Ömer Eğecioğlu, a native of Turkey, joined the UCSB faculty in 1985. Since founding the College of Creative Studies’ Computer Science program in 1994, he has split his time between both the Computer Science department and CCS. He earned his Bachelor of Science in Mathematics from the Middle East Technical University in Ankara, Turkey. Following his move stateside in 1978 to attend graduate school at the University of Minnesota for Computer Science and Mathematics, Ömer ventured to California and earned a PhD from UCSD in Mathematics in 1984.
We were able to sit down with him to learn about his experiences with CCS and the musical side of him that many – if not most – of his students and colleagues probably do not know.
Tell us about the beginning of the CCS Computing Program.
Well, it all started back in 1992 when Roger Wood, who was a professor of Computer Engineering, asked me if I would be interested in working with the brilliant students in CCS. After I agreed, Roger and Adrian Wenner, the Dean of CCS at the time (editor’s note: Wenner was the Provost of CCS—the Provost’s responsibilities transferred to the position of Dean in 2006) and I discussed the possibilities. We came to the conclusion that it would be a good fit and so I got to work on setting up the major in the College. After two years of building the curriculum and working with Peter Cappello, Murat Karaorman and Provost Bill Ashby, we introduced our first computer in 1994. That is how this whole thing started. In the almost 25 years of the program, we have had many interesting and very smart students. Now called ‘Computing,’ it is the 8th of the CCS programs, which used to be a CCS ‘emphasis.’ It is healthier than ever before and doing extremely well. The tremendous demand for computing makes our applicant pool very wide.
How has the program changed since its inception in 1994?
In my opinion, it has changed for the better. For one thing, the campus showed its appreciation by expanding the major’s faculty, specifically hiring Phill Conrad. It also is helpful that younger kids are now exposed to computing related activities and computer programming much earlier in life, developing their interests. By the time they hear of CCS, they have already established an understanding of, and enthusiasm for, computing. This allows us to get a much wider and more comprehensive group of potential students. I was looking at my files in the early 90’s, when I used to make up a Computer Science exam as an additional exam for high school students. In those years we extended offers to the students who performed well on the test.
So back then you had to actively look to bring people into the program?
Yes, that is correct. Back then the dedicated CCS math faculty member Charles Ryavec was giving exams to California high school students to search for quality applicants. I ended up doing the same thing for my program. That was the only way to get good students back then. Now it is entirely word of mouth. People know how good we are and how fantastic a place CCS is. The only type of networking we do now is to invite students to come and see for themselves, to come and visit us. Once they come sit in on a few lectures, talk to the current students, and check out our campus, they get hooked on the collegial atmosphere of the CCS.
What is the next step for the program?
We are lucky that the program is stable and increasing – but not much! The next step will be to extend our course offerings and coordinate with the other programs in the College. Right now it is difficult for students in the other majors to take Computing classes. We are looking at ways to make this easier. As it is, computer science has become increasingly universal, everybody uses it, and so we have to be able to serve everybody else in the College, as well as our cognate department in the College of Engineering. Eventually, we would like to cater, at least the basics, to everybody in CCS.
What do you enjoy most about being on faculty at CCS?
I enjoy being around the students – they are amazing. You know, we have our annual mid-residency reviews where the students show off what they have been doing for the last few years. These presentations are always incredible and blow my mind. With just a little bit of guidance, CCS students can do wonderful things. They aren’t here to just get an ‘A’ or ‘B’, they just really want to learn and understand concepts and start contributing. This is where creativity comes in. The faculty personally know and advise each student individually. The students are very capable and know what they are doing. It is the intimate atmosphere of the College and the advising process that makes all the difference. And did I mention that the students are all so bright?
How did you get into the field of Computer Science?
Although I have been working in Computer Science, I actually come from a math background and have my PhD in mathematics. When I started my graduate studies at the University of Minnesota, I started studying both math and computer science. I didn’t realize that the likelihood of someone getting two PhDs was/is very remote – it is just too difficult to do. When I arrived at UC San Diego, the professors told me I had to choose between the two subjects. I chose math, but I focused on the computer applications of it. The kind of work I do is between Math and Computer Science.
In addition to CCS, you also have an interest in musical history. Tell us about that.
I started researching topics in classical music back in the early 2000’s. I guess it all started when I set out on writing the definitive book on Franz Liszt’s 1847 visit to Constantinople (Istanbul), which, by the way, I have yet to finish. While I was in the process of doing research and collecting documents, often I got distracted with something new. I would read an interesting fact, which I would be compelled to follow. So I would put the whole project on the back burner while I branched out and researched the new topic. For example, while conducting research on Franz Liszt in an Istanbul library I came across this article about J. Strauss and a piece of music in the archives dedicated to an Ottoman sultan. The article talked about letters written, in French, back-and-forth between Strauss and the Ottoman palace. But Johann Strauss was from Vienna, so it shouldn’t have been written in French, I thought. Putting together all of the pieces became like detective work. I just had to write about this because it was so interesting and had so many moving parts. That particular J. Strauss turned out to be the Parisian musician Isaac Strauss, who used the name Jules Strauss! I ended up writing a whole book on the various Strausses and the pieces of music they dedicated to the Ottoman dynasty.
