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Music as applied physics

By Stephen Snyder, Times Staff Writer March 17, 2002

Vocal ensemble croons about the wonders of science

The Chromatics are perhaps the smartest a cappella singing group ever.

Composed of two Ph.D. astrophysicists, four Goddard Space Flight Center employees, one Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab satellite engineer, an accountant, a computer specialist and a former furniture buyer; the Chromatics might do just as well on an episode of "Jeopardy" as "Star Search."

Competing voices

Each year a group out of San Francisco called Primarily A Cappella holds a contest called the Harmony Sweepstakes, the stated goal of which is to be "the premiere American showcase of vocal music."

Competitors for the Harmony Sweepstakes are chosen from eight regional competitions. For the past seven years the Mid-Atlantic regional has been in or around Washington, D.C.

This year's regional competition was on March 2 at the Birchmere Music Hall in Alexandria, Va., an intimate, dinner-theater venue that has hosted up-and-coming adult contemporary, rock and country acts like the Dixie Chicks, Lyle Lovett and Barenaked Ladies.

The Chromatics were set to go on first that night in front of a sold-out crowd. They had competed twice before in the Harmony Sweepstakes, once in 1996 and again in 1999, where they won third place.

Backstage, after running through their three-song set, which consisted of a song about the perils of television, a song describing the somewhat recent discovery that other stars besides the Sun have their own planetary systems, and a cover of "Synchronicity Part 1" by the Police, the Chromatics discussed, among other things, the latest space shuttle mission.

"There's a lot of work that goes into those missions," said member Padi Boyd, who, with a Ph.D. in physics from Drexel University, was in a position to know.

Comet chaser

Another member of the Chromatics is John Meyer, a Westminster resident who works on satellite power systems for Johns Hopkins University. His latest project, a satellite called Contour - for "Comet Nucleus Tour" because of its purpose: to run through a comet's wake and collect data - was due to be shipped to Goddard for environmental testing later that week.

Meyer found out about the Chromatics after singing with Karen and Alan Smale in an a cappella group at the Maryland Renaissance Festival. He had always been into music, having previously fronted his own classic rock band and written and performed in madrigal groups.

He got into satellite engineering by learning electronics in the Marines and later attending Catonsville Community College.

According to Meyer's girlfriend, Kim Denny, Meyer the engineer and Meyer the singer often come off as two very different people. On stage he's extroverted, a natural performer, but at work he's serious, intent, focused.

"He'd got a lot of different faces," said Denny.

There was also Alan Smale, an Oxford graduate with a cool British accent and ponytail who, along with fellow Chromatics member and wife, Karen Smale, works alongside Boyd at Goddard.

"They actually use high math on a daily basis," said Deb Nixon, soprano, computer consultant for a D.C. law firm, and main jokester of the group.

The group is rounded out by alto Lisa Kelleher, a budget analyst at Goddard, and tenor Paul Klob, a former furniture buyer with a caustic wit.

Complementary styles

Meyer and Boyd are the two main songwriters, though they have significantly different styles. Meyer's songs tend to be cynical satires of technology, elucidating the social dangers of television and the World Wide Web, whereas Boyd's songs are straight up science - and often quite advanced science at that.

In her song "Dance of the Planets," Boyd sings that our galaxy used to be thought of as "a random galactic anomaly."

The same can be said of the Chromatics themselves.

The group started out doing do-wop ("We're required by law to do 'The Lion Sleeps Tonight,' " cracked Nixon), but soon began writing their own songs, which covered such topics as black holes, nuclear fusion and the Hubble Space Telescope.

They have a song about the Doppler effect ("That always gets a really good response from the crowd," said Boyd) and one about comets called "A Little Bit of Rock," that Alan wrote - which was nominated for a Contemporary A Cappella Recording Award (CARA).

Together the Chromatics have released three recordings. In 1998 they received a NASA Initiative to Develop Education through Astronomy (IDEA) grant to produce "Astrocappella," an educational album featuring six of the group's science related songs, which they then gave away free to schools all over the world.

In September the group released "Astrocappella 2.0," which added seven new songs to the original six along with games, movies, images and lesson plans in a CDROM format.

"We like to think of it like a 'Schoolhouse Rock' kind of thing," said Deb.

Tough contest

Backstage before the competition, voices from the other dressing rooms drifted out in the common area and meshed in an incomprehensible cacophonous swirl. The discordance had an unnerving effect. The Chromatics shifted nervously.

The competition this year was fierce.

"There always seems to be a group from Disney World competing," said Karen Smale, "and they're always very good."

To warm up, the group decided to sing their song "High Energy Groove," an upbeat tune about x-ray astronomy, gamma rays and black holes. Boyd sang lead, as she does on many of the songs, vocalizing the different forms of radiation on the light spectrum while the others "oo-ed" and "ahh-ed" or chanted phrases like, "Hot photons, those hot, hot photons."

"That was only half of it," Deb said when they finished. "We cut the stuff about pulsars."

The Chromatics performed well, but when the results were announced later that evening, they were not on the list. In first place were the Tone Rangers who, in their bio, referred to themselves as "policy wonks, computer geeks, and lawmen by day" and a "barely domesticated group of free-spirited a cappella songsters" by night.

A Disney World group called 4 Girls Only came in second.

When asked later if the Chromatics would enter the contest again next year Boyd said, "I doubt it actually. It's a lot of prep time for just 10 minutes. We'll probably just do more shows. We're a lot busier than most of the other groups."

Indeed, the group's next performance on March 23 has them singing in a planetarium accompanied by a laser light show.

Weeks after the competition, Meyer had a hard time deciding what was more difficult, satellite engineering or singing a cappella.

"It takes a lot of thinking to sing like that. It's very mathematical - working with the chords and with the intervals and how those intervals work with the tones and overtones," he said.

Then he added, "It's like a science thing. I guess that's why we like it so much."

Reach staff writer Stephen Snyder at 410-857-7862 or

Upcoming concert The Chromatics perform live at 8 p.m., March 23, at Montgomery College's Planetarium at 1600 Takoma Avenue in Takoma. They will perform their original astronomy music accompanied by a laser light show. The performance is free and open to the public. For more information call 301-650-1463.

For more information about the Chromatics visit their Web site at For more information about their album Astrocappella 2.0 visit

©Carroll County Online 2002