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Byte-ing Into Beethoven : UCLA's Robert Winter used to be one of those celebrity professors whose class everyone wanted to take. No problem getting in now. Just boot up your CD-ROM player.

February 19, 1995|David Colker | David Colker is a staff writer for The Times' Valley edition and writes the Cyburbia column in Life & Style

The drab classroom in UCLA's Schoenberg Hall was in a loud, joyful state of pandemonium.

Just after the halftime break in the graduate seminar "Performance Practices of the Romantic Era," students were surprised to be teamed into groups of twos and threes to pore over various printed editions of a Schubert song. They were to search for clues as to which edition might be the closest to what the composer had intended before the piece was altered by assorted copyists and publishers.

And they had just 10 minutes to come up with the answer.

There was a lot of laughter in the room, amid harried discussions over musical markings, translations and publishers' imprints. And to make the scene all the more chaotic, the ringmaster of these proceedings--a tall, curly-haired professor who seemed to be in almost constant motion--picked out two pianists and a soprano from the student group to perform the song cold at a baby grand piano, filling the room with music.

"Think of this as our version of 'The Gong Show,' " the professor called out to the students as the clock kept ticking.

It was only the fourth meeting of this seminar, but these students--some of whom had already studied in European conservatories--had become used to the fact that Robert Winter's classes would be like none they had taken. And they had grasped that as unorthodox as his methods seem, they're all geared toward one basic goal--to break students of thinking of a piece of music as an isolated entity simply to be studied and performed.

During this particular exercise, Winter, 49, darted back and forth between groups, offering encouragement and hints, all meant to show that a detail as seemingly insignificant as a change in publisher can be of interest when interpreting a piece of music.

And during the balance of the three-hour class, most of which was taught in a somewhat more traditional manner, Winter cited references as diverse as 19th-Century arts criticism, Jerry Lee Lewis, the penmanship of composer Hector Berlioz and the O.J. Simpson trial to show that music only gets richer when it is viewed in the context of myriad connections past and present.

"If the brain is a system of neural networks," he explained later that day, "then learning ought to be a system of putting things together, relating them one to another."


Winter's style and message have made him one of the best-known music educators in the country today. His home base is UCLA, where he has taught since 1974, and he has appeared in lecture series across the country. He has done program series on Mozart and Beethoven for public radio and is the host of a series of videos of orchestra performances recently released by BMG.

After his talk two years ago at a Schubert symposium in New York, Mark Swed wrote in the Wall Street Journal that Winter "is probably the best public explicator of music since Leonard Bernstein."

Nevertheless, for the most part, Winter's fame has not spread far beyond music appreciation circles. Unlike the fatherly Bernstein of the groundbreaking "Young People's Concerts" on television in the 1950s and 1960s, Winter has more the demeanor of a frenetic stand-up comic. Still, on radio or in a live presentation, he can give only a small sampling of the connections rambling around his head, lest he lose his audience.

"Sometimes I think I spend my whole life trying to put the world together, looking for the connections between things," Winter said in an interview, spreading his supple pianist fingers wide, as if to show that the connections are never ending.

"There is such a mosaic of thousands of connections, that if someone says, 'I like hip-hop, and I like Haydn String Quartets, but I think of them as separated, segmented repertoires,' I can show them that it's all connected."

But the connections are so numerous and complex that from the teacher's podium, or on videos or radio, he has never been able to present them in a complete form without overwhelming an audience. And though he could write a book on the cross-references, the work still would be so ungainly that it would probably be no fun for anyone but the most committed scholar. Until recently, there was no way to duplicate Winter's "neural network" of intertwined thoughts and themes in a palatable way.

But now, the man has met his medium: the CD-ROM.

Using digital discs that can provide a mix of text, graphics, animation, live-action video and quality stereo sound on a home computer, Winter has already created four highly praised programs, each of which explores a single major piece of music.

Using his CD-ROM programs, one can hear Antonin Dvorak's "From the New World" symphony, as played by the Vienna Philharmonic, and at the same time watch the score go by on the computer screen or read a running commentary as the music progresses. The CD-ROM also includes thousands of pages of text and hundreds of music cues, all of which can be accessed to learn more about the piece.

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