Cruise of a lifetime

By on August 12, 2014

A trip to the Caribbean transforms Lititz doctor into steel drum authority

LR20140807_C SteelDrums1To most people, the hypnotic rhythm of steel drums conjures images of the Caribbean with swaying palms and ocean breezes.

For Larry Murr, Ph.D., it brings out the scientist in him. He wants to know how they work. He wants to understand how the metal influences the pitch and tone. Why do they sound the way they do?

Over the past two decades, the Lititz native has become the preeminent researcher on steel drum technology. It all happened by chance years ago, when Murr and his wife, Pat Dull Murr, also from Lititz, were on a Caribbean cruise.

“I heard the sound of the steel drums and I was intrigued by the unique notes that the metal instrument could make,” said Murr from his home in Arizona.

After the band finished playing, he found himself on stage examining the drums to figure out how they produced their signature sound. That’s when he decided to incorporate steel drums into his research on metals and engineering.

“Of the 800 papers I have produced in my 50-year career, 24 of them are about steel drums,” he said. “And they are my favorites.”

Dr. Murr recently retired as professor of metallurgical and material engineering at the University of Texas in El Paso. He spent his entire career studying and researching the properties of various metals. In 1996, he teamed up with Larry White, professor of music at UTEP, to start their one-of-a-kind steel drum program.

Murr sees a certain irony in the fact that he is involved in music research. At Warwick High School, he was wasn’t much of a music student.

“I can’t read music and I spent a lot of the time in the principal’s office because I was incorrigible,” said Murr. “But I was fascinated by the percussion instruments.”

Since he was a child, he was passionate about science and even set up his own basement lab in his parents’ Lititz home. It was better equipped than the high school lab, and he spent hours there, studying and experimenting.

After graduating from Warwick High School in 1957, he received his B.S. degree in physical science from Albright College. He then went to Penn State, where he earned his B.S.E.E. in electronics, his M.S. in engineering mechanics and his Ph.D. in solid-state science. Dr. Murr taught at Penn State, as well as the University of Southern California, New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology, and the Oregon Graduate Institute of Science and Technology. He was director of the John D. Sullivan Center for In-Situ Mining Research, president of the New Mexico Tech Research Foundation, and professor and head of the Metallurgical and Materials Engineering Department at New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology. He was a past chairman of the New Mexico Joint Center for Materials Science and served as vice president for academic affairs and research, and director of the office of academic and research programs at the Oregon Graduate Institute, where he was also professor of materials science and engineering.

At the University of Texas at El Paso, Dr. Murr’s extensive studies of metallurgy were beautifully melded with music. The steel drum program became a cutting-edge interdisciplinary effort that produced Pandemonium, a 30-member, internationally recognized steel drum band known for its fluid, crowd-pleasing performances and its accompanying research into how the instruments acquire their pitch and tone. That led to the smaller, related Pantastics show band.

“Steel drums are just as complex as other musical instruments like the piano and violin,” said Murr, adding that steel drums were not actually used until around 1945 in Trinidad and Tobago.

Trinidad native Elliot “Ellie” Mannette was among those who fashioned the instruments from the discarded 55-gallon oil barrels left by allied forces that used Trinidad as a naval refueling station during World War II. Mannette became recognized as the founder of the modern steel drum.

So in the late 1990s, when Mannette visited UTEP, he promised to send Dr. Murr steel drums that could be used for his research. In the next 10 years, Murr and his revolving cast of student-researchers delved into testing the drums and other materials to find the right balance to create the optimum barrel. Many of these graduate and doctoral engineering students became musicians too, and joined with the undergraduate music majors in performing with Pandemonium.

Mannette was impressed, saying that he instinctively knew a lot about steel drums. He had never realized that science could be used to improve the sound of the instrument, including studying the weights, strengths and materials to create a better steel drum. Today, Murr’s processes are being used by manufacturers to create the optimal steel drum sound.

As Dr. Murr noted, the drum’s distinctive composition of steel (a mixture of carbon and iron) is what transforms otherwise random noise into harmonious music. During manufacturing, the steel drums are first hammered out to create the individual notes. This hammering knocks the carbon atom’s bonds out of alignment causing further variances in the notes. Then heat is used to displace the carbon atoms at different rates, which cause more changes in the notes.

“The steel drum is the only acoustic instrument developed in the 20th century, and it has been a passion of mine to learn more about the wonderful sound from an engineering perspective,” said Dr. Murr.

He may not be a musician, but Murr has certainly made his mark in the world of music.

Laurie Knowles Callanan is a freelance feature reporter for the Record Express. She welcomes your comments at lknowles21@gmail.com.

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