Interview with Robert Thomas from RjDj – Mobile Music #7


Robert ThomasRobert Thomas is a composer, performer and the Chief Creative Officer with RjDj. Through his work with RjDj he collaborated with Hans Zimmer on the Inception the app and was responsible for composing the music for Dimensions. I contacted him to ask about working with mobile music and he kindly offered to do an interview. We got to talk about his work with RjDj and some of his thoughts on the future of mobile music.

When I think about mobile music one of the most exciting/challenging aspects is balancing creating the interactive/adaptive experience with creating something is musical. Do you think about this when you’re composing?

Yes I think this is the key challenge really. For me its really about simultaneously thinking as both a composer and a software designer. The questions which come up for me are: How important is the interactivity? How obvious do you want the control to be? When do you want to give them control and when do you want to take them somewhere?

For projects aimed at the mainstream, I think its important that the interactivity is very simple and easy to understand. In the early days at RjDj we tried lots of complex systems which presented huge scope for the listener to control many parts of the music or make it adapt in subtle ways. 90% of this was not understood by the users.

More recently we have tried to create very simple interactive experiences, which focus on one interactive element at a time. Our use of direct audio input with various DSP manipulations is the most straightforward and effective tool we use. Its very easy for people to understand that their environments interaction with the music is causing different sonic results.

You mentioned the need to make the interactivity apparent. I know there can be a blurred distinction here but is there a danger with this type of interactivity that it stops being a piece of music becomes an instrument?

I think there is a danger, but its possible to stay on the side of making a tool for musical navigation and not an instrument. One example of this is how we treat rhythmic structures in things like the Action Dream in Inception or the Kinetic Dimension in Dimensions.

In both these pieces, the users activity – detected by the accelerometer, is translated into the ‘intensity’ of the drums and percussion. If they walk the drums are engaged, if they run then hectic beats kick in. For the user the clarity of the feedback makes it easy to understand how the music is reacting to them and how they control it. However, they don’t need to have any musical ability to interact. I think the danger of becoming a musical instrument is much more apparent if the user is required to undertake direct interaction.

Are you moving away from subtle interactivity as it’s a less interesting experience for the listener?

There is a complex balance. The main danger is that users don’t value it as being any different from a normal piece of music. After all, without understanding of cause and effect it is just a piece of music. This can be frustrating for the creator if the interactivity is a key feature. It really depends on what you intend.

If you want people to understand the interactivity, then I think its better to make it clear. Obscure interactivity can cause frustration in people who are trying to understand it. If the interaction is laid bare and easy to understand the artist judged in a very straightforward and open way on how it feels to be in a causal relationship with that piece.

Overall, I think there is always room for both. While Inception and Dimensions have a surface layer of extremely obvious musical interactions, each of the dreams and dimensions also has much more subtle variances which only become apparent on repeated listens.

Where do you think mobile music will be in the next 5-10 years?

I hope it will be where video games were in the 90s. At the moment we are where video games were in the 1980s in terms of sophistication. I think there is a turning of the tide going on with artists getting into releasing interactive music, especially in app form. Bjork’s app is an interesting example. We have been approached by a number of artists recently who really ‘get’ the approach, it will be interesting working with them.