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Music, the New-Fashioned Way : IMCDs--interactive, multimedia compact discs--place a computerized encyclopedia at your fingertips as you listen to the masters

Imagine listening to a compact disc and simultaneously having access to a computerized, user-friendly, verbal and visual encyclopedia about the music.

For example, you’re listening to Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 14 and the computer program--in a chapter about musical pitches--informs you: “Musicians eventually became frustrated. Picture the situation: Wonderful tunes were invented, became Top 40 chants, but suddenly were forgotten because someone’s memory lapsed. No wonder Gregorian chants were simple--what else was a poor monk to do.”

Welcome to the world of IMCDs: interactive, multimedia compact discs.

Not too many people know they exist, and few have the equipment on which to play them. But they and their equivalents are destined to play a role in home entertainment of the 1990s.

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According to Allan Ayars, director of multimedia industry services for Dataquest, a market research firm in San Jose, probably fewer than 10,000 of these systems exist. But by 1994, Ayars expects the market for the systems to reach half a million, driven by the rapidly increasing number of software producers.

That’s why companies are lavishing thousands of hours and hundreds of thousands of dollars on so few potential customers. To Santa Monica-based Voyager Co., it’s all about publishing. “Our goal is to be the Random House of tomorrow,” spokesman Bob Stein says. “But tomorrow isn’t here yet. What we’re trying to do now is to establish our position and survive.”

To Warner New Media, the issue is keeping competitive in an uncertain future. Company president Stan Cornyn says, “If you’re a large corporation, you don’t want to be blindsided by new technology,” but he adds that “I would like to see more players out there. It’s kind of strange to be making a lot of phonograph records for a universe where there are no phonographs.”

IMCDs are played on a CD-ROM player hooked up to a Macintosh personal computer and an audio playback system. The most visible IMCDs to date, classical music presentations from Voyager and Warner New Media, demonstrate the medium’s potential to such great effect that both the home electronics and the computer industries are convinced that these classical music IMCDs have opened a window onto the future.

“These programs allow people to manipulate audio and visual information with the power they previously had only over words and numbers,” says Peter Bloch, president of Interactive Production Associates in Santa Monica, whose company made the interactive programs on illuminated manuscripts that you can see at the Getty Museum in Malibu.

“Compare the multimedia programs with books, and you can see that we’re offering an entertaining, gamelike environment. If a picture is worth a thousand words, an interactive multimedia environment containing words and pictures is worth ten thousand.”

Interactive multimedia has been around since the ‘70s for industrial and educational purposes. Until late 1988, however, it was too expensive for the home. That changed in late 1988, with the development of sound generating software for CD-ROMs (read-only memory compact discs with massive storage capacities). Since then, most of the world’s major entertainment and computer companies, including Sony, Philips, IBM, Intel, Yamaha, Apple, Commodore and NEC, have embraced the concept.

The system recommended by both Voyager and Warner New Media consists of an Apple Macintosh computer with at least one megabyte of memory, an Apple-compatible hard drive with at least five megabytes of free space, an Apple-compatible CD-ROM drive, and an audio playback system. Prices for the computer components have fallen as low as $1,700 (down from $3,200 just 12 months ago), but getting into this new technology may still be too expensive for many otherwise interested consumers. The alternative, unfortunately, is an indefinite waiting time, until the Voyager and Warner Media programs are made available for MS-DOS setups and such specific players as Commodore’s CDTV, due this fall, and Sony-Philips’ CDI machine, due in 1991.

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Why classical music? Laura Boddine, president of Tiger Media in Downey, whose first interactive multimedia program, Airwave Adventures, the Case of the Cautious Condor, was recently named Best Adventure program in Japan, explains: “Classical music is a niche market. When CD audio came out, classical music products were important because there was a ready market, even though it was a small one.

“Interactive multimedia is a very expensive medium to work in, there’s no installed base. But there’s lots of public-domain content available and no royalties have to be paid to Beethoven or Mozart.”

More important is Apple’s Macintosh, an ideal computer on which to develop a multimedia product--its graphics-based environment and HyperCard software suited to recording, connecting, relating and remembering the staggering number of words, pictures and sounds that the interactive medium requires.

Each classical IMCD contains a complete audio recording plus information on the music’s history, technical features and stylistic content in the form of text and pictures, viewed on the computer’s screen, and additional musical examples and audio commentaries. A “mouse,” the Macintosh’s interactive pointing device, is used to move from one information screen to another with a technique called “clicking.” You can simply listen to the music straight through with or without reading the screens, or concentrate on individual movements or even single chords that you can repeat over and over.

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The first classical IMCD was Beethoven’s Ninth, using Hans Schmidt-Isserstedt’s Vienna Philharmonic recording. It was written by UCLA professor Robert Winter and published in 1989 by Voyager as the first title in its CD Companion Series ($99). Apple CEO John Sculley was impressed: In his opening remarks to the MacWorld Conference last fall, he heralded the Ninth as a key to the future of computing. Consumers have been impressed: They have bought more than 6,000 copies.

Turning on the Macintosh and calling up the programs reveals an index card-like screen with a picture of Beethoven and a table of contents. “Each of the five chapters,” Winter explains, “takes the user to a different level of complexity. The simplest level is called ‘The Pocket Map,’ which lays the four movements out with structural guideposts so that you have a sense of where you’re going. You can click on, say, ‘First movement, second theme,’ and hear the music immediately. You can stay at this level for 20 minutes or more, having fun going here and there, making connections at a very basic level.”

