Music Apps Killed the MP3 Star


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The Hollywood life cycle has become familiar: it starts as a movie, continues as a comic, and then proceeds to app stage.

This is where Inception, the summer's popcorn brain-twirler from director Christopher Nolan, currently is at, having arrived in the iTunes Store today as an app.

But what's great is that the app isn't everyday brand-emblazoned cookie-cutter smartphone fodder.

What it is is a beautifully crafted remix of the great reactive audio app, RjDj. And it's free.

Nolan and Inception score composer Hans Zimmer worked with software producer Michael Breidenbrüker, of RjDj parent company Reality Jockey (Breidenbrüker was also one of the founders of Last.fm), to develop a version of the company's flagship software that channels the dream-like aesthetic and logic of the film.

RjDj is a reactive app, which means it takes signals from the real/physical world and processes them in real time. In the case of RjDj (along with its iPad sibling, Rj Voyager), this is a combination of familiar iOS tactile maneuvers, like touching the screen or shaking the device, and the senses-warping experience of hearing sounds around you transformed. Audio enters through your microphone, and then emerges ever so slightly augmented via your headphones.

True to the originating film, the Inception app takes your surrounding sonic world -- background noise, your voice, etc. -- and alters it, lending an echoing depth, mixing in familiar music from the film (including the "Dream Is Collapsing" theme that features former Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr), and so forth. There are various distinct stages that fit together like pieces of a puzzle that need to be solved by the player. Each stage is a dream with its own rules and its own sonic properties.

All of this is presented less as a sound app than as a dream app, an app intended to not just simulate the dream experience but to stimulate it (while RjDj is listed in the iTunes store's Music app category, the Inception app is filed under Games).

Zimmer, who is one of the most prominent and prolific Hollywood film composers (Gladiator, The Dark Knight), provides in a brief promotional video a passionate and pithy manifesto for the reactive-music movement: "The thing I've been searching for, that I've been working on forever now, is a way to get beyond recorded music, to get beyond you just download a piece of music and it just ... it's just always the same."

When Zimmer says he's been searching for this for forever, he isn't kidding. In many ways, the RjDj/Inception remodeling of music consumption can trace its roots back to a 1979 hit by his one-time band, the Buggles: "Video Killed the Radio Star."

If Tuesday was a big day for sound art, Wednesday was a big one for reactive sound.

Get the Inception app (for free) at this iTunes Store Link. It runs on the iPad, the iPhone, and the iPod Touch (the latter second generation and up).

The RjDj app is supported by a thriving community of programmers who produce original "scenes" that you can use to filter and process your world. Some scenes are free, others are for sale within RjDj. (Hey, it's a store, within an app, from within the iTunes store -- it's like Inception! OK, enough of that.) Learn how to develop original RjDj scenes here.