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Randall Packer's commitment to multimedia spans nearly 15 years as a composer, media artist, teacher, and director/producer of interdisciplinary theater. He is currently the director of San Francisco State University's Multimedia Studies Program and the founding artistic director of Zakros InterArts / New Music Theatre in San Francisco. Packer's work has helped pioneer the integration of live performance and interactive multimedia. He directed the west coast premiere of German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen's seminal music theater work Originale, composed and directed the critically acclaimed multimedia theater production Arches, and for three years produced the annual John Cage Interactive MusiCircus in San Francisco.

Packer has taught music theory, composition, and media arts at the University of California, Berkeley, University of California, Davis, and San Francisco State University, and was the first instructor in the Multimedia Studies Program in 1992. He has also devoted the past ten years to the history and aesthetics of multimedia, and is currently teaching and writing a book on the subject entitled, From Wagner to Virtual Reality: The History of Multimedia. His research has taken him to several institutes throughout the world including IRCAM/Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris, CCRMA/Stanford University, and Xerox PARC in Palo Alto. Packer holds an M.F.A. in music composition from the California Institute of the Arts , and a Ph.D. in music composition from the University of California, Berkeley.

Since 1988, Zakros InterArts / New Music Theatre, led by Artistic Directors Randall Packer and Belen Garcia-Alvarado, has been San Francisco's leading presenter of experimental new music and electronic media art. During this time we have showcased many of the leading composers and media artists of our time including: John Cage, Brian Eno, Morton Subotnick, Pauline Oliveros, Gordon Mumma, Alvin Curran, Charles Amirkhanian, and many others. We have revived seminal experimental music theater works by Mauricio Kagel, Karlheinz Stockhausen and John Cage, and we have premiered new work of our own pioneering the integration of live performance and interactive media.

Welcome to the San Francisco State University College of Extended Learning Multimedia Studies Program. Located in the heart of downtown San Francisco's multimedia community, the program enjoys a tremendous resource: the creativity and ideas of the Bay Area's finest artists, designers, producers and entrepreneurs.


There is a certain symmetry in Randall Packer being named the new Multimedia Studies program director: He was the first instructor to teach the first course in the program. Packer succeeds Robert Bell, founding director of the program. Robert Bell's aspirations for the Multimedia Studies program were as expansive and innovative as multimedia itself. Packer was attracted to the similarity of vision between himself and Bell. "Robert Bell's vision for the Multimedia Studies program was that the educational experience would not be insulated in the classroom. The program would engage the students in doing, in making, in producing multimedia." Packer had been teaching an electronic music class for the SFSU music department when he was approached by Bell in the fall of '91 to teach the same class in the as yet unofficial Multimedia Studies program. Packer was attracted to the "studio-like" environment that Bell wanted to create; Packer had been teaching classes in his own studio in order to immerse his students in the production environment. When speaking with Packer about multimedia, two things become apparent: there are years of thought and experience behind each statement, and his excitement is contagious. Packer's artistic background and philosophical base blend harmoniously with the program's commitment to offering in-depth study of the theory, art, tools and history of multimedia.

Where Streams Converge

Certain parallels emerge between Packer's personal history and the development of multimedia. Packer, who holds an M.F.A. from the California Institute of the Arts, and a Ph.D. in music composition from U.C., Berkeley, has spent his whole life involved in the arts. "I've been involved with music practically from the day I was born and I've always been interested in going beyond my musical framework."

Packer's use of the computer as a tool for expression came as a natural progression of his interdisciplinary approach to the arts, and was solidified during his residency at the Institute for Research, Coordination of Acoustics, Music at the Centre Pompidou in Paris. It was during this period (1986 to 1988) that Packer explored the profound possibilities of computer-aided composition. Upon his return to San Francisco, Packer founded a non-profit arts organization, Zakros InterArts/New Music Theatre. Zakros became a vehicle for research, historical analysis, experimentation and creation. As founding artistic director of Zakros, Packer was able to expose the public to numerous experimental performances, original as well as recreations of works by the 20th century pioneers of interdisciplinary performance such as John Cage.

Because of the artistically experimental nature of his work, Packer never guessed that his path would cross with that of the computer industry. "When I started working specifically with computer-based multimedia in the late 80s, the multimedia phenomenon was just beginning to take hold. So in the early 90s, I found myself integrating experimental technologies with new media tools. For example, we created several productions which involved musicians, dancers and actors, all orchestrating sound and images in real time on stage through MIDI control. The techniques we used were converging with mainstream multimedia technologies."

