Mines: Where Art Meets Engineering

Images courtesy of Mines Flickr. Collage courtesy of Lauren D’Ambra

By Lauren D’Ambra

The name Colorado School of Mines tends to be strictly associated with ideas of engineering and science. However, Mines has just become the location for a fascinating intersection of art and science. The Mines Foundry was recently tasked with creating a brand new, distinctive instrument for a division of the Denver based music performance group, itchy-O. The group, known for their unique performance style and sound, features a drum corps battery, taiko drummers, and countless electric instruments. The instrument the Mines Foundry has been asked to create will feature over forty gongs, gamealans, and metallophones and have been specially created to meet specifications created by the itchy-O division.

This unique, one of a kind project would not be possible without the incredible work done by Seth Tucker, the Director of Hennebach Program in the Humanities, and Sarah Harling, the Mines Hot Shop Supervisor and current Hennebach Artist in Residence. Tucker and Harling have been working together on this project for quite some time now, and they are both very excited to see it come together. “No one has ever done this before,” said Harling. 

Throughout history, gongs and gamelans have been made by hammering metal into thin, round discs. The discs were then shaped, refined, and tuned to complete the finished instrument, but the tuning process for the instruments was usually done by ear and therefore difficult to reproduce between creators and from instrument to instrument. Harling and her team have come up with an entirely new method of tuning that involves using a bell software to tune the gongs based on the relationship between the fundamental note and the partial frequencies. Gamelans are typically created to fit a musical scale specified by the creator. “itchy-O wrote their own musical scale for this instrument,” explained Harling “we then made the instruments to match what notes they needed using frequency analysis .”

The project is not only a breakthrough in musical engineering, but is also beautifully symbolic too. Each piece of the massive instrument has been created using metal from recycled cymbals donated by various music groups from the Denver area. Itchy-O organized the drive and received nearly 300 donated cymbals to use for the project, meaning that the completed instrument will be a beautiful representation of Denver music groups coming together to inspire others. The spiritual side of the project struck Tucker deeply. “Sound is something that we don’t know that much about. The psychoacoustics of this project are absolutely crazy. You can influence emotions and feelings with sound.” Harling offered an example: “Think about a baby crying. That is a sound that will affect everyone in the room on a physical level because our biology is deeply connected to certain sounds. This project goes deeply into how we use sounds to create auditory illusions to produce certain feelings and emotions.”

Tucker went on to explain that much of this project and upcoming musical performance has been possible thanks to the creativity of the Hennebach program: “The program used to be more lecture oriented than event oriented. We’ve been working to move away from this and I think this project really shows how far we’ve come. Harling is the first official Hennebach Artist in Residence at Mines and our new goal is to bring in artists and scholars who facilitate a new way of thinking. We also want to learn to work with other departments on campus, not just the humanities department, and see what we can create when we all come together.” 

Tucker then went on to say ” It’s been fascinating to be on the artist’s side of this and watch the science happen. It’s really astounding.” Harling commented, ”The biggest takeaway from this project has to be how we’re merging art and science and why it’s important. What is art? What is science? What is engineering?  What is the purpose of all of it? Everyone on this project comes from a different background and it’s been amazing seeing everyone come together on this,”

In a wonderful display of community collaboration, local Colorado artists and poets, as well as poets and artists from Mines, were invited to attend a pouring event last Saturday. Spectators watched as Sarah Harling poured and tuned the newly created gongs and were then invited to create poems and other artistic interpretations of the event. These artistic renderings will be displayed during the instrument’s first performance on April 29th. For those who would like to submit their own art or poetry to be shown at the performance, Tucker and the Hennabach Program are accepting submissions up until April 22nd. 

Speaking of which, the newest division of the band itchy-O, itchy-O SÖM SÄPTÄLAHN, will be hosting a Mines exclusive performance debuting their new instrument in Friedhoff Hall on Friday, April 29th. The performance will feature the new instrument and artwork from the April 2nd pouring event, making it truly an artistic event like no other. This event will be a truly one of a kind experience and you definitely won’t want to miss it! Itchy-O also has several other upcoming performances, such as their Intergalactic Masquerade on May 7th at The Oriental Theater in Denver. 

For more information about The Hennebach Program, please visit: 

For more information about itchy-O and their performances, please visit www.itchyo.com and check out their social media pages.

Instagram: @itchy_o

Facebook: Itchy-O

Twitter: @itchy_O

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