MechSE's "Underground" Music Scene

Anjali Rangaswamy, alumna

Anjali Rangaswamy (BSME 2001) still finds time for an active music career despite her roles as chief engineer and technical fellow within the space division of Raytheon Intelligence & Space.

The  singer-songwriter first began taking piano lessons as a four-year-old in India, followed by northern Indian classical vocal training. She picked up the guitar ten years later.

Anjali Ray wearing a sparkly dress playing a grand piano.
"I love warm guitars like Mark Knopfler and John Mayer," Rangaswamy said of her taste in music. "Tori Amos, who my roommate at U of I introduced me to, will always be a favorite." 

“I moved to the United States when I was ten years old and being able to sing and play really helped me develop an identity and confidence,” Rangaswamy said. “Music has continued to be there for me through many challenging times, even in adulthood.”

While studying mechanical engineering at UIUC, Rangaswamy amassed a catalog of original songs and began recording some on her own.

“I realized that I needed professional guidance to produce a record with the level of polish I desired,” she recalled. She connected with Champaign’s Pogo Studio and was able to release her first full-length album, Offering, while still in college. “The process of having a song grow from a simple demo into a finished product with incredible musicians contributing is the drug I keep coming back to,” she said.

Indeed, Rangaswamy, whose stage name is Anjali Ray (see her YouTube channel), released her second full-length album, Indigo, in 2016, followed by the EP Giant in 2018. She performs several times per year with her LA-based Indian fusion band and has a new EP, Dark Side, coming out this summer.

“Music for me is about connection and communication,” Rangaswamy said. “For my next release, my goal is to reach as many people as possible. I write a lot of songs about my loved ones, and there’s no greater joy than when they love the songs and keep listening to them.”

She typically performs live with a piano or guitar and has recorded piano and synth tracks for most of her album work. “My producer for Indigo taught me that a song has to sound excellent stripped down by itself,” said Rangaswamy, who wrote more than 30 songs as candidates for the 10-track record. “Only then is it worth putting into production.”

Anjali Ray looking at camera
Rangaswamy's new EP, Dark Side, will be available on streaming services this fall. 

Rangaswamy’s new EP explores the experience of being a woman in her forties. “It’s a really fascinating time in most women’s lives—we’ve got a wealth of experience behind us, we’re typically in the pinnacle of our career, and some of us have experienced motherhood,” she said. “It’s a very volatile and dynamic time and Dark Side reaches into all different corners of this experience.”

Rangaswamy currently leads multi-disciplinary engineering teams in developing space sensors for both civilian and defense applications.

“I use every single inch of what I learned [at UIUC] right now,” she said. “I don’t dig too deep as a chief engineer in any one area, but I have to have proficient experience and aptitude in all of them to build teams that solve problems and identify vulnerabilities in our hardware. Engineers are known as problem solvers, but we’re also constantly looking for problems—looking for where things might go wrong to make sure we’ve crossed every ‘t’ and dotted every ‘i.’”

The Boat Drunks have toured the country playing Margaritaville-related events.

Larry Lister, alumnus

In similar fashion, alumnus Larry Lister (MSME 1986), who currently works as a senior mechanical engineer at Facility Dynamics Engineering, is the drummer for the Champaign-based band The Boat Drunks (see their Facebook page). He joined the group shortly after starting with Facility Dynamics 22 years ago.

The group, which now has five studio albums and one live album, began as a Jimmy Buffett cover band that evolved over the years to also produce and perform original music.

Larry Lister playing the drums on stage.
"I like the contemporary rock/pop music of the late '60s and '70s, but always liked the older swing dance music as well," Lister said. 

“Around 2004, music from our first record was being played on SiriusXM Radio Margaritaville, and that led to our being invited to play shows in conjunction with Buffett’s touring schedule and then for the various Margaritaville-related operations—resorts, casinos, theme nights, etc.” said Lister, who has enjoyed playing shows all over the United States. “Many members of The Coral Reefer Band have made appearances with us over the years as well.”

Lister has been playing the drums for more than 50 years, starting with his middle school’s band. His father was also a musician, playing trumpet in big band groups during and after WWII.

As an engineer, Lister focuses on testing and verifying HVAC and building control systems for critical containment laboratories, cleanroom labs, and health-care operations. Despite working full-time, he has still managed to perform an average 50 shows per year at home and on the road.

“I love playing behind vocalists and harmony singers. It’s a challenge to be ‘felt but not heard’—in other words, to stay out of the way, but provide a groove that can move with the vocalist’s interpretation.”

