Digital Programs in Music History: A Stillborn Genre?

Charles Cronin


Everyone is aware of the impact of digital technology on the production of audio recordings, especially of music. Less known among non-musicians are numerous other potential and implemented applications of computer technology to music, including: preservation and distribution of scores and recordings; composition and analysis; history and ear-training. This inquiry focuses on digital multimedia programs in music history./1

Digital multimedia programs dealing with serious topics in music have been widely available for over a decade. Despite steady growth in the number of titles in this area, and increasing widespread availability of sufficiently powerful equipment with which to use them, programs dealing with historical subjects in music have not been warmly embraced by the academic community./2 For this study I examined fourteen digital multimedia programs in CD-ROM format, with topics ranging across several areas of the humanities./3 The discussion that follows is a summary of my responses to these programs, in which I suggest reasons academicians are reluctant to use existing digital multimedia programs in music history -- and the humanities in general -- and recommend how this technology might be more profitably applied to topics in this area.

Technical Limitations

Musicologists and students in music history who have little experience with computers do not shy from CD audio recordings, electronic mail accounts, on-line bibliographic databases, and other products of digital technology that facilitate their work. Their indifference to digital multimedia programs is not, apparently, the result of ignorance of, or reluctance to explore, new technologies. Rather it stems more from a consensus that digital multimedia programs do not offer more than traditional print and audio media to justify the financial investment in the computers needed to support these programs, and the greater time that these programs require to load and operate than is needed to page through a book or to use an audio CD player.

Although the technologies used in digital multimedia programs are developing at breakneck pace, the audio and video components of existing programs are problematic. Typically, changes on the screen affect the program's audio portion, producing hiccups that sound like tape splices; this was the case, for instance, even in "Multimedia Chopin," produced in 1996. In "History of the Blues" the background music and narration halts -- sometimes mid-sentence -- between screens, and continues only when the user selects the next screen. Rapid technical refinement of digital technology may soon eliminate problems like audio breaks and jerky video motion, but the same developments may engender obsolescence./4 Technical pitfalls, and the expense of producing works in a medium whose standards change so rapidly, have limited the production of digital multimedia works in the humanities mainly to well-known pieces like Beethoven's Ninth Symphony or Shakespeare's Twelfth Night -- works so famous that the renown of their titles may overcome the hesitation of institutional and individual buyers to purchase programs produced in a volatile medium. Ironically, there already exist for these works rich print bodies of historical and critical commentary, and it will be difficult to persuade individuals who seriously study canonical artifacts of Western culture to produce and study programs in a medium still fraught with mechanical vulnerabilities and ephemerality.

Market Hierarchy

The remarkable disparity in quality of the technical and substantive contents of the digital multimedia programs I examined suggests another reason for their slow entry into mainstream research and teaching in the humanities: an undeveloped "brand name" hierarchy among producers. The ease of reproducing and distributing creative work by means of digital technologies and networked computers has the potential to decimate the traditional -- some would say ossified -- pecking order among print publishers. And the bonanza of new works made available by a more democratic production and distribution scheme is offset by the loss of the unconscious filter we rely upon even -- or perhaps especially -- for insignificant purchases of newspapers or magazines. Browsing the stock of currently available digital multimedia programs -- and scouting about the internet in general -- is akin to shopping at an overseas grocery store; one sees Campbell soup and Kellogg cereal, but now surrounded by products of unfamiliar manufacturers that -- depending upon the consumer -- attract or repel by their novelty. Until the digital multimedia market becomes more developed, readers in the humanities, accustomed to the segregating influence of long-established reputations among print publishers, may gravitate toward programs associated with a few recognized names like Microsoft or Apple.

