s not the norm at a purely technical school. The outcomes, as a result, are unique.”
A performance by the Lafayette Chamber Singers is proof of that.