[CONFERENCE PAPER] Reanimating the CDLink platform: A challenge for the preservation of mid-1990s Web-based interactive media and net.art

Details

Presented at Engaging with Web Archives: Opportunities, Challenges and Potentialities (#EWA20 / #EWAVirtual), Maynooth University/Virtual. September 22, 2020. (Originally scheduled for 15–16 April 2020)

Abstract

The Voyager Company realised the creative and commercial potential of mixed-mode CD-ROMs as the platform par excellence for interactive multimedia. Starting in 1989 with the release of a HyperCard-based interactive listening guide for Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9, Voyager tightly integrated rich multimedia, hyperlinked text, and high-quality audiovisual recordings into over 50 software releases for Mac and PC well into the late 1990s. Consolidating their expertise in computer-controlled optical media with Laserdics, Voyager developed AudioStack: a set of extensions for the HyperCard environment that allowed fine-grained software control of high-fidelity audio stored on conventional optical media. AudioStack led to a cross-platform technology designed for use on the web called CDLink, comprising CD-ROM controller drivers, extensions for Macromedia Shockwave and the plain-text Voyager CDLink Control Language.

CDLink enabled and inspired commercial ventures and amateur productions alike, such as Sony Music’s short lived ConnecteD experiment, the small but dedicated community of fan-sites that published time-synced lyric pages alongside hyperlinked commentaries for popular records, and even experimental sonic net.art in Mark Kolmar’s Chaotic Entertainment (1996). As Volker Straebel (1997) points out, Kolmar’s work used CDLink files to probabilistically remix and loop the contents of the user’s own CD collection in code, evincing similar tactics of creation by contemporary experimental musicians and sound artists. Owing to the mostly obsolete hardware and software dependencies of the CDLink platform and the challenges posted by the fading born-digital traces of the mid-1990s Web, CDLink-dependent artifacts create difficulties for preservation and access. I summarise the above-mentioned developments that culminated in CDLink and describe the challenges of preserving Kolmar’s artwork and making it available for future audiences, as well as those of the larger so-called “extended CD” ecosystem, which flourished during this decade.

Pre-recorded talk

Please find the pre-recorded presentation with subtitles (mp4 video, 6 mins) here.

Slides

Please find the PDF slides for this presentation here.

Funding acknowledgment

This research was supported by a Government of Ireland Postdoctoral Fellowship, awarded by the Irish Research Council in 2019 to Eamonn Bell for the project “Opening the ‘Red Book’: The digital Audio CD format from the viewpoint between musicology and media studies.” Project no. GOIPD/2019/239.

Presentation outline

If, in 1996, you clicked on this link

[SLIDE]

you’d be greeted with this site. This is—or was—Mark Kolmar’s interactive website and sound art piece, Chaotic Entertainment, more or less as it appeared to the Alexa web crawler on 20 December 1996.

Kolmar’s website encouraged web users who were lucky enough to have an optical disc drive in their computer to insert an audio CD of their choice, click on one of three form control buttons (labeled “Play”), and sit back and listen.

Chaotic Entertainment would then take control of the user’s CD-ROM drive and provide it with a sequence of bespoke playback, tracking, and seeking commands. These commnds caused the player to sound out short fragments of digital audio, following instructions generated on request by Kolmar’s web server.

[SLIDE]

In 1997, the German musicologist Volker Straebel examined Kolmar’s piece in a brief article in the journal Positionen, in which he argued that Chaotic Entertainment was a countercultural artwork that cut against what Strabel called the principle of the constant variability [das Prinzip der steten Veränderbarkeit] of the Internet.1 Today, I’ll take a more archaeological approach to Chaotic Entertainment and go into a little detail about what I’ve been able to gather about the CDLink platform on which Kolmar’s site is built, drawing primarily on archived versions of websites that have been made available through the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine.

[SLIDE]

In 1996, CDLink was a then- software platform, developed by the Voyager Company and released in 1995, that allowed allow authors of websites to control the playback of audio CDs inserted into the end user’s optical media drive. The idea was to empower both record labels and end users with the ability to create websites that linked directly to the content of audio CDs using timecoded instructions.

[SLIDE]

The CDLink platform was launched on July 12, 1995 and the press release announcing this event explained the motivation behind the technology

[SLIDE]

Voyager CDLink makes an end-run around the bandwidth bottleneck; that stack of discs gathering dust on the stereo represents a bundle of high-resolution digital media that’s already been delivered to the user.

CDLink, then, was evidently a technology for the era of dialup networking—an age of bandwidth scarcity and online audio-definitional poverty. But what are its origins?

[SLIDE]

The Voyager Company, founded in 1984, is perhaps most well known today for realizing the creative and commercial potential of CD-ROMs as the platform par excellence for interactive multimedia.

[SLIDE]

Starting in 1989 with the release of a HyperCard-based interactive listening guide for Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9

[SLIDE]

…The Voyager Company tightly integrated rich multimedia, hyperlinked text, and high-quality audiovisual recordings into over 50 software releases for Mac and PC well into the late 1990s, until it was eventually dissolved in 1997.

