Robert Winter

robert winter head shot

By Ray Sawhill

Robert Winter is not out for a lazy country drive. He’s changing lanes as often as staying in them. He outguns one driver, noses in front of another, rams to a stop, then blasts off again. All the while, this hyperanimated, goateed figure – he has Frank Zappa looks, minus the built-in satire – is babbling excitedly, free-associating, cracking jokes, telling indiscreet stories.

This is a distinguished music professor? A former head of the University of California at Los Angeles music department? A classical music scholar?

Well, certainly not your traditional example. Winter is part of a new generation of scholars who are reinventing music studies. Adoring the tradition of Western music while despising the hierarchical thinking that makes a monument of it, he’s a fire-breathing reformer with scathing opinions about what he calls the “music-appreciation racket.” His head’s as full of Middle Eastern music and Tupac Shakur as it is of Schubert. When he teaches a survey class, “The Art of Listening,” he brings local performers — from rappers to string quartets — into the classroom with him. It’s one of the university’s most popular courses; students not only fill the 565 seats in the hall but also jam the aisles.

At the same time, he’s among the first masters of multimedia. His CD-ROM programs – on Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, Mozart’s “Dissonant” Quartet, Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, and, most recently, Antonín Dvorák’s From the New World symphony – are knockouts good enough to justify the purchase of a CD-ROM setup. These are some of the most satisfying discs Winter’s publisher, The Voyager Company, has produced.

Recently, Winter decided to make a run at digital mogulhood. He reduced his duties at UCLA and informed Voyager’s Bob Stein that he was splitting to form his own company with Jay Heifetz, the marketing/distribution executive and son of the legendary violinist Jascha. The new company will be called Calliope Media — “We swore we wouldn’t be part of a company with the words ‘digital,’ ‘technology,’ or ‘interactive’ in its name” — after both the Greek muse of epic poetry and the steam-driven, wheezy musical instrument. Their vision for Calliope? “We want to be the premier arts and humanities company in the digital world,” says Winter. “No less. I’ve too often heard Voyager spoken of as appealing to a niche market. We hope to persuade people that the arts and humanities aren’t desserts but main courses.”

Winter and Heifetz anticipate that their first titles will become available in late 1995. Among them: one by Winter on ragtime, and another by Richard Lanham, author of The Electronic Word, on the roots and evolution of multimedia and interactivity, tentatively titled From the Greeks to the Geeks.

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What makes Winter’s CD-ROMs stand out is the way his mind and the technology synchronize. Winter isn’t out to dazzle or show off the technology. (Elegantly designed in black and white, the programs score notably low on the whiz-bang scale; they aren’t out just to make you exclaim, “Cool!”) He uses the technology to convey a new vision of music.

He does so with a teacher’s knowledge of what you need to know and when you need to know it, and a performer’s knack for dramatizing his points. (When’s the last time you met a scholar who cites as influences the Marx Brothers, Truffaut, and Spielberg?) You don’t set his CD-ROMs aside when you’ve exhausted the gimmicks; you keep coming back to them. There always seems to be more intellectual matter — more substance — to uncover.

Winter wants you to see music from a variety of angles – political, social, and historical as well as purely musical. For him, classical music isn’t a matter for lofty connoisseurship; it’s a springboard for exploration and for making connections. “I want to start a discussion,” is what he says when asked what drives him – then later: “I want to transform people.”

Command central for Winter’s campaign is his production studio — the 400-square-foot garage of the small Santa Monica house he shares with his wife, Julia Winter, their daughter, Kelly, and Cairn terrier, Teddy. The studio is crammed with books, CDs, monitors, three different music keyboards, Mac equipment, and a CD-ROM mastering machine. “Of course they’re scared,” he says gleefully of print publishing houses and movie studios. “In multimedia, there’s nothing Paramount or Random House can do with their millions that I can’t do with my US$50,000 worth of equipment.” When people call to ask about how to get started in multimedia, he advises: “Guerrilla teams and no overhead.”

This afternoon, he’s putting finishing touches on the Dvorák piece and thinking about future projects. After the ragtime disc, he wants to do a general musical reference, a disc on Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, and beyond that, The Birth of Rock ‘n’ Roll that will begin with Robert Johnson and work up to 1954. He envisions 16 songs, dozens of other examples, interviews, printed primary sources, video clips. “The thing I can do that people who write about rock generally can’t is talk about the music. When you hear Chuck Berry do ‘Maybellene,’ there is a certain kind of rhythmic impulse in the way in which the subdominant functions and the melodic apex is reached. That may sound very technical, but it’s not. It’s rooted in performance.”

Winter is exhilarated by digital technology. In the new medium, he finds, he doesn’t have to fight the tedious old cultural-literacy battles. They’re irrelevant, and the results are implicit in the technology, so he’s free to go on and realize his own ideas. Winter calls the computer “the ultimate postmodern machine – intrinsically playful and unstable.” Even so, he’s less of a Utopian than many of the digital futurists and propagandists: “The good guys may not win. I saw what the so-called ‘promise of FM’ turned into – and look at FM radio today. All I’m saying is that in the digital world, talent and brains may have a slightly better chance of rising to the top.”

The son of Florida Republicans — “but really, really lovely people” — Winter grew up with no particular interest in music, and gave no evidence of special musical talents beyond a good ear. He lettered in three sports in high school and briefly considered a career as a professional baseball player before going to Brown University to study science.

“My father was an engineer, and it never occurred to me that boys did anything other than follow in their fathers’ footsteps.” He struggled joylessly his first year, earning Cs. Then, at a mixer one night, a classmate played part of a Mozart concerto. Within the week he switched majors to music; a year later, he says, he was playing a concerto himself in front of the school orchestra. Eventually he earned a master’s of Fine Arts in piano and a doctorate in the history and theory of music.

