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PERFORMING ARTS : Conducting Beethoven by Mouse : Commentary: A wealth of CD-ROMs provides a new way to study classical music, combining aspects of books and records to suit the user’s needs and interests.

<i> Randy Lewis is an assistant editor in Calendar for The Times' Orange County Edition</i>

For more than a century, Johannes Q. Public has relied on two basic tools for exploring classical music at home: the book and recorded music. The challenge long facing the music world has been to wed these two separately useful but incomplete mediums.

Well, pop the champagne: The CD-ROM is here and the honeymoon is on.

Today’s CD-ROM-equipped personal computers provide a new way to study music, from Baroque to 20th Century, in astonishing depth, with unprecedented flexibility and, it could be argued, more effectively than in college music appreciation, history and theory classes.

What’s truly revolutionary about the most sophisticated music CD-ROMs is how their non-linear capabilities render obsolete the one-size-fits-all concept of learning that starts at point A and ends at point Z. Instead, a wealth of aural and visual information can be navigated strictly according to the user’s own needs and interests.

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New releases from LaserLight and Intersound--part of an explosion of at least 50 new titles from several software companies this year--are modest in ambition and price.

With 35 titles out now and more due in 1996, the LaserLight CD+ROM series is both the most extensive and least expensive, selling for as little as $6.99 each.

All LaserLight discs include an audio recording of a complete symphony or concerto, or in the case of 10 “Masters of Classical Music” overview titles, excerpts of selected works--along with the full score, program notes and a video travelogue of the composer’s native land. Recordings are by respected European groups, though they are not household names in the United States, including the Salzburg Mozarteum Orchestra and the Dresden Philharmonic.

The heart of this set is the on-screen scores, which can be viewed minus audio, or displayed in sequence one page at a time (or half-page in the magnified viewing mode for greater clarity) in perfect synchronization with the recorded performance. Scores also can be printed out, and from a good printer you can get conductor’s-score quality hard copies.

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They don’t, however, indicate structural components--introduction, exposition, development, recapitulation--which somewhat limits the set’s usefulness as a music-education and appreciation aid. Also, each disc offers comparatively few levels of exploration--no highlighted words or pictures to click on for more biographical details.

Even given those provisos, as an inexpensive reference tool, they are, in a word, amazing. All the more impressive when you consider that mini-sized study scores to the same basic-repertory works sell for $7.50 to $12, while full-size conductor’s versions range from $20 to as much as $100 for something as complex as Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony (which in this set runs 242 pages).

A company spokesman said public-domain scores were used specifically so they could be printed, copied and distributed by anyone without infringing any copyrights. LaserLight’s other strength is lively, well-researched 2,500- to 3,000-word program notes individually tailored to each title by free-lance music writer Eric Swanson.

Intersound offers another budget-priced series (under $10 in some discount stores) and even more than LaserLight’s, it is designed for classical-music neophytes.

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Each disc focuses on a different composer (Bach, Mozart, Beethoven and Chopin, among others) or theme (“Best of the Baroque,” “Piano Masterpieces”). Complete works are bypassed in favor of individual movements that illustrate various aspects of the composer’s work or the theme.

Currently, there are 11 titles in the series, with a dozen or so more due in February. The main menus of the composer discs includes five sections: “Notation,” “Keeping Score,” “Listening Post,” “Meet the Orchestra” and “The Man and His Music.”

“Notation” (Music 101 explanations of what notes, rests, key signatures, etc., are) and “Meet the Orchestra” (what the conductor and various instruments do) information is identical from disc to disc. “Keeping Score” includes a synchronized on-screen score to one movement of one selected work. “Listening Post” allows audio-only access to the featured movements.

The essays that make up “The Man and His Music” are shorter than LaserLight’s and extremely basic, more of a Whitman’s-sampler-style introduction to classical music.

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Zane Publishing’s reach is broader than Intersound’s, but not much deeper. Its ambitious new four-volume “History of Music” CD-ROM series ($29.95 for the set) devotes two volumes to Western classical music, the third to American folk music and the fourth to world music.

These are laid out essentially in linear fashion, each built around a “Multimedia Presentation” that combines audio (narration and music samples), text, still photos and graphics; you can start at, or jump to, different points in the lecture-like presentation depending on what part of the narrated text you’re interested in.

Still, the classical discs aren’t drastically different from Leonard Bernstein’s “Young People’s Concerts” approach. Narrated text dominates--neither of the two classical volumes contains even a complete movement of any composition, just snippets, illustrating fundamental points that are covered ever so quickly.

The discs also include a general dictionary and concise encyclopedia, which have their uses but aren’t much to the musical point.

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For sheer depth and versatility, nothing else on the market can touch the music CD-ROMs from Voyager (for Mac, or available in Windows-ready form from Microsoft). They come closest to fully exploiting the multifaceted potential of CD-ROM technology.

Voyager focuses primarily on compositions or groups of compositions, though there is also a new Voyager three-volume CD-ROM “collector’s guide” to classical music, featuring historical information on a given period plus excerpts from numerous recordings recommended by critic Alan Rich.

The composition-focused discs, six in all, combine a virtually complete music history, theory and appreciation course in one. The main menus offer five to eight topics, i.e., “A Word From the Author,” “A Pocket Guide to the Score” and “A Close Reading.” Each of those branches to sub-menus, with their own sub-sub-menus. All information is interconnected, with hundreds of highlighted clicking points to help you follow your own line of inquiry or interest.

These discs are expensive, retailing for $59.95 each, or $79.95 for a triple set that bundles Mozart, Beethoven and Stravinsky.

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Except for a Mac-only CD-ROM examining Dvoraak’s Ninth Symphony (“From the New World”), however, the Voyager series doesn’t include full scores. I would readily exchange the question-answer game on each disc for printable scores synchronized to the recordings a la LaserLight’s.

Voyager’s CD-ROMs have no regimented format, instead offering special touches tailored to the demands of each piece of music. For instance, in the disc devoted to Strauss’ tone poems, the user can see and hear just how Strauss crafted his orchestrations by simultaneously auditioning and reading individual lines of the score as recorded for this project by members of the L.A. Philharmonic, then hear the same section as played in the featured recordings by the Vienna Philharmonic.

Features like these make Voyager’s CD-ROMs positively addictive.

Is the CD-ROM medium perfect for music lovers? Not yet.

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Long stints on the mouse--a distinct possibility, especially with the Voyager series--can be fatiguing, as is staring into the computer screen for hours on end.

So far, there is minimal use in any of these sets of full-motion video, a luxury that, in the right hands, might make a significant contribution. The sound quality is, of course, identical to that of audio-only CDs, but unless you have your computer connected to your audio system, you’ll probably be listening through less-than audiophile-quality computer speakers. Audio tracks of the LaserLight, Intersound and Voyager CD-ROMs, however, can be played through your stereo if all you want to do is hear the music.

And on the content side, none of these discs delve into the interpretive side of music, showing how different conductors, soloists or orchestras can come up with entirely different sounds and meanings from the same written music.

But, hey--even the best of marriages has some room for improvement.

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