Larry Lister

Bill Bahnfleth, alumnus

Fellow alum Bill Bahnfleth (BSME 1979, MSME 1980, PhD ME 1989) has also been playing music for most of his life. “My first lessons were on a spinet organ with a teacher who worked out of a music store in Downers Grove [Illinois],” he said, unlike most organists who start music lessons on piano. Bahnfleth’s interest in playing stemmed from his early exposure to church music. “I grew up in the Lutheran church, which uses music extensively in worship and which has a rich musical history,” he said.

Bill Bahnfleth
"My senior recital was about 75 minutes long," Bahnfleth said of graduating from the music program. "Memorization comes easily to some, but not to me, so that may have been the most difficult thing I've ever done."

Bahnfleth, who also plays piano and harpsichord, came to UIUC to study mechanical engineering. “I had always wanted to study organ at the university, but convinced myself that without a piano background, I’d have no chance of being accepted by Jerald Hamilton, the organ professor in those days,” he reflected. However, a serendipitous encounter at a friend’s wedding with an engineering student who was taking organ lessons at the University of Wisconsin convinced him to audition for Hamilton, who took him on as a non-major and later suggested that he major in organ performance. Bahnfleth took that advice, earning a bachelor’s degree in music in 1988.

“It was a life-changing experience,” he said, remembering his time on campus as being busy and productive. “I was spending the morning on campus taking music lessons, afternoons working half time at the U.S. Army Construction Engineering Research Laboratory, working on my doctoral dissertation, and returning to campus to practice in the evening.”

He has worked for nearly 30 years at Penn State University, where he is a professor of architectural engineering. He is also a Fellow and Presidential Member of the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating, and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE). With a particular interest in controlling bioaerosols, he chaired the ASHRAE Epidemic Task Force from 2020–2022, which developed guidance for reducing indoor transmission of respiratory diseases to increase building safety, and currently chairs a project committee focused on developing a standard for controlling infectious aerosols.

Bill Bahnfleth and his wife sitting at an organ smiling at the camera.
Bahnfleth and his wife, Mary Louise, met as students in the music program at Illinois.

“My work seeks to identify ways to improve indoor air quality to achieve the health and productivity benefits that would bring while not setting back efforts to reduce building related energy use and carbon emissions,” he said. “That means finding alternatives to ventilation with outdoor air as the primary way to control indoor air contaminants.”

He credits the late Dr. Wilbert Stoecker (MSME 1951), professor emeritus of mechanical engineering at UIUC and member of the ASHRAE Hall of Fame, as being a role model in both engineering and music (Lister also credits Stoecker as one of his favorite music instructors).

Bahnfleth met his wife Mary Louise (BMus 1986, Med 1989), a professional musician and regular church organist who also teaches privately, when they were both students in the music program. Today, he still practices daily and performs both solo and in duets with his wife in church services.

Joseph Bentsman in the 1970s looking at camera.

Joseph Bentsman playing guitar and singing. Black and white photo from the 1970s.

Joseph Bentsman, faculty

MechSE Professor Joseph Bentsman began studying classical music as a child in Soviet Belorussia. “Children in intelligentsia families were expected to study piano,” he reflected. He later moved on to guitar and drums, playing in his high school rock band, but ultimately returned to his roots after seeing a friend play piano rock.

Joseph Bentsman sitting at a grand piano smiling at the camera.
"I equally like listening to Yascha Heifetz's dark-sounding Guarneri, Charlie Parker's sax flights, and Ritchie Blackmore's guitar riffs," Bentsman said of his taste in music. 

“To my amazement, my earlier acquired piano technique turned out to be lying in wait, only to burst out into a blues rock genre,” he said.

When he graduated from high school, Bentsman was invited by the Minsk-based rock band Golden Apples to form a duet with their current singer, Leonid Bortkevich. The two each had big plans for the future—in Bensman’s case, to defend his PhD and become a professor; for Bortkevich, to join the Minsk Philharmonic performance program and eventually become the People’s Artist, the highest musical honor in the Soviet Union.

“We each looked at the other with a real fear for our sanity,” Bentsman joked. “Little did we know that both our plans would come true well beyond our expectations—for Leonid, becoming a lead singer in Pesnyary, the top 1970s Soviet rock band, with millions of records sold.”

Bentsman’s adventures with music continued during his time in service. “In 1973, when I was drafted into the Soviet army to serve in a Siberia military base, I was invited to sing folk songs in a base choir over the weekends and I also organized my own rock band there,” he said. “Not only that, but I took with me the tape of Grand Funk Railroad’s We’re an American Band that had just come out, and the base’s radio station played it a number of times over the loudspeakers for the entire base.”