Educators are justifiably chary of multimedia products of unknown companies because of lapses of spelling, grammar, factual accuracy, documentation and accreditation that occur in their programs more commonly than in roughly parallel works in print. We find, for instance, the following promotional statement for "Lamp of Aladdin," a children's program: "The child can also interact with each seen by clicking on different part of the screen." Why buy this program when one can readily find a scrupulously edited print version of the same work for half the cost? The map in "The Beat Experience" incorrectly pinpoints an address from San Francisco's Panhandle clear across town in North Beach. The slide show in "Multimedia Chopin" offers a mix of images of photographs, paintings and drawings from the nineteenth century, but nary a word documenting their creators or current locations. The same is true of the photo-laden "History of the Blues" that does not give even the name of the program's author./5

Content Control

Robert Coover's paean to hypertext, a benighted essay titled "The End of Books," argues that the interactive and non-linear aspects of literary works in hypertext are conquering the oppressive authorial power inherent in printed literature, novels especially./6 Coover acknowledges navigational problems in hypertext works, but does not mention the restrictions that hypertext and, by extension, digital multimedia, impose upon a user's control of the content of a document or program./7 These limitations contribute to multimedia programs' difficulty in gaining a toehold in the humanities.

The organization of information in digital multimedia programs is less linear than in non-digital media, simply because it can be so. While digital programs give us simultaneous access to sounds, texts and images, control of these components is mediated by the programs themselves; we don't flip pages, drop a needle, or press a rewind button, but rather select words and symbols to prompt a hoped-for response. There is, for instance, no single convention indicating forward movement in a multimedia program; scroll bars, arrows, simulated dog-eared page edges, and "next screen" commands all serve to direct users to sequential information. For occasional users especially, however, the absence of an established navigational iconography in digital programs is disorienting and alienating.

In "Lamp of Aladdin" the program design is so poor that in order to exit one either shuts down the computer, or scrolls backward or forward, screen by screen, to the beginning or end. The authors of "Beat Experience" and "Puppet Motel" consciously incorporate the frustration and ambiguity associated with the issue of content control into the substance of their programs. On a visit to the "Beat Pad," I clicked on the heroin-filled syringe, prompting a punishing "Dead End" message and shut-down of the program, which forced me to wait several minutes -- and reflect on my foolishness with the heroin experiment -- to reboot and continue to use the program. One of the first screens in Laurie Anderson's "Puppet Motel" presents a surreal scene featuring a line of ducks floating along a beam, single file. With no indicators whatever to suggest how to move beyond this screen, the only way out -- finally this becomes apparent -- is to "shoot" each of the ducks off the beam using the computer's mouse as a weapon. Not inclined towards violence -- my thoughts had turned to Swan Lake! --I was trapped with the floating ducks for the better part of fifteen minutes until delayed intuition took over. Unless navigational indicators become standardized, content control problems will frustrate casual users of digital multimedia programs, and continue to be an ironic theme in slyly critical programs like "Puppet Motel."

Concinnity of Context and Content

The ancestors of digital multimedia programs are the multimedia performances of the sixties that reveal, in turn, the influence of the Beat culture spawned a decade earlier. The avant garde poetry, prose, music, visual art, film, and even architecture, of the fifties and sixties reflect the irreverent humor, abstract representation, and a dissolution of traditional boundaries and proprieties, that are characteristic of the Beat movement. The spirit of the Beat montage of heterogeneous bits of text and images is found in the improvisatory appearance of cluttered computer screens with layers of disparate information, and echoes of the studied casualness of Beat journalism and literature are heard in the informal, flamboyant, and irreverent tenor that non-industrial computer communications contain to a far greater extent than their paper counterparts.

After reviewing the digital multimedia program "The Beat Experience," I happened upon San Francisco's de Young Museum's exhibit "Beat Culture." With content nearly identical to the digital program, the exhibit was less effective than the digital program because of the strained relationship between the irreverent, gritty Beat-era artifacts and the formal atmosphere of a traditional -- albeit decrepit -- museum. Likewise, experimenting with a digital audio guide while viewing a painting by Reubens -- a work from an aristocratic age, intended for a sumptuous setting -- in Berkeley's University Art Museum was a mixed experience indeed because of the pervasive odor of fried food from the cafeteria, the stained industrial-grade carpet, the sound of raucous protestors a block away, and the bunker-like walls behind the gilt frame that are jarringly dissonant with the aura of the work.

