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Culture Matters: Is Engineering Like Writing a Song?

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Over the years I’ve done a few book reports in this column. This is my first song report. 

Recently I heard Chris Smither play at the Jazz and Heritage Festival in New Orleans. Smither sang several remarkable songs, all about simple subjects. For example, “By the Numbers” is a song about counting. He only makes it to three. In his humble downhome style, he introduced it as “not a very good song, but it does rhyme.”

Here I discuss his song “Down to the Sound” (see lyrics below). 

The song is about writing songs. But it makes writing songs sound so much like engineering I had to write about it.

In his introduction to the song, he said that, in many interviews, he has been asked how he writes songs and his answer has always been something like “I can’t explain it, it’s complicated, or something like that.” So, he decided to write a song about writing songs. Maybe he can’t explain it in an interview, but this song clearly does explain the songwriting process very effectively in a way that poetry can, but prose never could. 

Listen to the Song First

I suggest that you listen to the song before continuing your reading.  You can find it anywhere you listen to music online including YouTube. It is on his latest album “Call Me Lucky”.

Welcome back. Follow along on the lyrics below as you continue reading.

No notion of order … chaotic collections

These early words describe well the early days of studying a gnarly problem. 

Spin it ‘round … til it sounds like me

Then we spin the problem around in our heads until the solution “sounds like me.” And when it sounds like me, “I almost hear my name.” Perfect! These are the best words I’ve ever heard to capture the feeling when you find the solution.

Spin it ‘round … til we learn to see

And that solution is not just a solution; it is THE solution. The solution that already existed. The metaphor here is that the design is already there, we just have to learn to see it. And when we learn to see “there’s no big surprise.” I hope that you have felt this too when the solution pops out; so obvious!

And we take it for granted, it’s the way it should be 

How powerful is that! We fight for our designs, because they aren’t just our designs, they are “the way it should be” and they are “something longing to be.” 

Engineering is Like Love

Frank Lloyd Wright once commented that architecture is like love. I first read those words long before I had the experience to understand them. Smither’s words go some distance toward explaining Wright’s words. Like love, designs “set you free.”

 

“Down to the Sound” Lyrics

In my pockets of memory where I keep my change,

There’s no notion of order, it’s hard to arrange

It won’t bear inspection, there’s nothing to see

Chaotic collections of symbols of me.

It all comes down to the sound, when you can’t find the key

Spin it ‘round on the common ground til it sounds like me

And when it sounds like me I almost hear my name

Seems like a picture slipping out of its frame

Takes most of your wishes to make it come true

There mostly for free, but you pay for a few

It all comes down to the sound, something longing to be

It spins around in the lost and found, til we learn to see,

And when we learn to see there is no big surprise

It’s always been there, so you open your eyes

And you take it for granted, the way it should be

Turn out the light find you still have the key

It all comes down to the sound, tears the heart out of me

Spins you round till the chains fall down, and set you free,

They set you free, they set you free.

Chris Smither. Call Me Lucky. Signature, 2018.


Howard Duhon is the principal engineering advisor at GATE. He is a former SPE Technical Director of Projects, Facilities, and Construction and is a member of the Editorial Board of Oil and Gas Facilities. He may be reached at hduhon@gateinc.com

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