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A Man of Many Numbers : * Caltech: Mathemetician and JPL scientist Leslie Deutsch is also an accomplished music composer and performer.

March 05, 1992|EDMUND NEWTON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LA CANADA FLINTRIDGE — When Caltech administrators decided that somebody should write a piece of music to commemorate the school's centennial, there was really only one man for the job: a breezy mathematician who communicates with spacecraft at the edge of the solar system for the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Leslie Deutsch is one of the world's premier scientists in the field of digital signal processing, whose practitioners can capture bits of information transmitted electronically by Voyager, Galileo and other space exploring craft and translate them, pixel by pixel, into high-resolution pictures.

Deutsch is also a syncopatin' sideman, whose Dixieland riffs on trumpet and piano have graced jazz festivals in such places as Pocatello, Ida., and Seaside, Ore., and a composer of serious orchestral music. He's also been a major part of the Caltech music scene since he entered the school as a freshman in 1972.

Because of his range of interests and expertise, the 36-year-old Caltech graduate and Ph.D. holder is a source of wonder to many of his JPL colleagues.

"You don't get to where he is at his age without being somewhat different from the rest of us," says Laif Swanson, who supervises a JPL research group on information theory that is administered by Deutsch. "My theory is that he just skipped being a teen-ager. He went from 10 to 20 and saved himself some years in there."

Is there some mysterious connection between his scientific and musical proclivities? Deutsch isn't quite sure.

"Math tends to be very abstract, like music," says Deutsch, a brisk, fast-talking man with an eroding hairline, during a rare timeout in his office at JPL. "The things you work with you can only imagine. You don't work with solid things."

But there's nothing particularly abstract about Deutsch's "Centennial Suite for Band," a jazz-inflected classical composition that premiered last May during centennial observances in a performance by the Caltech Wind Ensemble.

Deutsch himself will conduct the piece today at a concert by the Caltech-Occidental Band in Thorne Auditorium on the Occidental College campus.

He wrote the suite directly from his experiences as an undergraduate at Caltech, he says. "It's an impressionistic piece--four moods in the Caltech life cycle."

"The first movement, 'Fanfare,' shows the awe of students entering Caltech. Then there's 'Ruckus,' showing the high pressures of the Caltech lifestyle. 'Chorale,' representing the brief moments of calm in a student's life, is the least realistic of the movements. 'March' suggests how the student feels when he knows he's going to graduate."

Bill Bing, Caltech's director of instrumental music and the one who persuaded Deutsch to write the piece and then directed its premiere, calls it "an absolutely delightful composition." Like all of Deutsch's music, Bing says, it is never too brainy or high-toned to be accessible to average listeners.

"I hesitate to use the word genius, which I think we should use very sparingly," says Bing of his former student. "But I've told people that, if I've ever met a genius, I'd have to put Les in that category."

Deutsch seemed to be winging toward an eclectically creative life from early childhood. His father, Ralph Deutsch, was a trumpet-playing physicist and mathematician who became intrigued by the notion of using computers to enhance music and musical instruments.

The elder Deutsch eventually set up a company in his San Fernando Valley home to develop digitally computerized instruments, and he began turning out inventions, including the first digital organ.

Leslie Deutsch himself holds more than two dozen patents for electronic music devices and software, with names like "polyphonic musical tone generator" (a fundamental part of a synthesizer) and "octave phase decoupling in an electronic musical instrument" (a device to make electronic music sound more like acoustic music).

The Deutsch household in Sherman Oaks resounded with classical music, and young Leslie took organ and trumpet lessons. He was never interested in rock 'n' roll, he says, because the music wasn't challenging.

"The thing I didn't like about popular music was that there wasn't much that was intellectual in the composition," he says.

But jazz, particularly the complex big band arrangements of the 1970s, grabbed him in high school. "Some of the music of Buddy Rich and Don Ellis almost had a classical feeling," he says.

By the time he got to Caltech, he was writing compositions of his own. Bing remembers Deutsch as a fresh-faced undergraduate member of the Caltech Jazz Band, who had an almost uncanny facility for playing a variety of musical instruments.

"The first year, I think, he played sax," Bing says. "Then, the next year, we needed a keyboard player, so he played keyboard. One year, he played trumpet. With the Wind Ensemble, he played everything from tuba to flute."

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