By Jean-Louis Briaud, Ph.D., P.E., D.GE, Dist.M.ASCE

Music makes me vibrate. It resonates within me and gives me life. I often get emotional when I listen to beautiful pieces, especially classical or jazz. When I was young, my parents forced me to learn the piano and to listen to classical music. I disliked every minute of it, but now I am so thankful that they didn’t listen to me and stuck to what they knew best.

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Jean-Louis Briaud, Ph.D., P.E., D.GE, Dist.M.ASCE

I wish to share some of the pieces that I appreciate with you. They may not be the ones that move you. So, I encourage you to discover art that resonates with you. It is such a joy when you find it.

Bach would have been a civil engineer, there is no doubt in my mind. Just listen to his “Prelude C Major, BWV 846.” Now, that is a foundation engineer and a builder writing a piece of music, for sure. This piece exemplifies the beautiful logic, the stellar organization, and the remarkable, innovative, and genius spirit that we need in our projects. The simplicity of this piano piece influenced others who used it for “Ave Maria,” and even jazz musician Jacques Loussier.

Mozart came along as a happy and goofy kid. Such a genius, though! His music evolved dramatically from “Ah! vous dirai je Maman” to “Requiem in D minor, K. 626,” which he wrote as he was dying. Can you imagine what he would have created had he lived a long life instead of passing at age 35? On the other hand, Albert Einstein did his best work in his 20s. So, who knows?

Then came the romantics. Inspired by too much rigor from their previous peers, they created a revolution by writing pieces that make you vibrate in a different way. From the rigors of Bach and Mozart to the emotions of Beethoven, Chopin, Schumann, and Schubert, everyone can find joy in music.

Beethoven, becoming deaf in his final years, was unable to hear what he was composing; can you imagine the torture? Ray Charles, becoming blind at a young age, created some of the most beautiful music. Django Reinhardt, a remarkable jazz guitarist, excelled in spite of badly injuring two fingers on his chord-playing hand in a fire. Is suffering required to inspire genius?

Jean de La Fontaine, a 17th-century poet, wrote fables such as Le Laboureur et ses Enfants. They were short, and each told a story with a life lesson at the end in such a clear fashion that one would think it took no time to write it. But, in fact, La Fontaine worked for a very long time to optimize each fable and only stopped when it was crystal clear.

Paintings by Rembrandt were very detailed and true to life; there were no cameras at the time. His paintings were quite dark because bright colors were hard to come by. Like classical music, a new movement developed because artists needed to move on and keep the interest and excitement in the art. I am a Van Gogh fan because I enjoy paintings that, while representing life, express it in a blurry manner and let you dream, as is the case with his Harvest in Provence.

So, what can we learn from music and art when it comes to civil engineering? The rigor and the rules are important, but the creativity and the spark of genius make all the difference. Of course, hard work pays off. And as La Fontaine said, “work is a treasure.” I would add, “as long as you love it.” I feel very fortunate that I love what I do.

Thank you for letting me digress and talk about something that has nothing to do with our love for civil engineering. Or does it? Isn’t civil engineering as much an art as it is a science? Isn’t music as much a science as it is an art? In many ways, those two worlds are intricately similar. From time to time, a new thinking comes along, takes over the landscape, and beauty lives on with a different face.

It was truly an honor to serve you as your president for the last year. I can assure you I gave it my best shot.

Best wishes.

This article first appeared in the September/October 2021 issue of Civil Engineering.