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Kemal Ebcioğlu, lead guitarist, to the right

Kemal Ebcioğlu, a student at the Robert Academy in Istanbul, was only sixteen years old in 1971 when his band Optikler (referring to the corrective lenses worn by members of the group) won the Milliyet newspaper’s second annual contest of high school pop bands. The event was televised to an audience of over twenty thousand viewers, and the winners were announced in the newspaper the next morning under the headline “future stars are born.” Their set list at the finals included “Köylü Kizi” (“Country Girl” or “Farmer’s Daughter”), an original instrumental by Ebcioğl that included a fugal introduction guided by his lessons in counterpoint and harmony.

Following their initial success, Optikler played occasional live shows, and Ebcioğlu  composed Turkey’s entry in the 1975 Eurovision Song Contest. Unfortunately, “Seninle Bir Dakika” (“A Minute With You”) came in last place, but the nostalgic song has remained popular in Turkey, especially among the older segments of the population.

After emigrating to the United States, Ebcioğlu wrote a doctoral dissertation at the State University of New York/Buffalo (“An Expert System for Harmonization of Chorales in the Style of J. S. Bach”) that proposed an approach to creating a simple form of tonal music with a computer algorithm, based on simultaneous adherence to three principles:

  • Programming a comprehensive amount of knowledge about the desired musical style,
  • Using rigorous constraints to impose high musical quality and to rule out unacceptable solutions, efficiently utilizing a computer’s power for search and backtracking,
  • Using many style-specific heuristics to prioritize the algorithm’s choices when extending a partially created composition, given that rigorous constraints are not by themselves enough to generate beautiful music.

The resulting CHORAL project was awarded a two-year National Science Foundation grant. It featured a new logic programming language called BSL that included universal and existential quantifiers (unlike Prolog), more than three hundred fifty rules based on Bach’s chorales, and an artificial intelligence framework based on multiple views of the music, including Schenkerian analysis.

Ebcioğlu continued working on CHORAL after going to work at the IBM Thomas J. Watson Research Center, in Yorktown Heights, New York. In 1988 IBM made a press release on the project that resulted in worldwide coverage, and in a 1989 concert by the Westchester Choral Society, Bach’s and the program’s chorale harmonizations were sung back to back. (Here Bach’s harmonization is sung first, followed by the computer program’s version.)

Before his retirement from IBM in 2006, Dr. Ebcioğlu received two Outstanding Technical Achievement Awards. Today he is president of Global Supercomputing Corporation.

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