Joseph Bentsman playing guitar and singing. Black and white photo from the 1970s.
These days, Bentsman likes to play a version of Jailhouse Rock, which he refers to as "Joe's House Rock," for his PhD students upon completion of their defense.

Bentsman is currently working on the modeling and control of systems best described by partial differential equations. He earned his PhD in electrical engineering (control theory) from the Illinois Institute of Technology and was a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Michigan.

He enjoys playing piano and guitar whenever he finds an opportunity and likes to play a version of Jailhouse Rock (written by Jerry Lieber & Mike Stoller, performed by Elvis Presley), which he refers to as “Joe’s House Rock,” for his PhD students upon completion of their defense.

“To my amazement, my earlier acquired piano technique turned out to be lying in wait, only to burst out into a blues rock genre.”

Joseph Bentsman


Blake Johnson, faculty

Teaching Assistant Professor Blake Johnson has found a way to incorporate his own passion for music in TAM 252 (Solid Mechanics Design). As a PhD student at UIUC, Johnson was co-advised by Professor Greg Elliott. During his post-doc at Iowa State University, Johnson had the opportunity to learn woodworking while contributing to research projects that employed wooden structures. In his spare time, he used that knowledge to begin building custom guitars. When he joined the MechSE faculty in 2013, he reconnected with Elliott.

Blake Johnson in church playing the harmonica and guitar.
In addition to guitar, Johnson also plays bass and harmonica.

“Greg and I started building lap steel guitars to give to friends,” said Johnson, who first started playing guitar in eighth grade. “He would rough cut my guitar designs on a CNC mill in his garage, and then I did the electronics and finishing work.”

Lap steel guitars are typically played across the seated musician’s lap. Rather than having fixed frets, a steel guitar is played with a bar of polished steel that the musician slides along the string. Where lap steel guitars are very simple, pedal steel guitars are a much more complex instrument that allow the musician to use a pedal-actuated linkage system to change the tension of each individual string while playing. This ability adds incredible versatility to the instrument. While lap steel guitars are very affordable, even basic pedal steel guitars can cost thousands of dollars.

The new hobby inspired Johnson to introduce a similar project to TAM 252. “A guitar string is little more than a piece of prismatic steel that experiences uniaxial tension, which is among the most basic concepts taught in TAM 251 and 252,” he explained.

He tasked students with creating a single-string proof of concept prototype that allows a lap steel guitar musician to repeatably actuate a hands-free linkage system to instantaneously increase the string’s tension to a precise new tension and then revert to the original tension.

“The basic idea is to create an entry-level instrument that could be purchased on the order of a few hundred dollars with capabilities similar to those of a pedal steel guitar,” he said.

Since the first iteration of the guitar project several years ago, Johnson has witnessed many creative solutions including pneumatic actuation using a pressure tube controlled by the musician’s mouth as well as Arduino-controlled servos and mechanically-actuated bicycle brake cables connected to a bass drum pedal.

Three students holding a handmade lap guitar.
Students in Johnson's TAM 252 course show off their lap steel guitar-inspired prototype. 

“One thing I’ve come to believe is that engineering is very much a creative endeavor, and I don’t want to constrain that too much,” he reflected of the open-ended nature of the project. “My approach has been to assess students primarily on their ability to communicate the effectiveness of their design through the written word, which is a globally applicable skill.”

Johnson’s own studies in music have heavily focused on music theory—in other words, how music works. “I wanted to learn how to teach myself to be a better musician,” he said of studying music independently throughout high school. “By the time I got around to actually taking formal courses in music theory in college, I was ahead of most of the other students—all of whom were music majors. It must have been frustrating to many of them because they had been in band since 6th grade, and then there’s this guy with a cheap guitar wrecking the grading curve who can hardly even read music. I hope they aren’t harboring bad feelings about my choosing to major in engineering instead.”

Although Johnson’s current participation in music is primarily limited to playing in church, he is passionate about sharing it with his three young children, who all take piano lessons. “My first experience teaching anything was giving private guitar lessons when I was 19,” Johnson reflected. When asked if he plans to teach his kids the guitar, he said, “I will gladly teach them—if they want to learn from me!”

Katie Matlack, faculty

Fellow MechSE faculty member Katie Matlack began studying piano when she was five years old.

“I just told my mom one day that I wanted to have piano lessons, and she started looking for a teacher,” Matlack reflected. She picked up the violin a few years later and continued with both instruments through high school.

“I was always trying to find a way to overlap my hobby-type interests with my academic interests, and that brought me to the field of acoustics,” she said of her undergraduate studies. While in college, she took a summer job at an architectural acoustics consulting firm that provided opportunity to work on optimizing sound propagation through space for various scenarios.