How do you normally pick the subjects you write about?
Typically I try to find a bit that interests me. It is normally either something not known enough or something not known correctly. It could be the story of the Italian sopranists or the bogus ring that Beethoven received from the king of Prussia or how Felix Mendelssohn accompanied a singing Queen Victoria at the Buckingham Palace, or how Leonardo Vinci (without the ‘da’) the composer of over thirty operas died by poisoned chocolate. I research the topic, which, by the way, is certainly easier now because some things you can immediately look up on the Internet. But when it comes down to it you still have to do real in-person research, talk to people, dig up documents, do translations and connect the dots. Not everything you want is on the Internet and what’s worse, what is there isn’t always correct. So I have found that it is still important to actually go down to the primary sources to do reliable research. I suppose this comes from my science education.
You also write about opera, correct?
Yes, that is correct. I have always enjoyed the opera and so I started writing reviews of various works. Most of them, of course, were in Los Angeles because that is what is close to us. Whenever there was an interesting opera I would watch it and write about it. I have written about interesting opera houses as well, like the ones in Oslo, São Paulo, Göteborg, Drottningholm, and even the Teatro Amazonas in Manaus, which appears in the cult movie Fitzcarraldo. I have also had the opportunity to interview a number of fairly well known composers, opera directors and singers.
How did you get started interviewing these musicians? Was it based on your reviews?
Yes, and I think they could tell I was really interested. Normally, it is awfully difficult to reach these people as their time is really valuable, so it is hard to get them to commit. I have been very lucky to have met the Mexican-American composer Daniel Catán. He turned out to be a very nice person with a family history going back to Istanbul and we became friends. I interviewed him and he invited me to his premieres, like Il Postino with Plácido Domingo. This was the segue into the whole thing. Then I interviewed Kent Nagano, John Neschling, Verónica Villarroel, Angela Meade and Jake Heggie among others.
Where do these articles appear?
Some of them get published in professional journals. These works are quite technical and they get peer-reviewed. But for the most part they appear in magazines, mostly opera-ballet-musicology focused publications printed in Turkey. They are written in English, Turkish or sometimes both. It is curious that I have an article that appeared in Romanian.
Is there anything that stands out about the musicians that you have interviewed?
What I am most impressed with is when I talk to them they are extremely gracious and are overall friendly people. It is a common sentiment that these high-powered artists have attitude problems, but my interactions with them have always been quite pleasant. It makes the interviews very enjoyable for me to do.
Are there any parallels between your science background and your music research?
Well, the fact that I try to be really meticulous when it comes down to writing, definitely helps me publish articles easily, with very little criticism and editorial interference. Since I come from a science background, to me, anything I write has to be backed by a proof of sorts – why something is what I say it is. Of course, writing music history does not exactly work this way. Nevertheless, whenever I give something that is definite (a date or statement), I try and back it up by a reliable reference. This makes my writing seem heavy or dense – if not boring. But I have neither the aspiration nor the ability to write literature; I just try to give information about something, albeit without using colorful statements. I focus on what is, rather than the fluff. So my writings are a bit didactic sounding.
Here is the thing; most people think that you have to lock into a particular way of looking at things, the scientific way or the artistic way. In one, people think you must be a cold, calculating, unromantic mechanicus; in the other, words are words and they don’t really matter too much. Of course, we don’t have to choose either one of these because we are all much more complicated as human beings. Our interests lie in many different areas. We may not have the time to do everything, so we may have to choose something to make a living, but this does not mean that we should put blinders on and do nothing else. The music work, which is outside of my real work, is an outlet that makes me look at life in a slightly different way. It is enriching to feel not locked up in a role that is one-dimensional.
Dr. Eğecioğlu (center) with Dr. Tiffney (right) and Dr. Ashby (left)
Most computer scientists wouldn’t even think about writing an article on the opera.
This is true, and it goes both ways. People think what they are doing is the answer to life’s problems and complexities and nothing else matters. This happens on both sides of the aisle –science and art. I think it is significantly more rewarding to spread your interests and do things in a way that fulfills a variety of your passions. If you can do this, it is much more meaningful and satisfying because you don’t get stuck focusing on one aspect of life. These passions are different for each of us, but I feel that what is most necessary is to develop passions to begin with.
What are you currently working on music-wise?
The latest article I have written is about a transcription, a violin-piano work, which Jascha Heifetz put together in 1928. This will appear in the winter issue of the journal The Musical Times. I recently interviewed Jake Heggie, a young and very successful American opera composer, who composed the operas Dead Man Walking and Moby Dick. I am invited to the premiere of his new opera, It’s a Wonderful Life, to take place this December in Houston. I hope to write about this. Additionally, I am slated to give a talk at the Goleta Public Library on The Barber of Seville in May 2017. So I am staying busy and I am quite excited for these events and hopefully others equally interesting in the near future. Oh, I also want to finish that book on Franz Liszt’s 1947 visit to Istanbul sometime.
To check out all of Ömer’s music related articles and interviews, visit his website at www.cs.ucsb.edu/~omer/. He keeps pointers to his musical work hidden behind the “Miscellaneous Publications” link.