RJDJ Reactive Music

RM: This week, the radio audience got a rebroadcast of episode number 10, about Chris Downey the blind architect, which is often cited as an audience favorite. So you should go download it if you haven’t heard it already. It’s episode number 10, called 99% Sound and Feel. But for you podcasters, I’m pushing out a special, never-before-released piece that served as the basis for episode number three of 99% Invisible, but it’s never aired in its full glory until now. Think of it as a slightly thesis-shifted full-length director’s cut of episode number three. This story is about how new technology, in this case, the smartphone and the RJDJ adaptive music app can not only change your consumption of music but can also change the very nature of music itself. And I think it’s actually a pretty stunning development in the evolution of music and has even bigger implications than it seems on the surface, so, check it out.
RM: When I moved out to San Francisco a dozen years ago, I stopped over in LA to visit my friend Max. And as he drove me around the Hollywood hills, the song Screenwriter’s Blues, by Soul Coughing, came on the stereo.
[Exits to freeways/ twisted like knots on/ the fingers]
RM: And it seemed to sync up with everything in the world at that moment. When the turn signal was flipped on, it always kept the beat. Headlights whizzed by in concert with the bass loop, and the song would crescendo just as a new, amazing vista presented itself through the windshield.
[It is 5 am/ and you are listening/ to Los Angeles]
RM: If you’re of the Walkman generation, or the iPod generation, or if you take a lot of drugs, you’ve probably had this happen to you. And Michael Breidenbrücker is a big fan of this sort of musical serendipity.
Michael Breidenbrücker(MB): That for me was always very magical moments.
RM: That’s one of the reasons he created RJDJ, a musical iPhone app that tries to give you that feeling every time you put on your headphones.
MB: We’re, you know, combining the world around you with your listening experience, so you know, the door closes, and something really amazing acoustically could happen. Then I’m always feeling more in a movie, but take the movie away and put your life into it, and that’s RJDJ.
RM: Robert Thomas is one of RJDJ’s composers.
Robert Thomas (RT): RJDJ creates what we call reactive music, which is a new format of music which changes in relation to what you’re doing.
RM: RJDJ is comprised of scenes, which are analogous to songs, but they’re more like instructions for songs. There are bits of music, code for the iPhone’s own built-in synthesizer, audio filters, and these are triggered by the user, according to the composer’s plan for the scene.
RT: I call this quantum composing. You think of all these possible ways that it could be listened to and try to come up with lots of different ways that will create something very interesting to happen in the music. When a sound coming in from your surrounding is very loud, you could have lots of really high notes going doodoodoodoodoodoodoo! And sort of making a really intricate pattern. And when the sounds of your surroundings is quiet, you could have a really simple drone sort of doooooo dooooo dooooo. Make it really kind of quiet sort of sounds. You can have all kinds of path changes in the music based on analysis of their behavior and their environment.
RM: So from the mic change the song, but so does the accelerometer on the phone, that’s the thing that senses movement, time spent listening can be a factor, and even GPS data can be incorporated. And all these stimuli work in concert to create a unique augmented reality.
RT: Which is a kind of mind-blowing thing when you’re listening to it. The way I see it, it kind of feels like you’re seeing some inner beauty in everything. And I think that’s where the really great scenes that people have made so far really work. I mean, the most famous one that people get that from is a scene called the eargasm. This kind of harmonic overlay of reality.
RM: I had my wife Mae put on the patented white earbuds to check out one of the scenes for the first time.
RM: This one’s called eargasm.
Mae Mars (MM): That’s right.
MM: Woooaaaahhh. Doodoodoodoodoo! It’s what a steel girder would hear if a steel girder could hear. It’s kind of like being in a horror movie, but not quite horrible. It’s kind of got that horror movie soundtrack quality, like “something bad is coming!” But we haven’t hit that note yet. Oh, but now we have because there it is.
RM: So most users report that the eargasm scene makes them hear the beauty in all things, and in the environment where my wife is listening, she said it felt more like a horror movie. And that’s kind of RJDJ in a nutshell.
MB: It’s almost as if we have been in a silent movie before and all of a sudden you’re in a movie that has a soundtrack.
RM: The possibilities are endless. If someone made the Bourne Identity chase music into an endless reactive music scene, I swear there is nothing the CIA could do to stop me. Yeah, you heard me, Panetta!
RM: But the makers of RJDJ aren’t content simply changing your perception of reality. They’re really looking to change music itself.
RT: To understand the sort of consequences of this advancement to composition of music you kind of have to look at it over a really wide timescale. You know, thousands of years ago music was something that I guess passed between people.
RM: And as a song was heard and replayed by someone else, it changed constantly.
RT: Relatively recently, we’ve invented notation which tries to record what that is, what a piece of music is in some kind of more definite form. And then very recently we’ve got used to the idea that music can be recorded and frozen in time into some form of conceptual object. And that object could be a CD, a piece of vinyl, a tape, or an MP3, they’re all conceptually exactly the same thing.
RM: And at this point, a single version of a song, I think a performance of a song, because The Song, and those thousands of years of mutability ended. But the technology of RJDJ puts an end to that.
RT: Now the studio is actually inside the iPhone, and that’s essentially what RJDJ is really, is a studio inside an iPhone. When that happens, when the delivery point of is actually studio itself, something really magical happens, because it means that mixdown, that way of freezing music back in time in a recording is no longer really necessary. It means that you can have multiple possible ways of experiencing a piece of music. So it’s kind of like worlds of music that you can explore.
RM: The promise of RJDJ is an unparalleled musical synchronicity with your surroundings. Rather than putting on a set of headphones to block out the rest of the word, RJDJ listeners will plug into a constantly changing, unique soundscape that connects them to what they’re doing and where they are in the world. I imagine walking around San Francisco, listening to a mashed-up combination of punk and hip hop that gives me a history of the neighborhood I’m traveling through. And the GPS will trigger a sound clip from Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo when I pass through Nob Hill. And the tempo will speed up as I scurry out of the way of an obnoxious bike messenger, into the path of an unnoticed oncoming cable car. My sudden lack of all movement as I lie on the pavement will elicit a pleasing harmonic drone from the iPhone earbuds, which will mix beautifully with the sirens from the paramedics as they approach. Or you can choose your own adventure.
RM: That’s the show for this week. I hope you enjoyed it. Stay tuned in the coming weeks, because I have lots of stories from me as well as some of the best radio producers in the world, who happen to be friends of mine, which is rockin’ that they’re doing pieces for 99% Invisible. I’m so happy about that. And spread the word. You guys have been so great. So twitter and blog and facebook and join up on facebook and like it on Facebook, I would really appreciate it. I’m still trying to get funding for the back half of the year, so everything you can do to spread the word helps us out. Alright, thanks so much. Take care.

Comments (1)


  1. I just started listening to this podcast, and was fascinated with this episode. I downloaded the Inception iPhone application and the default dream got me even more interested. However I soon discovered that the other dreams no longer produce sound on newer iPhone and iOS versions. Apparently the author has moved and the application is no longer supported. I am very disappointed. This is not, of course, a comment on your podcast, just an update on the status of the app for anyone who is reading hear.

    I love your podcasts and am looking forward to finishing up the backlog and then keeping up with any new episodes.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

All Categories