MusicTech JANUARY 1994 - by Phil Ward


Peter Gabriel's CD-ROM Xplora 1 combines audio, video, tent and graphics within an interactive computer environment. Phil Ward meets the team behind it, and finds himself having fun - and, of course...

A few years ago, a software designer called Steve Nelson was working in California with Apple's Advanced Technology group. There, in the pioneering atmosphere of Silicon Valley, it struck him that he could take some of the readily available ingredients of one of his favourite albums - the video, the sleeve artwork and the music itself - and sample them into a prototype version of some interactive software that he'd developed.

As it happens, the album was So by Peter Gabriel, and the program became a basic CD-ROM demo that presented the album in a completely new way. Combining snatches of video, audio and promotional graphics which could be dipped into in any order by the user, the demo caught the attention and the imagination of one or two significant people. Including Peter Gabriel.

Next thing you know, there is not only a new company headed by Steve Nelson called Brilliant Media, but also a new company called Real World Multimedia based at Gabriel's celebrated studio complex near Bath. Prompted by the arrival of a concrete medium - a practical demonstration of the ideal technology to realise multimedia dreams - Gabriel and his entourage set about producing their own CD-ROM in partnership with Nelson. The result, available in selected record and computer shops since early December, is Xplora 1, the first in a planned series of interactive, computer-based products set to redefine consumer habits.

Quite how these habits will change is moot. Malcolm Garrett of design group Assorted Images, quoted in Real World's own multimedia magazine The Box, strikes the most evangelical note when he says "the Nintendo generation have multimedia brains. It's safe to say that multimedia is the single most important thing that's happening in the communications and leisure industries, but it's possibly also the most important thing that's happening socially. As the disciplines of broadcasting, publishing, computing and communications become one, this will have enormous implications for social structures - as important as the industrial revolution". Others regard the whole business of music, video and graphic entertainment becoming available in one all-encompassing format as something a lot closer to industrial evolution, having been a long time coming and still having quite a long way to go.

At the very least, CD-ROM has already redefined Peter Gabriel's modus operandi. He claims that all of his own products will, in future, meet the prerequisites of CD-ROM design, and that he can now, finally, regard himself as a truly multimedia artist. In other words, he's not just the ex-singer out of Genesis making solo albums any more. But he has always been associated with cutting-edge technology, as a musician with the resources and the imagination to grasp whatever developments in hi-tech audio come within his reach.

Sitting beneath one of the sculptures commissioned for Us, now pride of place in Real World's 'Wooden Room' acoustic space, I'm therefore tempted to ask Peter Gabriel whether the enthusiasm for multimedia technology reflected any sense in which purely audio technology had lost some of its pioneering excitement.

"I don't think it's so much because audio is not exciting," he replies. "I've been working upstairs on a piece of music with Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan for an Oliver Stone film for the last three days, and I've found that just as exciting as I ever have. So I haven't lost my enthusiasm for concentrating on music at all. It's just that I've always wanted to be an 'experience' designer, in a sense. Some of the old stuff I used to do - The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway with Genesis, for instance - was still very much trying to incorporate visualised story ideas along with the music.

"The CD-ROM is an extension of all that, it's not that separate. I think that for some artists who have grown up with just music, and their dedication is to one instrument, then that is what focusses them. And there are others like me who haven't necessarily mastered a technique in any one direction, but who just like to explore ideas - artists who are more interested in ideas and writing than playing."

The absence of virtuosity in any one instrument aligns Gabriel with a new generation of artists who have found their voices by mastering the techniques of the computer, and who share that innate visual sense - a fact which has not escaped his attention.

"Yeah, I think that's really interesting and exciting. I think the actual tools are still going to change a lot, though. I don't think the mouse is God's gift to the creative process, it can be very physically frustrating. So we have to come up with new interfaces, and I think there are a few people working on it...