[SLIDE]

In about 1990, Voyager developed a set of redistributable extensions for the HyperCard environment called The Voyager CD AudioStack. This software product allowed HyperCard stacks to control the playback of high-fidelity audio stored on conventional optical media: both mixed mode CD-ROMs and plain audio CDs.

[SLIDE] e of the platform. Although the CGI scripts for Chaotic Entertainment are unfortunately not preserved Straebel’s 1997 article contains useful excerpts from VCD files corresponding to each of the three operating modes of Kolmar’s site.

[SLIDE]

Here is an example file produced by the spray mode:

spray
play 1,4,35,58,1,4,35,63
play 1,4,34,51,1,4,34,55
play 1,4,34,63,1,4,34,67
play 1,4,34,68,1,4,34,72
play 1,4,34,74,1,4,35,3

With the help of the documentation for this file format we can see that the CD player is instructed by Kolmar’s website to play five randomly determined bursts of audio in quick succession. These fragments of audio last no more than one twentieth of a second, starting in and around 4’35" on track one.

[SLIDE]

Chaotic Entertainment can be viewed as dragging the chance-based compositional techniques made infamous by the composer John Cage into the era of the CD. As Kolmar himself noted on his site: “These methods will never play the same thing twice.”

Unfortunately, CDLink was launched at the cusp of an explosion of interest in the MP3 format. It was, unsurprisingly then, a short-lived platform.

[SLIDE]

As we can see from a version of Chaotic Entertainment captured just over two years later in early 1999, Kolmar was forced to note that “the entire Voyager site is gone”.

[SLIDE]

The fact that CDLink was relatively short-lived is no indictment of its cultural significance, however. Indeed, by bridging hypertext technology and time synchronised, high-quality digital audio, the CDLink platform itself can be viewed as a link in a historical chain of media technologies that coordinate sound and text, that reaches back to the invention of program notes, through the close-listening guides of early 20th-century musicologists and forward…

[SLIDE]

…to the timecoded YouTube comments that populate the modern Web today. Thank you.

[SLIDE] CDLink represented a new instantiation of the same idea: interactive hypertext could be used to control optical media players, though CDLink was for the technology of the web: HTML.

[SLIDE]

To achieve this, the platform made use of a new file format for specifying CD control commands called the Voyager CDLink Control Language. This was a very straightforward plain text language that was used to encode simple instructions to a CD player.

[SLIDE]

.VCD files written in the language were interpreted by the client’s helper program and converted into Macintosh or Windows system calls, depending on the user platform. As .VCD files did not require any special authoring software, the relative ease with which users could create them allowed for amateur participation in the CDLink platform.

[SLIDE]

Over 70 of sites that used CDLink technology were dutifully indexed by the Voyager Company, and—predictably—this list is affected by extreme link rot: although it is preserved in the Internet Archive.

[SLIDE]

A small but dedicated community of sites published time-synced lyric pages and hyperlinked commentaries for popular CD releases; others had more idiosyncratic uses of the CDLink software in mind.

[SLIDE]

Kolmar’s site represents what is perhaps the most unusual use of the platform. Although the CGI scripts for Chaotic Entertainment are unfortunately not preserved Straebel’s 1997 article contains useful excerpts from VCD files corresponding to each of the three operating modes of Kolmar’s site.

[SLIDE]

Here is an example file produced by the spray mode:

spray
play 1,4,35,58,1,4,35,63
play 1,4,34,51,1,4,34,55
play 1,4,34,63,1,4,34,67
play 1,4,34,68,1,4,34,72
play 1,4,34,74,1,4,35,3

With the help of the documentation for this file format we can see that the CD player is instructed by Kolmar’s website to play five randomly determined bursts of audio in quick succession. These fragments of audio last no more than one twentieth of a second, starting in and around 4’35" on track one.

[SLIDE]

Chaotic Entertainment can be viewed as dragging the chance-based compositional techniques made infamous by the composer John Cage into the era of the CD. As Kolmar himself noted on his site: “These methods will never play the same thing twice.”

Unfortunately, CDLink was launched at the cusp of an explosion of interest in the MP3 format. It was, unsurprisingly then, a short-lived platform.

[SLIDE]

As we can see from a version of Chaotic Entertainment captured just over two years later in early 1999, Kolmar was forced to note that “the entire Voyager site is gone”.

[SLIDE]

The fact that CDLink was relatively short-lived is no indictment of its cultural significance, however. Indeed, by bridging hypertext technology and time synchronised, high-quality digital audio, the CDLink platform itself can be viewed as a link in a historical chain of media technologies that coordinate sound and text, that reaches back to the invention of program notes, through the close-listening guides of early 20th-century musicologists and forward…

[SLIDE]

…to the timecoded YouTube comments that populate the modern Web today. Thank you.

[SLIDE]


  1. Volker Straebel, “‘Chaotic Entertainment’: Mark Kolmars CD-Remix Im Internet,” Positionen 31 (May 1997): 31—33, 31.↩︎