New Music and DVD-Audio: A Marriage Built to Last?

New Music and DVD-Audio: A Marriage Built to Last?

Immersion DVD
Immersion DVD

[Author’s note: When I first got my hands on Immersion, the new DVD-Audio from the Colorado-based Starkland, I was disappointed to find that there was no accompanying movie. After I missed the mark in last month’s SoundTracks column, Steve Smith, the classical music columnist at Billboard, was kind enough to drag me over to Strassberg Associates, a professional high-end audio-equipment dealership, to listen to the disc in 5.1 Surround Sound, the way it is supposed to be heard. What a difference!

Of course, I was mistaking DVD-Audio for DVD-Video, a mistake that is easy enough to make, given the newness of the audio standard. The key difference between the two technologies is that DVD-Audio packs in much more audio information than visual information, where for DVD-Video the reverse is true.

My other reason for failing to be electrified by my first hearing had to do with the playback equipment – a laptop with stereo speakers. I was really missing the point – people are excited about DVD-Audio precisely because of its compatibility with 5.1 Surround Sound, which utilizes up to six specially positioned speakers. They are also excited by the overall sound quality of DVD-Audio as compared to the CD: 24-bit resolution rather than 16-bit; 96 kHz sampling rather than 44.1 kHz.]

In 1997, after learning that the DVD-Audio standard would include Surround Sound, Starkland’s producer Tom Steenland hatched the idea of commissioning a group of composers to write new pieces specifically for the new technology. The thirteen pieces, released on a single DVD-Audio disc titled Immersion, would serve as a celebration of the millennium.

Maggi Payne
Maggi Payne by Nick Bertoni

“When I approached them, I was asking them to work in a format [DVD-Audio] that didn’t exist, with equipment they didn’t have, in a medium they hadn’t heard,” Steenland remembers. “They all grasped the idea, and thought it was wonderful.”

“I approached composers whose music might benefit from surround sound and who seem comfortable with the new technology,” Steenland has written. “Some of the composers have previously recorded in deeply reverberant underground chambers; some have deployed their instrumental forces to use space as a compositional elements. Others have extensive histories of using surround playback in concert.”

One composer who has had extensive experience with composition for a “Quadrophonic” (four-speaker) environment is Maggi Payne. Payne worked with Quad from 1973 to 1985, when she abandoned it to “wait out” the transition into digital technology. White Turbulence is the first piece she has written since 1985 that uses four speakers. (Payne opted not to use the center channel, preferring to use the “broader space” that the Quad set-up offers). During the compositional process, Payne was able to set up a Surround Sound environment, but she did not have access to a DVD encoder or playback equipment.

The thirteen composers took different approaches to working with the new technology. “Some of them had access to old Quad set-ups, and some of them improvised set-ups at home,” Steenland explained. “Some of them set up a multi-track environment on the computer, then took it to a professional studio and mixed it into Surround Sound. Meredith Monk recorded four singers with four microphones in a studio – her piece is ‘straight,’ in a sense.” Carl Stone wrote his Luong Hai Ky Mi Gia using MAX and MSP programs on a Mac. He then mixed the piece using ProTools, generating stereo files and assigning them dynamically to different outputs. Stone went to a recording studio to hear the results played back in 5.1 Surround Sound.

Every composer provided Steenland with a final Surround Sound mix of the piece on either a 20- or 24-bit multi-track A-DAT. The composers also provided him with their own stereo mix. “The goal was that people would hear it in Surround Sound, but we had to include the stereo version because DVD machines have stereo output, and we wanted to make sure that the person who was listening to stereo was listening to the composer’s own stereo mix.” If a special stereo mix is not encoded on the disc, Steenland elaborated, the machine itself will “fold down” the multiple channels into stereo, with somewhat arbitrary results.

Along with four versions of each piece – DVD Audio in stereo and surround sound, DVD Video in stereo and surround sound – the disc also includes slides that accompany each piece. “I didn’t want it to be too distracting,” Steenland stated, “so the slides don’t change very fast, and they relate to the piece directly.” The composers themselves supplied the images, and in some cases they indicated when they wanted the images to change. Maggi Payne, for instance, sent Steenland her own microphotographic slides in TIFF format and outlined several options for how to sequence them. Other composers sent him pictures of themselves or of their music.

Carl Stone
Carl Stone courtesy of the composer

The final step in the production of Immersion involved pulling together the visuals, all four versions of each piece, and a menu (allowing users to select the appropriate version) in a process called “authoring.” “The DVD-video release software is more worked-out than the DVD-Audio software,” Steenland elaborated. “That’s why it took over three months to do the authoring, as opposed to five days for video. There were 37,000 lines of code that were written by hand. Gateway’s Brian Lee was “trying to figure out how to make the software do things that the manufacturer didn’t know how to do,” according to Steenland.

Immersion has been available on the Starkland website since December 2000 and was released in stores in February 2001. The fate of Immersion has yet to be determined, though, as does the fate of what it represents: new music composed specifically for a high-end audio technology. Because this music was written specifically for DVD-Audio Surround Sound, to listen to it with the wrong kind of equipment is to not fully experience it – like listening to a piano four-hand reduction of an orchestra piece, perhaps.