"But it is very exciting to be an artist at this particular time, because there is a fundamental revolution happening in the way that media are getting mixed together. It provides us with all sorts of possibilities as artists and as individuals, and I think it will change the way that we communicate with each other. Obviously, to be there at the birth of a new medium and have a chance to explore putting things together in different ways is very exciting. I think there are all sorts of possibilities now that I and a lot of others can't wait to get into." Demonstrating Xplora 1 with Peter Gabriel on this fine winter's day is one Mike Large. Mike is a significant part of the "eccentric bunch of enthusiasts" that now forms the Real World Multimedia entourage.

For years he has run the recording studios as a going commercial concern - Real World is available to any clients who can afford it - and overseen the many technical developments which characterise this enviable facility. He too has heard the call of multimedia, and as an engineer has a precise notion of both its creative role and its position in the development of the technology available to musicians.

"People who are interested in technology," he believes, "and who have exhausted the possibilities that audio technology has to offer them, will want to get into this. But I don't think that has anything to do with the creativity involved, in that people make great records straight to stereo with a 4-channel mixer, and people make great records running ninety-six tracks through an SSL with more computers than you can shake a stick at. It doesn't make any difference to the quality of the art that comes out at the end. As Peter says, some artists are going to get into this and others aren't, and there's certainly a side of him which has always been more than a musician, that whole visual side, which will only be satisfied by something like this.

"For me, the three biggest things to affect music over the last twenty-or-so years have been 24-track recording, sampling and sequencing. They all brought their own revolutions. There may be something else to come, in terms of making music, and it may be that we all get carried away with developing multimedia instead of developing different things for the studio - but I don't think it's as clear cut as all that. Technology has progressed; computers have arrived with more speed and power. I encountered my first sequencer about ten years ago, and that was because computers with the power to sequence were cheap enough for the likes of you and me to work on. Now, computers that can deal with multimedia are cheap enough for the likes of you and me to work on...

"At the same time, synthesis and resynthesis has always been something that people are chasing. The de-reverberator... maybe at a time when it's cheap enough for us to buy boxes that can remove natural reverb, and completely re-create things, and do all the things people have been talking about for years, there'll be another revolution in the studio. But I don't think any of those things has actually changed what comes out of the studio in the end. This, however," he proclaims, nodding sagely at a computer screen now bustling with a video grab of pounding Burundi drummers, "this probably has, because it enables people to think in more than one dimension - if you can define music as being one dimension. And it's nonlinear, so you're no longer creating something with an obvious beginning, middle and end."

One of the most compelling of Xplora's interactive features is the 'tour' of Real World Studios itself, in which you can follow video footage from a camcorder carried around the complex, clicking on various doors as it pans and, in so doing, selecting and viewing the sequence for that particular room. Here's where you get to mix one of the tracks from Us, watch a writing session involving Gabriel and programmer Dave Bottrill, and encounter Brian Eno presiding Gamesmaster-style over a mix'n'match jam session featuring a selection - your selection - of Real World alumni such as Jah Wobble, Ayub Oganda and Sinead O'Connor.

The tour is typical of the disk's aesthetics: as you wander around the studio buildings - a converted mill in a leafy Wiltshire village - you hear birdsong, running water and the lazy crunch of footsteps on the gravel beneath your feet. Details like this remind you of two things. Firstly, technology of this kind can be anything you want it to be - you're designing software with such powerful audio and visual interfaces that the environment you create can be a true reflection of your personality. And secondly, this being the case, Xplora is quite patently the work of an ageing hippy on a mission to counter the Bladerunner-inspired urban imagery of most computer games.

"We spent a lot of time trying to get the interface right," Gabriel admits, "because obviously it's new territory and some of the stuff that I've seen so far looks a bit cold and sci-fi, a little dehumanising. We very much wanted something that was personal and warm and had some natural references, so you will see water, leaves, rocks, flowers and grass. It's these elements as backdrops which I think have helped to give this disc its character. It looks different to other stuff that I've seen around.