Digital technology -- like any human-organized framework -- is then, a historical, culturally freighted phenomenon. And the digital multimedia context affects our reactions to the artifacts under investigation as a building's design influences how we use and perceive its contents. Not surprisingly, the most engaging multimedia program I reviewed is the wacky "Puppet Motel" that exploits the absurd and aleatory potential of digital technology with a wildly diverse set of images, stories, and songs, interlaced with hilarious, subversively tinged jokes from the author's personal experiences that include: a recipe for hotdogs cooked in a German hotel room, wrapped in stripped electrical lamp wire; the story of how the author discovered kiss marks all over her psychiatrist's mirror; and the tale of a night flight with the author on which an inexperienced fellow traveller thought she was in outer space -- the lights from the towns below perceived as constellations. Digital technology is particularly effective for works of performance art like this, in which purposefully outre content is prone to appear unintentionally comic or embarrassing when performed live, and the computer, running programs with loops and links behind an impersonal screen, may be a better venue than the traditional theater.

Games -- among the earliest software programs -- are the most profitable segment of the current multimedia market. Predictably, multimedia educational programs -- most produced by commercial ventures -- incorporate some of the silly and playful elements characteristic of these early software products. We find, for instance, in Robert Winter's programs on Mozart's Magic Flute and Stravinsky's Rite of Spring, quiz games at the end of the programs that produce snappy retorts when one picks the incorrect response. In his program on Mozart's "Dissonant" String Quartet, Winter feels obliged to make a humorous aside about the name of Mozart's contemporary Karl Ditters von Dittersdorf -- something he would not likely have done were he writing a print work. The very act of "opening" icons and hypertext links has a playful, peek-a-boo element akin to that associated with opening the paper windows of a German Advent calendar. Ironically, some of the entertaining and whimsical elements made possible by digital technology -- elements seen, no doubt, by multimedia producers as means of attracting users -- may alienate the largest group of consumers of critical and historical studies in the humanities who are accustomed to print works of a more sober bent./8


Digital multimedia programs in the humanities make insufficient use of two of the most valuable capabilities of the technology: efficient simultaneous presentation of related information; and hierarchical structuring of content so that a single program can serve users with varying degrees of experience. "Microsoft's Musical Instruments" demonstrates the advantage of the first capability by providing audio examples and descriptive texts for every instrument illustrated. The user can, thereby, not only instantly compare the appearance and sound of ten varieties of guitars, but also hear the sound of obsolete or rarely used instruments like the chitarrone or Wagner tuba. There is no practical alternative to the program; even with a well-equipped music library one would need to juggle several books and numerous audio recordings in an enormously time-consuming process to replicate -- in slow motion -- the experience available with a mouse click in the digital program.

For an example demonstrating the second important capability in digital multimedia technology -- hierarchical structuring of content -- we can look to "Stravinsky's Rite of Spring," and other programs by Robert Winter, in which the author broadens his potential audience by a pyramidal layering of information. Essential facts, accessible to all readers, are linked to more complex "close readings" -- discussions of thematic analyses, instruments used, and more obscure historical facts. The ability to create programs for audiences of varying levels of knowledge in a particular topic will be enhanced further as multimedia programs become more widely distributed on the internet. For instance, offered on the internet, "Stravinsky's Rite of Spring" could focus exclusively on thematic analysis and historical overview, using hypertext links to direct users to independent bibliographies, discographies, sites dealing with the history of modern dance, locations of Stravinsky manuscript archives, and so on. This scenario, of course, will remain a tantalizing prospect for many years as the internet transforms itself, at an alarming pace, from an intellectual marketplace to one of commerce.

Digital technology enhances our ability to manipulate and perceive a text, score, or image, allowing us to search, perform calculations upon, and rearrange the contents of them. Accordingly, rather than providing primarily another historical or critical reading of a piece, composer, writer, era, genre, cultural movement, etc., multimedia programs in the humanities might be more successful, and genuinely useful, if they were designed not as substitutions for existing print commentaries and sound recordings, but rather as distinct new analytic tools for specific works. An example from "Microsoft Art Gallery" illustrates what I mean. In a brilliant use of digital animation illustrating how painters quote from earlier works, four characters are lifted from an image of Nicolas Poussin's "A Bacchanalian Revel before a Term of Pan," then reversed, shrunk, flown over, and superimposed upon, an image of his "The Adoration of the Golden Calf." No amount of text explanation could make this point so succinctly and persuasively. Similarly, in "Multimedia Chopin," a brief video segment in which the author demonstrates the different mood resulting from Chopin's use of a descending half-step rather than whole-step appoggiatura in his Nocturne in F-sharp, makes an important though subtle point that is difficult to communicate effectively in static print.