Packer's experience in dealing with this new medium was recognized by those in the industry. "By 1991-1992, the work that I was doing, which I had always thought had nothing to do with what was going on with the industry, suddenly had direct bearing on the industry, and people started coming to me for consultation. They realized that these wacky things we were doing with devices controlling lights and sounds had a huge impact on the way people were thinking about interactive multimedia."

A Crisis of Content

A common phenomenon in the multimedia industry is that the technology is there, but the substance isn't. Packer sees the artist as an obvious source of ideas and inspiration for the multimedia industry. "The big crisis in the multimedia industry is content. The technology is moving at breath-taking speed, but the content isn't. The industry has realized that content is the key issue, and who better to point out where the artistic expression is going than artists. Artists have an enormous amount to offer the industry in showing what we could be doing with the technology." Luckily, the industry is beginning to realize that artists and educational institutions are crucial components in the application of their products. While working with Zakros, Packer was able to bring together the bottom-line concerns of business with the artistic impulse. Companies such as Apple Computer, Macromedia and Paramount would sponsor his performances in exchange for product research based upon his experience with interactivity. In mutually beneficial alliances, Packer's artistic talents were put to use for developing some of the software and ideas into more commercial products. "We were able to show them how to do things with their products that they never would have thought of. We were able to stimulate the imagination of the programmers and marketing people." The Multimedia Studies program's technology partners represent similar alliances between the program and such companies as Adobe Systems, Macromedia and Intel Corp.

Setting Precedence

One of the most striking aspects of Packer's approach to multimedia is that he is able to integrate history with innovation, discipline with experimentation. Perhaps this approach was inspired by the words of one of his mentors, French composer Pierre Boulez, who told Packer that before you can do anything new, you have to completely assimilate the past, and then move on. This view explains what Packer calls his obsession for history and precedence. "One of the problems in the multimedia industry is that they don't know what their background is. Many think that the emergence of the CD in the 80s is the history. The real history of multimedia is the history of integrating forms of art, you can go back as far as you want, to the caves of Lescaux, to Greek theater, to Japanese Kabuki." Packer has contributed to the documentation of the history of multimedia with his current concept of a CD-ROM title, From Wagner to Virtual Reality: History of Multimedia. Packer also teaches this course in the program's never-ending attempt to present students with a panoramic view of this medium.

Under the Influence

When asked to name one of the features that makes the Multimedia Studies program unique, Packer glances out the window of his downtown center office and states, "Location is everything. We can draw from people working in multimedia gulch, Silicon Valley and the whole bay area, which is the capitol of technology. We have a faculty that you couldn't pull together anywhere else. Our faculty members, and hence our courses, are directly related to what's most cutting edge. Other faculty and I are bringing the newest things into the classroom, with a lot of excitement."

Packer likens the environment in the Downtown Center labs and classrooms to that of the Paris coffee shops of the 1920s. "It's the same spirit, it's a new art form, a new industry. The whole mode of expression is uncharted. It's been a long time since anything so new has affected so many people. Everyone around here is intoxicated with the newness, with the possibilities." Packer has coined the phrase "interacting method" to describe the approach the faculty employs in the classroom. "One of the things that is most unique about this program is that the material is so new, and we don't rely on textbooks. We're literally creating in the moment. We're in a position where we can engage the students in a reflective process that is quite stimulating."

Get Engaged at the Downtown Center

The essence of Packer's approach to multimedia can be captured in his statement, "The most important application in multimedia is the application of the mind." This human approach to technology acts as a remedy for the well-founded fear that technology will detract from human involvement and creativity. From hands-on classes to critical thinking, the program is built upon the active engagement of each student with the tools, history, theory and creation of multimedia.

Consistent with Packer's high esteem for history, looking to where the program is going must first entail looking at where it began. Packer steps into the role of director in a program that has as its foundation the pliancy and strength needed for growth. "It would not be possible to move forward if it were not for the incredible work that the founding director, Robert Bell, and his dedicated staff had accomplished over the past three years since the birth of the program. It is through the groundwork they laid that it will be possible to enter the year 2000 with plans that will revolutionize the way we educate future generations of multimedia professionals."


A History of Multimedia

by Randall Packer

To do something new you have to know what has preceded. To be an innovator in multimedia requires an understanding of its roots in science, technology, art and culture. Who were the mathematicians, philosophers, and physicists that shaped the personal computer? How did pioneering artists create new forms in the early part of the century that are now emerging in the complex visual images we see in CD-ROM titles? What is the connection between a Wagnerian opera and the phantasmagoria of virtual reality?