"In many of the screens, you see a marriage of hi-tech and handmade, which is part of the aesthetic philosophy for much of what we do. We wanted to get under the skin. There are things that you can deconstruct and reconstruct, one of which is my face, which is actually the vehicle that allows you to travel round to other parts of the disk."

Specifically, cut-outs of Gabriel's eyes, nose, mouth and ear act as a simple menu for accessing the four sections of the disk: Us, the album and videos; Real World Records, including a look behind the scenes at a WOMAD festival; a world music directory; and a 'personal file' which details Gabriel's involvement in Amnesty International, the Witness project, the Brits and Grammy awards, plus the studio tour.

Within the world music section of the CD-ROM, it's possible to select from a bundle of ethnic instruments and access a neat little demo screen, featuring text, video, photographic and audio examples of the chosen item. It's also possible, by clicking on the appropriate part of the picture, to 'play' single notes - ie. to trigger one of the samples. This enables you to get to grips with the sonic range of the thing, but don't expect to be able to use it as part of a sequence...

"That will be next," says Gabriel. "It would be great to have some kind of creative pack for the DIYers, especially using the tools that we worked with on a particular record. I think that would be a nice thing to look at next time. But we're taking it stage by stage."

For this reason, at this stage at least, Xplora's educational properties frequently outweigh any sense of really creative involvement. The mixing options offered for Steam in the Us section, for example, are steadfastly restricted to volume and mute for just four tracks - guitar, bass, drums and vocal. But according to Mike Large, this does not reflect any lack of confidence on the part of the potentially vulnerable artist.

"I don't think fear of what people might see will affect how you make the record. You can always polish everything that you're going to present, anyway. The four tracks of 'Steam' were created by Richard Evans, and there's nothing in there that Peter wouldn't want you to hear. It's still a controlled process; you're not getting to mix raw audio. What is true, though, is that Peter viewed this album as a multimedia project. Even at the outset, as well as recording an album he was thinking about videos; he was commissioning ten works of art; he appointed Mike Coulson and Nichola Bruce to co-ordinate the whole visual side of the album; he launched a magazine, The Box; we produced a long-form video; and we produced a CD-ROM. There was a whole suite of stuff in Peter's mind when he started on the record."

You're suddenly nagged by the realisation that only one of these media actually represents new technology. Could it be that the crucial role for CD-ROM is as a catalyst for producing many disparate elements, with the confidence that there is now a medium which can draw them all together?

"I think it would have been in Peter's mind," Mike replies. "He's been thinking multimedia for a long time. I guess we became gradually aware that it would be possible - and then suddenly the technology had arrived. So it made sense to do a lot of the things that Peter had wanted to do before, knowing that it was now feasible to produce something in which it could all be used."

Gabriel himself is happy to expose the creative processes, at least as much as a carefully designed CD-ROM will allow...

"What we are seeing here is really the first generation of the type of technology that lets people get inside the work of different artists. This is manifesting itself in the home in this type of equipment, and we are going to have more. We are still only beginning to feel our way into the home environment."

In the meantime, plans are afoot to take this kind of interactive experience out into the open, and build a sort of high-brow Disneyland to showcase the potential of the various new technologies. The project has already reached the stage of serious planning talks with the civic authorities of Barcelona.

"The idea," says Gabriel, "is to create a purpose-built experience park. A larger scale theme park is the closest analogy so far, but it will be something that will integrate some of the environments that you would normally come across in art galleries, churches, at Disney, in arcades and science museums. These influences are going to produce a new medium. I've been working on the idea with a large group of artists, and with Brian Eno and Laurie Anderson in particular. It will be a beautiful, natural environment, but also a place where you could explore and challenge yourself in the various experiences, which we would bury underground. Teams of artists would be collaborating to create the park, so you get architects, psychologists, sculptors, film-makers and musicians collaborating on creating these wonderful worlds that people can get inside and have some serious adventures in."

