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No One Laughs When David Mcley Sits Down at the Keyboard: His Computer Knows How to Score

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If Franz Schubert had owned a McLeyvier, the Unfinished Symphony might have been finished after all. Or so says Toronto musician David McLey, 34, whose combination computer, sound synthesizer, printer and keyboard may do the same thing for the painstaking process of musical composition that Gutenberg’s invention did for literary composition.

The McLeyvier (a coy reference to the clavier instrument) not only allows a budding Bach to compose at the keyboard but also lets him fiddle with his score onscreen, receive sheet music printouts, and consign a composition to the computer’s memory. Twelve years in the making, the McLeyvier is capable of storing 4,000 sounds—everything from a jet plane’s takeoff to a 128-piece orchestra—and it can take a composition for tuba and play it at the desired tempo as performed by harp. Composers needn’t be versed in computer lingo, since McLey’s machine speaks English (a mistake, for instance, prompts a good-natured “Huh?”). “The only restriction,” boasts McLey, “is your imagination.” Another possible restriction is the wherewithal to purchase a McLeyvier: Models range in price from $24,000 to $70,000.

Born in rural Trenton, Mo., the son of a U.S. Department of Agriculture administrator, David always “wanted to do things my way—the hell with all the books.” His computer expertise is indeed self-taught, but his musical training is more traditional—he earned a B.M. in piano performance from Chicago’s American Conservatory of Music. A prolific composer, McLey has scored several films, a radio play and numerous commercials. “I’m motivated to produce decent art,” he says, “even when it’s the music behind a throbbing pimple in a Clearasil commercial.” An unapologetic eccentric, the twice-divorced McLey lives in a nine-room house overlooking Lake Ontario and shares his bedroom with a pet python. He expects to deliver 100 McLeyviers this year and envisions an ever-expanding market for music-making computers. “Eventually computers could write their own music,” he figures. “At least the smart ones could. The sluggish ones could do bookkeeping.”