His next epiphany occurred more recently, in front of a computer screen. Bob Stein of Voyager had met Winter years before in one of Winter’s courses and told him he was a natural multimedia personality. “I had no idea what he meant,” recalls Winter. In 1989, Stein showed up at Winter’s house with a CD-ROM drive, hooked it up to a Macintosh, and demonstrated how the rig could provide onscreen buttons that could take him in less than a second to the exact micro-instant on a CD where he wanted to be.

“I knew then and there that this was my medium,” Winter recalls. Within a couple of months, he and Stein had roughed out a sketch of his Beethoven’s Ninth disc for Voyager and designed the interface. At the high-powered TED conference in 1990, Winter gave a demo of the program before an audience that included Microsoft’s Bill Gates. The crowd reacted ecstatically. “We’ve finally seen what CD-ROM was made for,” said Gates, who has since licensed the Winter programs to produce PC versions.

The Dvorák program is Winter’s richest yet. He takes you into the music’s structure, including a measure-by-measure analysis of the complete score. And he leads you out into the larger world of the era, using the music to “provide a window on cultural history.” Like his other programs, the Dvorák disc is part engaging (if rudimentary) videogame, part major work of scholarship. You click around among historical chapters, a breakdown of the piece’s structure, a glossary that’s really a collection of short essays about music, dozens of demonstrations and examples, and more than 800 pages of original documents – press accounts, reviews, letters. Sitting at your computer, your head buzzing with information, ideas, and music, you feel you’re in a room with records, books, scores, and an exciting teacher — all right there with you — and every bit of it is available to you at the click of a mouse.

The complex Dvorák is an ideal subject for Winter’s multiple-perspectives treatment. Dvorák was a larger-than-life, beer-guzzling fount of creativity who shocked proper New York during his 1890s visit by asserting that America’s greatest musical resources were its African and Native American traditions. It says something about this moment in cultural history that the most valuable work available on a figure as protean as Dvorák should be not a book but rather a computer program.

The press has received Winter’s discs enthusiastically. The Los Angeles Herald Examiner wrote, “It takes us directly up to Beethoven’s worktable, and lays bare the whole creative process.” The New York Times says, “A master teacher is the guide … an ideal musical companion.” MacUser included all three of Winter’s discs then available on its 1993 list of the top 50 CD-ROMs.

Winter calculates that he and the team at Voyager, including then-editor-in-chief Jane Wheeler and programmer Steve Riggins, along with independent designer/programmer Peter Bogdanoff, put 2,500 hours into creating the Dvorák disc. They included an impressive amount of scholarly sleuthing. One standard academic source that Winter consulted stated that a famous Dvorák protégé, Harry T. Burleigh – the black musician who brought gospel into the concert hall – had never been recorded. This claim intrigued Winter, who knew that Burleigh hadn’t died until 1948. Following up on some rumors, he finally located a recording in the possession of a music collector in Connecticut. “How did you ever find me?” the man asked. Winter included the complete recording on the disc.

If Winter’s an immaculately pedigreed academic, he’s also a renegade intellectual in the tradition of Norman O. Brown, Glenn Gould, Paul Goodman, and Pauline Kael – original yet accessible thinkers with a taste for intellectual roughhousing. The only other comparable figure working today may be Camille Paglia, but unlike Paglia, with her kamikaze dives for traditional media celebrity, Winter uses the alternative life of the Internet, bulletin boards on CompuServe, and computer conventions. He addresses crowds at computer shows and carries on monster e-mail correspondences. He’s probably the first major intellectual to have given up traditional print publishing for digital; his CD-ROMs aren’t hobbies, they’re his major works.

dvorak contents

Winter’s live presentations consist of nothing but a guy, his piano, and his mind, but your brain cells light up as bright as they do at any rock concert. He was once coaxed into giving a night school course by UCLA’s extension program. The first week he had 20 students; within a couple of years, the course was attracting hundreds. Eventually these talks were taped and broadcast nationally by American Public Radio. Winter doesn’t bring an outline or note card with him; his preparation consists of a look at the syllabus to see what needs covering. Then he wings it.

In his classroom at UCLA, he’s a flamboyant, ebullient figure in a burgundy silk shirt – “To the hard rock world I’m probably a meek little professorial type; to the musicology world, I’m Mick Jagger,” he says. He paces as he talks, lunging to the piano to illustrate points, or to the Macintosh to play portions of his CD-ROMs. (When he heads to campus he carries bulging canvas sacks containing, among other things, a portable CD-ROM drive and a PowerBook.) He’s charismatic but accessible, making connections not just intellectual but personal. Trying to convey the political content of Beethoven’s Napoleon-besotted Eroica symphony in a class, he realizes he has to make an even more basic point: music can be political. He asks one student whether she thinks Nirvana has any political import. She nods shyly but hopefully. Score! During breaks, the kids mill about, looking dizzied but happy.

A hookup to some invisible energy grid seems to pump an extra megawatt or two into Winter. “He’s always addressing an audience,” laughs one LA music scene old-timer. Winter explains, “I’m a borderline manic-depressive.” But he seems to live almost entirely on the up side of the hyphen and to have no trouble focusing the energy. He roars through breakneck 18- and 19-hour days, pausing occasionally for brief naps that “take all the garbage out.”

His wife, Julia, recalls a party when a stranger asked her if she had “any stuff.” It took her a second to realize he was asking her for drugs. “You know,” the guy urged, “whatever it is your husband’s on.”

Copyright © 1993-2004 The Condé Nast Publications Inc. All rights reserved. Copyright © 1994-2003 Wired Digital, Inc. All rights reserved.