Sound and Visions

Peter Gabriel and Todd Rundgren Attempt to Interact With You

May 1, 1994

By Scott Rosenberg

Most of today's musical hits couldn't exist without electronics. In the world of pop music, technology and art have long slept in the same bed. So it's hardly surprising that pop stars and musicians like Peter Gabriel, Thomas Dolby, David Bowie and Todd Rundgren should be moving to the forefront as artists try to figure out new uses for interactive media - beyond encyclopedias, shoot-'em-up games, home shopping and kids' toys.

Next Saturday at the Castro Theater, a special event of the San Francisco International Film Festival, sponsored by the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences, will showcase work in the burgeoning field of musical multimedia. The day-long program will feature products that are already out in the stores, like Peter Gabriel's "Xplora" CD-ROM or the Residents' "Freak Show," and premiere new projects and works in progress - CD-ROMs based on the Who's "Tommy," a John Lennon retrospective, a "Virtual Graceland" Elvis celebration, a documentary on Haight-Ashbury in the 1960s, and "Interactive (Prince)."

It's easier, of course, to unveil a prototype than to ship a product. While the multimedia companies try to hook us on tastes of things to come, a look at what's currently available offers some valuable lessons in the limits and possibilities of interactive art.

With "Xplora 1: Peter Gabriel's Secret World," a CD-ROM for Macintosh computers, Peter Gabriel (working with Steve Nelson's Brilliant Media in San Francisco) has taken a stab at becoming what he calls an "experience designer." Like many CD-ROMs, "Xplora" is structured neither as a linear piece of entertainment nor as a database or file of material, but rather as an environment in which you can poke around.

Gabriel's statement of intent for "Xplora" echoes the aspirations of many in this field: "Interactivity is exciting because it helps us not just to be artists but to provide a lot of material for the audience to participate in - so that eventually they become the artists themselves .... It's the opposite of being a passive consumer."

Well, not quite. Playing with "Xplora" is more like skimming a backgrounder on Gabriel's work than like creating anything yourself. Fortunately, Gabriel is a man of eclectic interests, and that allows the CD to include more than just music videos: There are profiles of the world-music artists who record on Gabriel's label, multimedia tours of the World of Music, Art and Dance festival (WOMAD), info on Amnesty International, and more.

But "Xplora" has frustrating limitations, too. The CD boasts 100 minutes of video and 30 minutes of audio - but that means it still only includes snippets of most of the songs from Gabriel's "US" album. Try to explore the Real World catalogue of international musicians and all you get are 10- and 20-second song loops. (One of the little secrets of the CD-ROM industry is that, though the disks let you store mountains of text, once you start working with pictures and sound they fill up pretty quickly.)

So to what degree is playing with "Xplora" any more "interactive" than flipping through the book that accompanies it, or hopping around the tracks on an audio CD? There is one section that lets you "remix" a Gabriel song (by raising or lowering the volume on tracks of guitar, bass, drums and vocal). And in another, a "jam session," you can match up musicians from around the world and hear the result (but only in those pairings that have been prerecorded on the CD).

"Xplora," in other words, is wide but not terribly deep; as you move around in it, you keep hitting the sides or the bottom. The casual observer will be diverted, and a few surprises (like a strange mini-documentary on the British hobby of train-spotting) lie hidden in the digital thickets. But the more determined "interacter" will soon itch for the fuller experience of simply listening to a Gabriel composition.

Gabriel's "Xplora" uses interactivity as an excuse to branch out in lots of different multimedia directions. Todd Rundgren's approach, with his interactive CD "TR-I: No World Order," is to focus almost exclusively on music alone. You set some controls on "No World Order," specifying your preferences in mood, tempo, mix and so forth. Then the disk plunders its database of musical bits and pieces and assembles a version of itself to your specifications; change your orders, and the music changes too.

Rundgren's product is more radical and more truly interactive than Gabriel's - the core of the art itself, the music, alters based on your input. That doesn't guarantee you'll enjoy, or even like, what you hear, however. The seams between the clips can be fairly abrupt, and the results feel less like a musical interaction between you and Rundgren than a kind of musical equivalent to William Burroughs' cut-up technique of chopping and reassembling texts. That may appeal to you or repel you, depending on your taste.

But then taste, and how it draws us to some artists and music over others, is itself a type of interactivity - pretechnological but powerful. The prophets of interactivity tend to forget that we all make choices based on "mood," "tempo" and so forth already, every time we pick a radio station to listen to or a recording to buy. If, for instance, you don't like Todd Rundgren's music in the first place, you probably won't enjoy "No World Order" no matter how you tweak it.

A bigger catch is that the interactive "No World Order" is only available as a CD-I, the Philips corporation's proprietary CD format. Forget your PC or your Mac; it will only play on a Philips machine. That makes it a likely casualty of the "format wars" that still plague the Balkanized multimedia industry.

A true music lover in search of interactivity won't be happy with either "Xplora" or "New World Order"; neither allows for enough noodling. Of course, a true music lover will probably own an instrument already, and if not, saving up for one probably makes more sense than buying a fancy computer. But frustrated musicians can also divert themselves today with a number of products that let them jam with or on their keyboard - programs like "Rock, Rap 'n' Roll," available on CD-ROM or floppy disk from Paramount Interactive.

"Rock, Rap 'n' Roll" is a kind of responsive "Music Minus One" machine: You choose from a variety of backing tracks and assemble a sequence of them into a "song"; then you pick from a band's worth of instrumental sounds and start soloing from the keyboard. The array of sounds is impressive, the quality of the sampling high - worlds away from tinny videogame music.

The trouble is, there's a slight lag between when you hit a key and when the program responds, even if your computer's no slouch. That makes it frustratingly difficult to jam with the backing tracks, and leaves you wishing you had a synthesizer instead - or even a toy Casio keyboard. Once again, technical limitations get between the dream of interactivity and the reality.

Don't expect that to stem the flow of interactive music projects, though. As they proliferate, expect to find more interesting innovations on the fringes than from established stars - from people like Bay Area underground favorites the Residents, whose collaboration with animator Jim Ludtke, a CD-ROM called "Freak Show," creates a macabre little sideshow world. Last month the Quicktime Film Festival awarded its top prize to a new CD-ROM from the Media Band (including Macromind founder Marc Canter and singer Kelly Gabriel, a.k.a. Connie Champagne) and director John Sanborn - a project, due out later this year, that combines music and interactive narrative in intriguing new ways.

What's clear from all these experiments is that interactivity is not so much a single state as a spectrum of possibilities. The most fertile and interesting turf in this new medium lies right in the center of the spectrum, where the artist tries to meet the audience halfway - providing a work with enough structure and content to have an identifiable sense of authorship and yet building it with enough freedom that you feel like you're a collaborator.

Nobody's yet been able to find the precise point at which this balance becomes feasible - although Todd Rundgren deserves credit for seeking it out. Maybe it's not feasible at all. Maybe the most interactivity we can expect, or should want, from musical performers is the kind we've always enjoyed by going to see and hear them in person. (Applause is a form of interaction, too.) But musicians seem unwilling to concede that point without a fight. And -- who knows? -- one day one of their experiments might succeed.

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