Payne comments: “I thought of White Turbulence Quadrophonically, and that is clearly the optimum way to listen. The spatialization is worked right into the piece – there’s no panning [from speaker to speaker]. That is hard to squeeze into two channels.” Carl Stone is less adamant. “It is not ideal [to listen to the work in stereo], but the work was created in such a way that the stereo mix would still work musically.”

Purchasing the equipment necessary to enjoy this music properly can be an expensive proposition, however. A DVD-Audio player is no small purchase, with prices ranging from $900 to $5,000, according to a recent Sound and Vision article by Michael Gaughn. Nearly 13 million people own DVD-Video players, however, and most DVD-Audio players also read DVD-Videos and CDs. The fact that the technologies of DVD-Audio and DVD-Video are intertwined may save DVD-Audio from the quick death that befell the Quad LP player.

Carl Stone
Morton Subotnick courtesy of the composer

“DVD technology and 5.1 will be here forever,” predicts Morton Subotnick. Columbia commissioned Subotnick to write the first-ever piece for Quad, Touch, in 1969. ”The question is whether people will buy five or six speakers.” Subotnick thinks that people will buy Surround set-ups as the price comes down for DVD movies.

Brian Brandt, Executive Producer of Mode Records, echoes Subotnick’s confidence about DVD – and his skepticism about Surround Sound. “As people’s VCRs break down, as their CD players break down, they will just replace that component with a DVD player. Whether people have a five- or six-speaker set-up is a different matter.”

The next layer of the problem is that to make this kind of a purchase valuable, there needs to be more than one good new music release. Fortunately, Steenland isn’t the only new-music-friendly record producer interested in the possibilities of DVD-Audio. Mode Records issued the first-ever DVD Video “custom-designed for 5.1 Surround-Sound” – of music by Roger Reynolds. Watershed IV features three previously written works by Reynolds, recorded in six or eight channels. “They had to be re-mixed [down to 5.1],” explains Brandt, “but it was still a better representation than stereo.”

Because Watershed IV is a DVD-Video, there are a variety of interesting “extras” that come with the music: a multi-camera performance video of the title track, with user-selectable camera angles; to accompany Eclipse, visuals by the legendary video artist Ed Emshwiller; and video interviews with the composer and others. Also, for user with appropriate computer facilities, portions of the Watershed IV score can be printed out as Acrobat PDF files.

An upcoming project for Mode will include a new work written specifically for DVD-ROM and 5.1 Surround sound: Morton Subotnick’s Gestures. The recording will also include a re-release of Touch, Subotnick’s historic commission for the Quad LP player, and the 1978 work A Sky of Cloudless Sulphur. Sulphur was commissioned by the J.B. Lansing Company for the opening a factory and was originally written for eight playback speakers. Part of it was released in commercial stereo. This will be the first recording of the whole piece, mixed from eight channels down to four. The disc is due out in April 2001.

The Subotnick disc will not only include “extras” like video interviews, but also a program, written by the composer, that will allow you to re-compose Gestures on your home computer. Subotnick has broken down the musical materials into more than 20 identifiable “gestures,” and thinks that at least nine or ten complete pieces of music could be composed out of those materials. “You will be able to reconfigure the piece based on the gestures of the mouse,” he explained. “Violent gestures will give the user the violent part of the music.” In addition, a music “palette” on the screen will allow the user to conduct the music based on mouse position. If the user does nothing at all for a certain length of time, the music fades into the background, and an image of Joan LaBarbara appears to tell a story that is determined by the last gesture made.

Brandt will continue to take advantage of the superior sound available with DVD, with releases planned for later this year of music by Elliott Carter, a new piece for Surround Sound by John Luther Adams, and new music for theremin performed by Lydia Kavina. Steenland is cautiously optimistic about his future involvement with DVD-Audio. “I probably won’t do another project exactly like this, because DVD production is extremely expensive,” he admitted. “DVD-Audio is a brand-new medium, and we don’t know yet what its future will be. Hopefully, as time goes by, the costs will go down.”

Like so much else in today’s market, the Internet will certainly have its effect on whether new music continues to be written for DVD-Audio. “It’s a different world from when Mort did the Quad pieces,” Carl Stone admitted. “There may be a whole new market – and that doesn’t necessarily mean that the Internet is responsible.” Subotnick feels that the power of the Internet to market new music on DVD-Audio is still limited. “When we [finally] get to understand the power of the Web, when it becomes part of your telephone or TV, when finding what you want to buy isn’t [hindered] by lists based on who paid for what, when that happens, maybe the marketing will find the tens of thousands worldwide who will be the consumers for any object that goes out. We’re still [working within the constraints of] major marketing. We don’t know if there is an audience if [the music] isn’t being made available.” One downside of the Internet is that users have become used to the sub-par aural experience of listening to MP3 files.

Will we see other releases of music written specifically for DVD-Audio? For Subotnick, the answer to this question is intimately tied to the fate of electronic music itself. “Until recently, electronic music was only accessible to a handful of people worldwide. There weren’t enough people to make it truly evolve as an art form. Now it can, because [almost] everything [you need] can [reside] on a laptop. But the fact is, 90 percent of people [still] can’t make a Surround piece because they need a special sound board [for their computer]. Electronic music won’t blossom as an art form until millions of people get their hands on it.”

NewMusicBox provides a space for those engaged with new music to communicate their experiences and ideas in their own words. Articles and commentary posted here reflect the viewpoints of their individual authors; their appearance on NewMusicBox does not imply endorsement by New Music USA.