This book follows the evolution of the various disciplines that converge in the present as multimedia; music, computer science, graphics, literature, film, video, the internet. This is a history full of remarkable personalities, brilliant theorizing, and wonderful works of art and technology; a resource for ideas and dreams.


"The reality of our century is technology: the invention, construction, and maintenance of machines. To be a user of machines is to be of the spirit of this century. It has replaced the transcendental spiritualism of past eras." Lazlo Moholy-Nagy.

Chronic Art

This year Zakros InterArts is announcing Chronic Art, experimental new digital art by artists from the San Francisco Bay Area. Our first two CD's, due for release in the fall of 1995, include:

Relja Penezic: Roads

Yugoslavian born Relja Penezic is a painter, graphic designer, and media artist. With his trademark blend of humor and nostalgia, of symbolism and literalism, he has created an album of digital movies that challenges the mind, taking us to the back roads of the American Dream. Penezic has worked closely with composers Victoria Jordanova, Randall Packer, and Donald Swearingen. The movies were all created on the Macintosh with COSA AfterEffects, Adobe Premiere, and Photoshop.

Dave Berry: New Versions

Dave Berry's ravenous eyes see in close-ups, capture every detail, devour the world. The feverish speed of his imagery and the multiple layers of his reality are a real feast. The music video works compiled in this CD-ROM culminate his many years of study in music visualization, animation, and optical effects. The music was composed by Turkantam and Randall Packer. The movies were all created on the Macintosh with COSA AfterEffects, Gryphon's Morph, and Adobe Premiere.


Zakros InterArts / New Music Theatre is currently planning an on-line multimedia work inspired by Italo Calvino's great work of fiction, Invisible Cities. Conceived as an integrated piece, Invisible Cities. will consist of imaginary "cities" created by independent teams of visual artists and composers working collaboratively.

About Calvino's Invisible Cities

In Invisible Cities, Marco Polo talks with Kublai Khan and tells him what he's seen in his travels, what the cities in the khan's vast territories look like. Polo's descriptions evoke (imaginary) places, but also states of mind and reflections on human nature.

... Calvino was a good catalyst of our era. He lived in various countries, spoke several languages, was interested both in the arts and in science. Invisible Cities spans the history and geography of the world in a free-style relay race that takes us from cities with an Early Middle Ages flavor to cities whose rhythm and problems belong in our present. But the book is also a reflection on human nature, on our different moods and emotional needs, on the effect that a physical reality can and does have on us. And again, the quick succession of the different moods of Invisible Cities, as well as their volatility, masterfully synthesizes our era.

Calvino was a very graphic writer. He himself had said on a number of occasions that he inspired himself in paintings and in science books for his descriptions. At times, these descriptions read like an Italian film comedy, with a million things happening simultaneously, all linked together by an off-the-wall thread (as in Raissa, the city where life is not happy and yet "at every moment there is a child in a window who laughs seeing a dog that has jumped on a shed to bite into a piece of polenta dropped by a stonemason who has shouted from the top of the scaffolding, "Darling, let me dip into it," to a young serving-maid who ...") Other cities take the reader to a quiet corner for meditation, (as Isidora, "the dreamed of city [which] contained him as a young man;" for "he arrives at Isidora in his old age. In the square there is the wall where the old men sit and watch the young go by; he is seated in a row with them. Desires are already memories.")

The Invisible Cities Project

We by no means intend to recreate the book. Our piece is inspired by Calvino's work, but it is no more than a loose interpretation of it. We will be concentrating not on the dialog between Polo and the khan, not even on the whole body of descriptions, but rather on what cities mean or come to mean to us, their effect on our personality and moods. Treating cities as expressions of states of mind and heart, we will embark the audience on a trip through the dark passages of the imagination, of emotional turmoil, of rational thinking.

... Visiting new cities, we realize that we could live our lives in many different ways, that the essence of the person we thought we were is more volatile than we realized, that we could have many different identities. This glimpse at other possible selves horrifies some of us, pleasantly teases others, enslaves yet others who, from then on, require the hard drug of traveling.

So although we make cities, they make us. But, in the end, who are we?

We hope to have the audience ask this question of themselves, be aware of their cultural relativism, their determinant circumstances in making them the way they are, here and now.

To stay abreast of upcoming Zakros live events, and Chronic Art CD's, let us include you on our on-line and off-line mailing lists. Just leave us an email message and optional mailing address if you want to receive announcements. We can be reached at , and at 614 York St., San Francisco, CA, 94110.


Last Modified September 11, 1995