DATE: SUNDAY, February 8, 1998
SECTION: Sunday Magazine
SOURCE: By John Yemma, Globe Staff


Christopher Raphael admits that what he is doing is like trying to catch starlight in a bottle. His quest to teach a computer to perform a musical accompaniment can be easily mistaken as scientific hubris. But despite his doctorate in mathematics and his expertise in computer science, Raphael is no coldhearted numbers cruncher out to back-engineer the most ineffable of the Muses' gifts. He is a lifelong musician, a concert oboist who has played in the Santa Cruz Symphony, in California, and is currently a member of the Pioneer Valley Symphony, in Amherst.

All his life, Raphael has had an intimate connection with music. His parents, he says, were ``opera fiends.'' He was not a child prodigy, but he was good enough on the oboe to win a San Francisco Symphony young artist's competition at age 17.

When he thinks about his favorite piece, Mozart's clarinet quintet, Raphael closes his eyes tight, hearing the sound in his mind, savoring the memory. Beautiful music, says this 37-year-old professor of mathematics at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, ``is a spiritual experience.''

He is not interested in robotizing music, but he is adept enough as a musician to know what a trap it is to romanticize sound, to believe only in the beauty of a note or a passage and not the story it is telling. It is looks over content, prettiness over intelligence.

And that is why this mathematician who deeply loves music is sitting in front of a complex string of computer commands on a Sun Microsystems Sparc Ultra 1 workstation in his office on the 14th floor of a UMass research tower.

``I suspect there will be opposition to this in the music community,'' Raphael says somewhat sheepishly. ``Musicians are very suspicious of technical encroachment on their domain. They'll ask, `Why would anyone want to take the human component out of music?' But I'm trying to make music more accessible to people.''

He calls his project ``Music Plus One.'' When he was growing up in California, Raphael used a popular training record called ``Music Minus One,'' on which, typically, a violin sonata or piano concerto had been recorded twice -- once with both the soloist and the accompaniment and once without the soloist. The idea was that a student would play the missing solo while the record supplied the accompaniment.

``Music Minus One'' is still around, but, says Raphael, the idea is fundamentally flawed. The soloist ends up following the accompaniment, which is, of course, backward. Raphael's aim is to create a computerized accompaniment that is true, that responds to the human soloist's nuances and phrasing, that learns from a rehearsal, incorporates the soloist's interpretations into future renditions -- and through it all remains flexible to subtle and impromptu changes in a performance. He wants a musician playing alone to get the benefit of true accompaniment, even if he or she cannot be part of an ensemble.

You probably think a computer can already do this, given the prolific world of digital sound, the commonplace use of music synthesizers, and the other wonders we expect from computers on a regular basis. But providing true musical accompaniment is not an easy task. A computer needs to be operating in real time, listening to a solo, analyzing it, anticipating what will come next, and creating appropriate music on an electronic keyboard without missing a beat.

You can hear how well Raphael has mastered this task at his Web site (http// on Robert Schumann's Pieces in Folk Song Style. That's Raphael on the oboe, leading the way, the Sun workstation doing a nice job of staying with him. But not nice enough. The accompanist should not simply be in sync with the soloist, Raphael says. The accompaniment needs to make musical sense by itself.

So, for now, he has ``the hood up'' on his program while he tries to devise an algorithm that models what a human player would do during a performance. ``There is room for tremendous expression in live performances,'' Raphael says. ``I'm trying to learn what are the elements that create a feeling of legato, a feeling of crescendo -- all the musical notions that are not phrased in physical terms.

``I want to see if a machine can make music that people find aesthetically pleasing,'' he says. ``This is part of the broader goal of learning how much can be accomplished by a machine.''

Mathematicians tend to be drawn to music. In recent years, psychologists have outlined what they call the ``Mozart effect,'' the salutory connection between listening to certain types of classical music and performing abstract and spatial reasoning. Music and math ability, they theorize, reside onthe same side of the brain.

Though many mathematicians are music fans, few musicians are math fans. Raphael was not especially interested in math until college, but at Northwestern University's Conservatory of Music, he found himself drawn to math courses. Math, oddly, became his salvation, his escape from the tyranny of musical perfectionism that was beginning to rule his life.

At home, Raphael still labors over the arduous reed-making required of a true oboist -- the careful selection of the material, and the gouging, shaping, folding, scraping, and inevitable discarding of most of the reeds before the right one is found. He practices regularly. ``Never for a second,'' he says, ``have I doubted my deep love of music.''

He loves math, too -- its precision, its rarefied aesthetic. Art needs science. A good solo needs strong accompaniment.