Katie Matlack smiling at her desk.
"I think [the piano] is really powerful because anybody can sit down and play a note," Matlack said of making music accessible to young learners.

Continuing to explore the field, Matlack began researching damage interrogation via ultrasound while in graduate school and then investigated material design for sound propagation control during her postdoctoral fellowship at the ETH Zurich.

“Anything acoustic always excites me, which stems from my passion for music,” Matlack said. “I was always fascinated that the same physics that govern such beautiful music can also be used to solve really complex technological problems.”

Matlack’s research group, the Wave Propagation and Metamaterials Laboratory, is currently investigating several research projects in various areas of acoustics, such as using ultrasound to interrogate material properties in different types of structural materials for non-destructive damage evaluation.

The team is also exploring phononic materials, or, in particular, nonlinear phononic materials whose microstructure can be designed for a particular wave propagation response.

“In this project, we’re actually trying to mimic the microstructure of rocks, which are highly nonlinear,” Matlack said. “If we can engineer a replica unit that has the same type of nonlinearity [that we observed], then we can arrange it in a particular pattern that could be beneficial.”

Three students smiling at the camera holding musical instruments in a classroom.
Betsy Smith (left) and undergraduate researchers Nate Scriba and Eunice Yoon played their own instruments as part of their EOH demonstration. The phononic crystal, seen in the lower left of this photo, has a bandgap through which a certain frequency range cannot pass. Although Matlack's lab typically works with waves in solids, Smith led the development of a crystal with a bandgap in air in the audible range for the EOH audience. 

Matlack found opportunity to demonstrate phononic crystals and other acoustics-related phenomena, such as the behavior of standing waves, to young learners at the 2023 Engineering Open House (EOH).

“I’m interested in developing programs for K–12 outreach that capitalize on music interest so that those students can find interesting pathways in science and engineering,” Matlack said of the inspiration for the exhibit, which demonstrated phononic properties by passing audible frequencies through a homemade crystal structure.

These days, Matlack enjoys tinkering in music with her two-year-old daughter, who is already displaying an interest that takes after her mother’s—marking the beginning of a new generation of musicians.

Betsy Smith, graduate student

Mechanical engineering PhD student Betsy Smith credits her own music background with bolstering her inherent understanding of characteristics of nonlinearity, such as harmonics, in materials.

Betsy Smith playing the cello in a research lab.
Although her main instrument is the cello, Smith can play several instruments including trumpet and sousaphone.

“Music is one of the reasons I joined Katie’s lab,” Smith said, noting that an article about Matlack’s musical training and transition into acoustics had piqued her interest. “Even if the research isn’t specifically music related, the math-music connection is still there. I think she and I followed a similar path.”

Smith, who led the EOH demonstration, noted that although some audience members may not have fully grasped the complex concept of phononics, they could still experience the audible differences as a frequency was played through and then near the crystal. Smith and other students in the group also brought their own instruments to emphasize the musical theme.

“I think having instruments there helped to draw the audience in because it was something they recognized,” Smith reflected. “We wanted to tie our concepts back to music so that the exhibit would be more familiar to kids.”

Editor's Note

Alumna and MechSE writer Taylor Tucker (BSEM 2017) has also played piano for most of her life. She received Division I recognition from the Northwestern University Festival of Music while in high school and studied classical performance in UIUC’s music program for non-majors during her time in MechSE. In addition to piano, Tucker plays several other instruments including saxophone, concertina, and banjolele.

Taylor Tucker sitting in front of an orange wall.
In addition to piano, Tucker plays several other instruments, including saxophone, concertina and banjolele.

“Music has always been in my life—thanks to my mom and dad, I was listening to anything from Liszt to the Rolling Stones before I could walk,” Tucker said, reflecting on early memories that have become inherently tied to music.

Tucker currently holds an engineering education fellowship at the Siebel Center for Design, where she leads a team working to create evidence-based methods for supporting course development focused on human-centered engineering design. Although music doesn’t often surface in her work, her experiences include composing arrangements for services at her local church and competing in regional battles of the bands with 50 Below, the rock band she and a close friend started in junior high. She has volunteered as a judge since 2017 for the Bitter Jester Music Festival.

 

“What really stood out to me from writing this article are the quiet ways in which music intricately weaves itself into different aspects of our lives. As engineers, we may not be able to measure the impact a musical background may have on our work or decisions, but it seems that somehow, as with anything that matters, it's there.”

Taylor Tucker

For more music-inspired writing from Taylor, see entries from her engineering blog, Taylor Made: “Good vibrations,” “Pitch construction,” and “Yes, they do sell guitars at Guitar World.”


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This story was published September 13, 2023.