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[Sandia Lab News]

Vol. 53, No. 11 June 1, 2001
[Sandia National Laboratories]

Albuquerque, New Mexico 87185-0165    ||   Livermore, California 94550-0969
Tonopah, Nevada; Nevada Test Site; Amarillo, Texas

Music adds special dimension to Peter Esherick's world

By Chris Burroughs

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Many people at the Labs know Peter Esherick (1744) as the Harvard PhD chemical physicist. His team developed the 1.3-micron VCSEL (vertical cavity surface emitting laser), recently nominated for a Lockheed Martin NOVA award (see page 2).

But many may not know he is also a folk musician who plays the guitar, banjo, and hammered dulcimer. p>
[Peter Esherick plays the hammered dulcimer]

Peter esherick plays the hammered dulcimer.

His interest in folk music has led him over the past three years to assume a key role in organizing the Albuquerque Folk Festival, which features song, dance, acoustic music, and storytelling.

This year alone he has spent more than 100 hours volunteering for the 2001 festival scheduled for June 16 at the New Mexico State Fairgrounds.

"Music winds in and out of my life," the physicist/musician says. "It sticks with me and adds a special dimension to my world."

He wants to add that same dimension to other people's life with the folk festival.

Most of his volunteer efforts with the festival have been creating a web page and lining up music workshops that fill the day. There will be more than 35 workshops, including penny whistle, harmonica, voice development, Gypsy Fire Dance, Old Time Fiddle, mandolin, hammered dulcimer, bones, old time and bluegrass five-string banjo, harp, recorder, clog dancing, and more.

Peter began volunteering for the first festival three years ago. His good friend and fellow "jammer" Bill Howden founded the festival and encouraged Peter to join him in making the event a success.

The first two festivals were held as part of Albuquerque's Arts in the Parks, drawing hundreds of people. This year's event will be the first to be held at the New Mexico State Fairgrounds and is expected to be even more successful. A small fee of $3 for adults and $1 for youngsters 6 to 12 will be charged.

Peter says his interest in music emerged when he was in high school and started playing guitar with a friend.

"We would play bluegrass and folk songs at a coffee shop in Sausalito, Calif. -- all for tips," Peter recalls. "I never knew if my friend let me play with him because I was a good backup or because I had a car and could drive him to the coffee shop."

After high school graduation, Peter went on to Berkeley for his undergraduate degree and to Harvard for his PhD in chemical physics while his friend joined the Navy and headed off to Vietnam.

While in college and throughout his professional career, Peter continued to play music. He played in his dorm while in school, at coffee houses and music festivals, and even at Sandia -- joining fellow researcher Ron Manginell (1764) to play Christmas music at the department potluck.

In 1991 Peter made a discovery that revitalized his world of music. He encountered the hammered dulcimer, an early predecessor to the piano that consists of 62 strings. The musician uses wooden sticks to play the instrument.

"I was at Harvard in the 1980s on a recruiting trip for Sandia and heard a magical sound," he says. "A street musician was playing a hammered dulcimer and I became mesmerized. I must have spent hours leaning against a bank building wall in the cold wind just listening."

Several years later in 1991 at the Santa Fe Banjo and Fiddle Festival, he attended a hammered dulcimer workshop, and his interest was renewed. The instructor helped him locate an instrument for himself. By Christmas of that year he had his hammered dulcimer and was playing it the first day.

Today he spends a couple of nights a week playing "old time" bluegrass and Celtic music with other amateur folk music enthusiasts at local coffee shops and regular jam sessions.

And about Peter's friend. Peter lost track of him after high school. He saw him once after his friend returned from Vietnam, but he seemed devastated by the experience.

Then in 1997, he encountered another high school friend at a Borders in San Francisco and Peter asked her if she knew where his "jamming" buddy was. She said the Seattle area. Peter went to the Internet and found him.

That November the two got together for the first time in 35 years. The first night they stayed up and talked until 2 a.m. and the next day they pulled guitars and hammered dulcimer out of the cases and jammed together for 18 hours.

"It was amazing, every chord and bass run he played was just the way I would have played it," Peter recalls. "I soon realized that, well of course it would be that way. Since we grew up together in music, we pretty much taught each other everything we knew, and so I was just hearing a wonderful echo of those 35-year-old memories."

Last modified: April 23, 2000


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