By Kevin Gray
April 17, 1995 12:00 PM

IF ROBERT WINTER’S LIFE HAD A soundtrack, its tempo would be allegretto, its strings pizzicato—a bracing rush of sound and sense like that awaiting users of his acclaimed CD-ROMs on the lives and masterworks of great composers. “I’m perpetually manic,” says the UCLA music professor, scrambling around his Santa Monica garage amid a tangle of computer hardware, power cords and pianos, “but, importantly, not out of control.”

No. If anything, he is control central. With $50,000 in equipment crammed into a 400-square-foot home studio, Winter has set the interactive music industry on its ear. His multimedia discs, each dissecting a pivotal composition and its creator—from Mozart’s Dissonant Quartet to Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring—are international hits, and his CD-ROM on Beethoven’s Ninth has sold an estimated 125,000 copies. His latest creation, Antonín Dvo?ák: Symphony No. 9 from the New World, has established a new standard for the medium. The New York Times called it “astonishing.”

For Winter—a guy with a Frank Zappa goatee who puts Jimi Hendrix on a par with Franz Liszt—that’s sweet music. Standing apart from the high-tech tinkerers who dominate the software industry, Winter, 49, cares less about computers themselves than about how he can use them to share his love of music and learning. “The weird thing about me in this world is that I’m actually a content person,” he says. “I know stuff and can do stuff and can play stuff.”

That wasn’t always the case. Preferring baseball to Bach, he took an early dislike to music. Growing up in Coral Gables, Fla., the third of four children born to Bob Winter, a mechanic turned engineer for Pan Am, and his wife, Lois, a parole office assistant, he was so turned off by piano lessons that he used his bike tires to spray gravel at his teacher’s car. The only boy among three sisters, he says, “I thought piano was for sissies.”

He changed his tune while studying physics at Brown University in the mid-’60s. One night in his sophomore year, he met a young woman who performed Mozart for him in the dorm lounge, and he was transfixed. “I had an epiphany,” recalls Winter. “I was like, ‘Oh, that’s what I’m going to do with my life.’ ” Two years later he graduated with a B.A. in music.

After earning his Ph.D. in music at the University of Chicago, Winter studied music in Europe for two years on a Fulbright fellowship, landed at UCLA in 1974 and eventually became head of the music department. Winter is no snob. In 1983 he befriended a high school janitor whom he met at a concert and who needed $400 to complete his first album. Together, they performed a benefit show—thus launching janitor Dwight Yoakam toward stardom. “He played Mozart, and I played hillbilly,” Yoakam recalls. “We found we shared a passion for music.”

That passion eventually led Winter to explore the world of interactive media. In 1989, a friend gave him an early CD-ROM machine, and, he says, “I had a sense that here were the keys to the kingdom.” What sets Winter’s work apart from other music CD-ROMs is the dizzying array of material and his social commentary. Click on the Dvo?ák CD-ROM, and the New World Symphony begins to play, the score highlighted on the screen. Click again and you can see pictures of U.S. cities as they appeared when Dvo?ák visited them in the 19th century. In all, the CD-ROM contains more than 800 pages of letters, maps, press reviews and original documents, all woven together by Winter’s sense of order. “He’s a maniac,” says Joseph Horowitz, executive director of the Brooklyn Philharmonic. “He devoured [the material], and it devoured him.”

Now that Winter has fine-tuned his CD-ROM expertise with the classics, he wants to venture into new territory. “I’d love to do a Pearl Jam title,” he says. With business partner Jay Heifetz, son of late famed violinist Jascha, he plans to release, via their Calliope Media company, three new CD-ROMs on various topics next year. They also plan to move operations out of Winter’s house, where he lives with wife Julia, 47, and their daughter Kelly, 7, and into a small nearby studio. That would at least give Winter more room, though he seems perfectly adapted to his hot-wired home. Tooling through a maze of wires, he stops a moment to consider his future. “I do what I do because it’s fun,” he says. “The idea that learning isn’t meant to be fun—the no-pain, no-gain theory—is crap. This is a blast!”


KURT PITZER in Los Angeles