"Microsoft Art Gallery" contains digital images of all works discussed, and at the core of "Shakespeare's Twelfth Night" is a hyperlinked, complete modern text of the play. The most rudimentary discussions of literary works, and works in the visual arts, rely upon a reproduction of the artifact itself -- the poem, play or novel, the drawing, painting or sculpture -- as the fundamental reference point. This is not true of music; music appreciation courses (and texts used for them) -- to which most people interested in serious music turn for enlightenment -- do not use scores of works studied because the audience cannot read them. Even those who read two-stave piano scores are stultified when confronted with dense orchestral scores laden with key transpositions, and fifteen or more parts.

Because few people read orchestral scores, and those that do already have knowledge of their historical context, creators of digital multimedia programs in music have been reluctant to incorporate full scores into their programs. Moreover, scanned images of hundreds of pages of a complex score would consume enormous quantities of memory, and the alternative of encoding large scores in digital form by keyboard data entry, pose serious practical obstacles, especially to small production ventures with shoe-string budgets. CD multimedia music programs will be limited, however, to offering digital versions of texts, sounds, and images available elsewhere until they present full scores along with tools for their manipulation. Music analysis -- especially the type favored by positivist musicologists -- involves teasing from a score facts about its melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic components -- e.g. the frequency of a particular sonority or progression; thematic recurrence and alteration through transposition, diminution, expansion, and changes in instrumentation. Given the rapid evolution of digital technology, and the speed with which it is infiltrating even the humanities, it will become easier to incorporate full scores in digital multimedia programs, which should prompt an increase in the number of programs that offer not only factual historical information, but also interactive methods by which users can manipulate the artifacts themselves, gaining thereby, entirely new perspectives on them.



1. I use "multimedia" as the term is commonly understood, to indicate a work that combines several elements or types of works in one medium, the compact disc.

2. One reason for this may be the fact that librarians have been reluctant to incorporate these programs into their holdings. For instance, the Music Library at the University of California at Berkeley, one of the largest music research collections in the country, does not -- and has no plans to -- collect or support digital multimedia programs in music. These programs are not available elsewhere on the Berkeley campus.

3. I reviewed the following titles "Puppet Motel," "History of the Blues," "Microsoft Art Gallery," "Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, " "Microsoft Musical Instruments," "Stravinsky'sRite of Spring," "Mozart's Magic Flute," "Beethoven's Symphony No. 9," "Annabel's Dream of Medieval England," "Magic Theater," "Multimedia Chopin," "Lamp of Aladdin," "Mozart's String Quartet in C Major," and "The Beat Experience."

4. When I had difficulty running Robert Winter's "Mozart's Magic Flute" program at Stanford's Media Center, I was told that the program -- published in 1990 -- was "so old" that the new Macintosh computers at the Media Center might not support it.

5. The meticulously documented "Shakespeare's Twelfth Night," on the other hand, generously identifies not only the creators of the program, but also those who supported them during the production period, including "childminders"!

6. New York Times Book Review 21 June 1992. The piece is so larded with fashionable academic jargon: "patriarchal, colonial, canonical, proprietary, hierarchical, authoritarian," and inanities: "[Hypertext] is not like film, which is really just the dead end of linear narrative, just as 12-tone music is the dead end of music by the stave," that it borders on caricature.

7. Ironically, one of Coover's few reservations about hypertext literature is that one may get lost in an unstructured system. Yet we speak of "losing oneself" in print works, novels especially, as a pleasurably engaging experience that speaks well of the work in question, and does not imply that the reader is being manipulated by the writer.

8. On the other hand, as more people rely on the internet, there may be an increased expectation of playful humor incorporated into studies of works hitherto handled in print in a more sanctimonious manner. This tendency is revealed, for instance, in Stephen Manes's review of Corbis's CD-ROM for the Codex Leceister (Leonardo's notebook) New York Times, 3 Dec. 1996). He approves of the "charming credits" with images of the Mona Lisa in modern art along with a piano version of the tune of the same name, but bemoans the "reverent and stuffy" tone elsewhere in the program.