Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 742:
CARLOS PRIETO

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 742.

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 so absolutely.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


Carlos Prieto, Violoncello, and Edison Quintana, Piano, presented this benefit performance for our local public station KUHF, in the Dudley Recital Hall, University of Houston campus, on Friday, October 2, 1992.

Den Hartog, J.P., Mechanical Vibrations. 4th ed., New York: McGraw-Hill Book Co., 1956.

Sarton, M., Christmas Light. The Silence Now. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1988, p. 27.


The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H. Lienhard.

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