The second level, called “Beethoven’s World,” supplies cultural, political and social background on Vienna of the 1820s, where Beethoven wrote the Ninth Symphony. Again, many of the graphics, musical instruments for example, are linked to passages in the music that can be listened to nearly instantaneously. The third stack, called “The Art of Listening,” explains the musical architecture of the Ninth.

“Just like with a painting,” Winter explains, “where bits of color, shape and form interrelate, Beethoven’s Ninth consists of hundreds of individual sounds. If you were to scramble them, the piece would not be very impressive. It is the way in which they grow, develop, come together and unfold that the music gains its power.”

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At the fourth level, “A Close Reading,” the Ninth plays through in its entirety while everything happening in the music is being explained in vivid, clear English with the persuasive authority of a world-class scholar (“Just when it does not seem possible to generate more excitement, the . . . choral entries do just that, enlivened by a series of electrifying orchestral trills,” Winter writes of a section in the fourth movement).

The last level, “Fun & Games,” is a “Jeopardy"-like series of questions exploiting the relationship between ideas and sound. The computer, of course, keeps score.

At any moment, at any level, you can jump from movement to movement, from section to section, simply by clicking with the mouse. And, any time there’s a technical term--even one as basic as “movement,” a clear, down to earth explanation is only a mouse click away, often with a musical example. According to Winter, “A reasonably alert 8-year-old will be able to use the CD Companion as well as a seasoned 80-year-old.”

The second classical IMCD was Mozart’s “Magic Flute,” using Nikolaus Harnoncourt’s 1988 Zurich recording. It was written by a team supervised by Cal State Fullerton’s Irene Gurtin and published three months ago by Burbank-based Warner New Media as the first title in its Audio Notes series ($66). Customers at Tower’s Sunset Strip classical store were impressed. The store has sold out two shipments and is waiting for its third.

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Although the “Flute” operates in exactly the same way as Beethoven’s Ninth--using a mouse to move from screen to screen, exploring relationships between music and information--there are more than minor cosmetic differences. Warner New Media head Stan Cornyn explains that “Voyager’s is at this point looked upon as a Robert Winter vehicle, in the best sense. His Beethoven Ninth therefore was an attempt to communicate what he had to say about Beethoven’s Ninth.

“We took a different approach, putting all sorts of extra audio on. We have narrators talking, Florence Foster Jenkins singing, and so on. Our HyperCard stack, between 7,000 and 10,000 cards, is much larger and tends to encompass a great deal more. We are trying not to take one man’s idiosyncratic view of anything, but trying to present a broader sense of things. Theirs is the auteur approach, ours the generalist’s.”

Given the lively sense of competition between the two companies (Cornyn and Winter worked together at one point), it’s not surprising that their new titles share such enhancements as audio commentaries and graphic representations. Previewing Stravinsky’s “Sacre du Printemps” from Voyager, using the Charles Dutoit/Montreal Symphony recording and written by Winter (scheduled for release this month), and Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 14 from Warner New Media, using the Vermeer Quartet’s recording and written by a team supervised by editor-in-chief Cynthia Woll (scheduled for September), revealed improved production values and greater ease of handling.

Woll’s Beethoven Quartet ($50) also reveals more personality than the “Magic Flute,” combining authoritative eloquence with a delightful sense of humor.

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Its five main levels (called “Spines” as if they were the spines of books) allow real-time, full-length analyses of the work from levels suitable for beginners to levels suitable to experienced listeners. The “Blueprint” spine contains graphic representation of the music and the “Notebook” spine allows the user to enter his or her own thoughts. At all times, “hotkey” options appear on screen like sidebars in magazines. When you’re reading the “Tempo Guide” screen, for example, you can “hotkey” (the Warner nomenclature for mouse clicking) to “Beethoven & The Metronome,” “Quartet Map,” or “Index”; while reading an “Exploring the Music” screen, you can “hotkey” to “About Melody,” “Chamber Music Lovers” or “About Chamber Music.”

Although Voyager’s new “Sacre du Printemps” ($99.95) is also expanded and improved, the format is the same: The opening screen offers menu choices including “A Pocket Guide” (a one-screen orientation to the entire work); “Stravinsky’s World” (on the composer’s life and times); “Rite Listening” (a chatty introduction to the music); “Dancing the Rite” (discussing the actual production); “A Close Reading,” a real-time commentary, and “The Rite Game.”

If, after listening to the opening bassoon solo, you want to hear a bassoon all by itself, you go to the glossary, click on bassoon and the bassoon plays alone. You can access all the instruments of the orchestra, each with a characteristic audio excerpt from “Sacre.”

Voyager does offer a unique product, the CD AudioStack, a stand-alone program retailing for $99.95 that allows CD-ROM users to play and precisely control off-the-shelf CDs. It’s like making your own CD Companion.

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The future? Voyager has Winter doing the first three Brandenburg Concertos and histories of early jazz and mid-'50s rock in the planning stages, while, later this month, he and the Angeles Quartet will do a five-camera shoot of Mozart’s Quartet K. 465, for the first time adding video to the menu of options. Warner New Media’s schedule includes Brahms’ German Requiem, Berlioz’s “Symphonie Fantastique,” Benjamin Britten’s “Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra” and Arnold Schoenberg’s “Pierrot Lunaire,” the last written by Schoenberg Institute head Leonard Stein.

There’s little doubt that both Mozart and Beethoven would have been eager and consummate multimedia authors. Not only was Mozart a superb writer, as attested to by his voluminous letters, but he was an avid game player who invented a do-it-yourself composing method using dice. And, adds Winter, “Beethoven called himself a Tonkunstler , a painter with tones. Even in his time, a composer was considered both an artist and a scientist, someone with great skill in manipulating materials.”


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