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Return to Mars

More than thirty years after its debut—as the soundtrack to footage of the red planet from the Viking missions—a historic piece of computer music has been restored by its Stanford creators.

Chuck Painter/Stanford News Service

Chowning, French composer Thierry Lancino and Chris Chafe, now director of the CCRMA, set up for a concert at the DC Power Lab, circa 1980.

By Mike Antonucci

“Mars was in the sky,” says John Chowning, his voice soft and nostalgic as he casts his mind’s eye back to a late July evening in 1980. The event was an outdoor concert and film screening in the Stanford hills near Felt Lake. For one portion, the roughly 300 attendees donned red/cyan stereoscopic glasses to view 3D images of the surface of Mars, projected on a large screen. Rockscape shots of curious dust patches and winding depressions captured during the first successful landings on the red planet by the Viking 1 and 2 spacecraft in 1976 had been turned into a 32-minute movie.

The film, Mars in 3D, had a human cast of one: on-screen narrator Elliott Levinthal. A Stanford professor and deputy leader for the NASA landers’ camera team, Levinthal, PhD ’49, had asked Chowning, one of the founders of the Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics (CCRMA), to create a soundtrack for the film. He in turn had recruited graduate students Mike McNabb and Bill Schottstaedt as composers. Each created about half the music for the score, rendered that evening with a four-channel mixer and surround-sound loudspeakers, directly from a seminal digital synthesizer known as the Samson Box.

The visual content of the film, which was being unveiled mostly at showings in scientific venues, was historic. But the musical component had unique significance, too. “It was a kind of confirmation that computer music, or music technology, has a place,” says Chowning, MA ’64, DMA ’66, who remembers how fiercely the genre originally had been denounced for allegedly dehumanizing music. “It was important because there was this link between high technology, space and the most high-tech computer music system that existed at the time.”

Chuck Painter/Stanford News Service
Professor of mechanical engineering Elliott Levinthal in 1984.

But it was an ephemeral triumph. The scenic staging Mars in 3D had enjoyed as part of the larger CCRMA concert bill could never be replicated. And at other screenings, the music was heard only as it was recorded on the film, at a very low monophonic quality. The Samson Box, which provided breakthrough computer power for composers, eventually became a museum piece in France. The 16-millimeter film cannisters were relegated to the environmentally unfriendly storage of Levinthal’s pool house and ultimately were donated, along with other items, to the archives at NASA’s Ames Research Center at Moffett Field.

Decades passed before Chowning, still daydreaming about that night in 1980, proposed an ambitious attempt to resurrect the film and music. What followed was a tenacious labor of love, sustained by personal and artistic loyalties.

The splashiest payoff is now around the corner. On Friday, June 14, at the Century Cinema 16 in Mountain View, an expected audience of 450 will fill a theater to watch a meticulously restored Mars in 3D. For just the second time in a public viewing, the soundtrack will be heard at the quality the composers intended. The presentation will also include talks by NASA scientist Tori Hoehler and McNabb.

Click to register for the waiting list for the June 14 event at the Century Cinema 16 in Mountain View.

Click to order the DVD. (Note: 3D viewing requires a television with that capability.)

The Mars in 3D rescue mission began in 2009 when Chowning, professor emeritus of music and fine arts, politely declined to have CCRMA organize a 75th birthday celebration for him. He wanted instead to pursue a long simmering idea to use a movie theater with a sophisticated sound system as a venue for computer music. (Many computer compositions are accompanied by visual elements, so the theater also could be utilized to maximum effect.) He zeroed in on the idea of reviving the Mars in 3D experience.

Through a combination of serendipity and technological ingenuity, McNabb, ’74, MA ’75, DMA ’80, and Schottstaedt, ’73, MA ’74, DMA ’79, salvaged content that was all but lost to physical deterioration or changes in computer hardware. Without the Samson Box—there had been only the one—there would need to be an emulator, software that runs on current computers and exactly simulates the functionality of the original hardware. Schottstaedt, who retired last year as a CCRMA research associate, was asked by sheer coincidence, unconnected to Chowning’s goals, to create just such an emulator for music professor Jonathan Berger.

He subsequently was amazed to learn that McNabb, a software developer and self-professed “digital pack rat,” still had the other necessary material: the complete command files for how to synthesize the music they had composed. These files are instructions—play this tone here, this tone there—and for McNabb to have kept them “struck me as a miracle,” Schottstaedt says.

Schottstaedt ended up writing about 3,000 lines of code for the emulator, and McNabb helped him debug the final program. Then, says McNabb, “we fed in the original files and out came this glorious four channels—perfectly pristine and much better than the original synthesizer—of quality music.” For McNabb, “this was like a Holy Grail” because he had assumed the Mars in 3D music, as well as another of his compositions from the same era, would never be resuscitated in anything close to the quality originally conceived.

In its time, the Samson Box, built to specs supplied by Stanford, had evoked the same transformative thrill. The speed at which it could translate composers’ input, says McNabb,  meant “we could generate a lot more ‘voices’ [instruments] at once,” and that “allowed for richer and more sophisticated music.” In Schottstaedt’s words, “We went from an organ grinder with his monkey to an orchestra.”

Even with the emulator, however, daunting work remained. First McNabb needed to obtain the analog audio tapes with Levinthal’s narration, get them converted to digital and mix the narration with the soundtrack. Then there was the issue of the 16-millimeter film, which loomed as a potentially massive problem. The tapes with the narration proved to be in good shape. But the film, says McNabb, “was starting to basically degrade.” With the cooperation of NASA, McNabb picked one copy—there were multiple copies, two reels each, but he couldn’t tell what was first generation—and had it scanned into high-definition digital files.

At that point, the precise scope of the restoration challenge became obvious as myriad scratches, spots, jitters and holes became evident. McNabb’s instinct at that point was, “So how bad could it be? It’ll be interesting.” He smiles now over his aptitude for understatement. Using an assortment of specialized software programs and working on the project for at least a few hours every week, the restoration took a year and a half—“not including the time the computer would sit there and work on it without me, which was a lot.”

The images of Mars are obviously dated now, particularly compared to those transmitted from the Opportunity and Curiosity rovers. But what has stuck with McNabb is the enormity of the accomplishment for its time, and the kindred feeling of making breakthroughs by a seat-of-the-pants improvisation and cleverness that NASA scientists and engineers made legendary. “They were like us. They were inventing this stuff as they went along.”

Mars in 3D cover

Chowning played a complex role as muse and organizer in the long slog from a proposed birthday party to the realization of his vision. He received funding for various costs from CCRMA, but he contributed personally as well. For the publication of the commercially available Mars in 3D Blu-ray DVD, which received production and design time donated by AIX Records president Mark Waldrep, money also came from the Levinthal children and McNabb.

Levinthal was given a screening of the restored film before he died in early 2012, and his family has the ongoing satisfaction of seeing his contributions exquisitely documented. Said daughter Judith, one of four children: “Knowing that this whole chapter of his life is being preserved is very meaningful to me.”

Through everything, Chowning was resolute about the soundtrack he wanted to hear once more in the special company of other informed and passionate listeners.

“It’s timeless,” he says. “It’s beautiful music.”

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