Putting It All Together: Artist-Engineer Combines Creative Pursuits
Scattered broken toys were telltale signs that Daniel Michelson had been hard at play when he was a kid.
He loved to take things apart, to satisfy his curiosity about how they worked. So he’d disassemble action figures, toy cars, and countless other mechanisms to see what made them punch, spring, kick, turn, or jump. That inquisitiveness has stuck with him his whole life.
A double major in mechanical engineering and music, with an emphasis in composition, creativity is a critical part of Michelson’s everyday life and career outlook. For as long as he can remember, his interests have sprawled over multiple disciplines but with a common thread: How was it put together? His inspiration still lies within the mechanical core of everything he touches, whether it’s a new concept for wood-framed eyeglasses or a sublimely timed note within an original musical composition.
“You would be surprised at how much overlap there is between music and engineering,” said Michelson, who graduates this spring. “Both demand creativity but different kinds of it. I’ve felt the same parts of my brain being used in mechanical problem-solving as in writing music, and there’s a lot of beauty in that to me.”
Completing his sixth year at Chico State after coming to the North State from Placerville, Michelson is renowned in both the music and engineering departments as a modern-age Renaissance man of sorts for his prolific work in both arenas. He came to Chico as a mechanical engineering student, but it was only days before his longtime love for music drew him to wander about the Performing Arts Center, where he knew instantly he wanted to be involved.
“I felt super welcomed to take whatever classes I wanted to,” said Michelson, who didn’t decide on a second degree until upper-division prerequisites began to limit music course availability. “The professors were really inviting, and the whole department really opened itself up to me, music major or not.”
His involvement was immediate and sustained during his entire education at Chico State. The recipient of the College of Humanities and Fine Arts’ Outstanding Student Leader Award, Michelson plays piano for both the school’s Wind Ensemble (for which he also has played French horn) and Jazz X-Press group. He is also involved with a jazz combo and played in the orchestra for the School of the Arts’ campus production of American Idiot.
His first music professor, Royce Tevis, took immediate notice of Michelson’s ambition and natural gifts, especially in composition.
“What stands out right away is that he’s just an outstanding human being. He’s an extremely hard worker with a fantastic attitude,” Tevis said. “Students are drawn to him because he has this natural cooperative spirit. Musicians will play for writers, but for Daniel, they’ll bend over backward.”
Michelson still finds it a bit bizarre, he said, to be committed to such seemingly different areas of study simultaneously. He laughs at the contrast he feels when he leaves an 8 a.m. engineering course for a 9 a.m. music class, but he embraces the duality of that experience. His music senior project is a full-length album he produced, recorded, and composed. Michelson often vacillates between favoring the technical, logical approach engineering has taught him and the more free-flowing, artistic style that comes to him naturally in his music.
“As I’ve gotten trained to think more analytically, I saw it infiltrating my music in a way,” he explained. “I began to write in a much more logical, straightforward manner, and in some ways it was more comfortable, but it also got a little sterile. You’re reducing risk, but you’re also reducing the possibility of finding something unique organically. It’s two very different energies.”
Michelson has tried, with varying levels of success, to work engineering innovation into his music. His writing contributions include work on the New Music Symposium in March, when he asked the production’s percussionists to work in a precisely timed teakettle whistle—it came off on cue to great delight.
It was a succinctly apt example of Michelson’s strengths as a composer, Tevis said, one that few others could have managed. Michelson’s engineering influence certainly created that moment.
“Most of the time when we see those kinds of things, they come off as a little gimmicky,” Tevis recalled. “But the way Daniel wrote it in was amazing, in a way that you think, ‘That was so much fun. How could it be any other way?’
“The really wonderful thing about how he writes music is that it’s so well-organized, and one thing leads to the next, kind of in a spiral, and that comes from the kind of thinking it takes to be an engineer.”
Michelson also created instruments out of several converted 5-gallon propane tanks, stripping them down to their basic cylindrical forms before cutting rectangular tongues into their sides that vibrate when struck. The longer the tongues, the deeper the pitch of the vibrations, and he started to get familiar with the correlation between the two—a single pull on the handsaw would mean a half-cent drop on the tuner, for example.
Ever the engineer, he developed an equation to try to speed up production on the tanks.
“It wasn’t close at all,” Michelson said with a laugh. “There were too many variables I wasn’t accounting for. But that approach—bringing a technical analysis to music—felt novel to me. It didn’t work out, but the process was valuable. I enjoy the challenge of trying to quantify what musicians normally try to do by feel alone.”
Citing hundreds of project folders on his computer desktop, with maybe 10 of them completed, Michelson said it’s not uncommon for engineering projects to fall short of completion. For him, the finished product is much less interesting and rewarding than the work itself.
“You set yourself up for disappointment if you always only look at the ends,” Michelson said. “Every project has meaning and value I can derive from it and, if anything, I get a little mournful when I complete them because it’s over. The inspiration you get while you’re working comes to you organically, not because you have a deadline to make something.”
For Michelson, a recent project entailed working with a student team on a solution for wooden sunglasses. A local manufacturer, Woodzee, faced growing demand for frames compatible with prescription lenses because traditional pop-in lenses break wooden frames. Michelson’s team succeeded, developing a design in which lenses could slide in and secure with a retention tab on the frame. The team has already delivered working prototypes to Woodzee.
It was an ideal challenge for Michelson to meet before he graduates, he said, because he’s anticipating a major transition as he plans to move to the Bay Area to be near family and start a career. Ideally, he’ll find an engineering job that supports his desire to invent and keep playing and writing jazz in his free time. As major changes loom, he said he’s starting to look more at his life using his musician’s outlook instead of deconstructing and deciphering, as he’s done since childhood.
“I’m trying to let things flow to me as graduation gets closer,” Michelson said, then added with a laugh, “because if I get honest and analytical about it, it’s really scary and really big, coming from being in school my entire life. But I do realize that no matter what opportunity I get, I’ll have the opportunity to be myself, be creative, and express myself. I look forward to the challenge.”