I heard a rumour that Kraftwerk might be among those artists...

"One of the guys we met, Rolf Engel, our German co-ordinator for the project, has worked with them on a few things, so he's trying to involve them in some way. We're certainly very interested in what they've done and some of their ideas. The whole park is still just about ideas; if it turns into lumps of stuff and becomes real, I'll be very happy. In the meantime, it still has a very important role to play for all of us who are involved with it, just as a pool for ideas, an inspiration."

That CD-ROM technology has fired Peter Gabriel's imagination, there can be no doubt. Furthermore, when it comes to discussions of the wider implications of digital information processing, Gabriel belongs in the same evangelical camp as Malcolm Garrett.

"I think the way people will interact with all this technology is going to change the way that we live and the way that we think. This particular medium will allow us to interact in real time and build new environments and communications as we go. There are some parallels with sampling technology, which is still fairly new to us. Musicians are suddenly able to grab any sounds, rhythms, colours, textures and noises and start throwing them together in different ways, even in their bedrooms. It doesn't necessarily mean that because you have five hundred colours on your palette you are going to make better paintings - content is still everything - but it does provide people with a lot more tools.

"It empowers people, because it will give them access to so much. You won't need to acquire great skill levels in each field to utilise what these facilities offer - you can use other people's skills to help create something of your own. It's a fundamental cultural shift. This sort of TV/computer technology, which still is for most people a fairly passive relationship, is suddenly going to be something that can really activate us. There are times, I'm sure, that people will want to be a vegetable and just sit back and absorb - that's how I use TV sometimes - but it's also going to be able to be flipped around to become a creative catalyst to fire us, charge us and accelerate us down the routes that excite us."

Today, the living room. Tomorrow...

"I think it's extremely exciting and believe that the technology could transform a lot of the world both socially and politically. I know that sometimes people think it's arrogant and elitist for a rich westerner to be talking about the joys of computers and technology when in many parts of the world people are struggling to feed themselves, and I certainly accept that. However, if you look at the history of technology and the way that prices decrease, you will see that transistor radios, televisions, fax machines or telephones were all once luxury, elitist items - and I'm sure the price of this technology will come right down.

"The satellite communications systems that we are now developing along with global telephone links mean that any village on the surface of the planet could have a small information kit, which would allow them to satellite up-link and down-link. With a few low-cost PCs, people in these villages could become information processors, and the impact of that could allow the third world to shift into information economies. They can then communicate directly, without having to go through the government communications system, and with solar power they can power their systems without having to be dependent on their countries' power supplies. So I'm sure that it's going to be harder to control and censor information. It's going to be impossible to stop, just as the Soviet Union found it impossible to stop the introduction of fax machines. To me, it's a great source of joy that this sort of networking is going to happen whether governments want it or not, and there is a real chance of the technology empowering the people."

Perhaps it is the function of the visionary to perplex us with grandiose dreams. But if Peter Gabriel's unfettered optimism seems to get just a little carried away at times, Xplora 1 is at least a bold, pioneering and downright fun kind of a product for an established rock star to be responsible for. At the very least, it's an excellent compilation for folks who just plain love Peter Gabriel. One foot, it would seem, is still firmly planted in the crunchy gravel of the real world.

"I think that we've learned a lot about what is and isn't possible at the moment, but also we have got a sense of what we would like to do in the future, and some of the other people that we would like to work with. I personally would like to see maybe twelve titles on the go by the end of next year. We are trying to involve some of the people that we have been talking to on this experience park project and bring them into this technology by creating some discs together.

"This type of work is really the most exciting thing that is going on at the moment, and I think it's going to become the centre of my work as an artist and also of what we do at Real World as publishers. In a sense, it's a move from being a record company into becoming a sort of interactive creator and experience design label - which is the name I prefer. It feels as if we are on the edge of a revolution."