Interview with Jordan Rudess
This could be a clichéd first question – but it’s an important one: How on earth did you end up being a musician?
Well, the way the story goes is – I was introduced to the piano in my second grade classroom. I would go in and be very attracted to the piano and play – and one day the teacher called up my mother and said “Jordan is playing the piano very beautifully” and my mother was like “what are you talking about he doesn’t play the piano”, the teacher was like “yes he does, he plays” so – I started in the classroom and then, when my mother found out that I was starting to play it, naturally she bought a piano and I started taking lessons.
The funny part of the story is that the teachers started me on the usual little Red Book – you know, the little notes that everybody starts on and I learned the first piece but I was improvising a little bit on it, so the teacher came in he just said “forget about the book, I’ll just teach you to play without it”, so that was kind of the beginning and I started more as kind of an improviser. And then once people around me started to see that I have actually had some talent, they said “Oh, you need to go to a serious music teacher!”.
So that’s kind of the way everything began…. I ended up going to Juilliard, I started Juilliard when I was nine and then I got to the point where I had to re-audition and go to the college level – because they have the preparatory division and then they have the college division.
So I auditioned for the college level of Juilliard and I got into that too and I went to that for almost a year, but then I left because the teacher was demanding that I memorized everything she assigned me the first week, and I was already very into to progressive rock and I was into my mini Moog and, you know, there was a lot of other things that I wanted to to.
So even though I didn’t really have an idea – those days you didn’t have ‘Berkeleys’ and ‘Musicians Institutes’, and places where you could really study cooler things – the only option was to go study like academic electronic music with one of the guys at Juilliard that was just making ‘Bleep’ and ‘Blop’ sounds – you know, terrible sounds. So I just said goodbye to them at Juilliard and went on on my own at that point.
During your student years, you turned from classical piano to progressive keyboards – What made you switch?
Yeah, the reason I changed was because – in my teenage years people started to turn me on to groups like ‘Yes’ and ‘Genesis’, ‘King Crimson’ and ‘Pink Floyd’ and I was very very interested, but the real – the strongest influence was ‘Emerson Lake and Palmer’ when my friend turned me on to the ‘Tarkus’ album and I realized that keyboards could have incredible power. I was aware of all the harmonies that I heard, that Keith Emerson was using in his music, but I didn’t – I wasn’t aware of that kind of power. So to hear that all together – his fusion of his harmonic synths, he used a lot of suspended chords and chords just built on fourths, plus this powerful sound, and that was like – a good driving force for me to start moving in a different direction.
So as they say, ‘the straw that broke the camel’s back’ was that the teacher at Juilliard was very intense, to me she was like ‘annoying’, and so what she demanded that I memorize everything else I said ‘I don’t have time for this, I don’t want to do it’. So that’s when I left.
You have had an extensive career playing with a lot of artists, is there anyone in particular who made you say: “wow, that was amazing, what did you do there?”. What’s the story?
Going back to my initial ‘progressive rock’ years and all the keyboardist that I looked up to: Initially learning about Pitch Bending – you know I grew up in a world where it was just the piano and pressing notes it hits the strings and, that was it!
So when I started to hear things like – I think the first time I really got turned on to Pitch Bending was hearing Patrick Moraz playing on an album called ‘Refugee’ – I was just blown away, I was like ‘How the hell is he doing that, what is that!’ and I had to know, it was just so cool! So that was mind blowing, you know that that kind of thing… for sure.
Another another thing that blew my mind many years ago was when I first heard Tomita – what he would do with synthesizers, and to this day it’s still amazing to think about what that guy did in his studio with the the modular synthesizers – you know, incredible expression.
You have been so involved with music technology in the past, what is the tool/technology that completely changed the way you approached music? Is there a ground-breaking tool or technology that you feel is going to be “the next big thing?”
Well, one of the things that was really groundbreaking for me and – and really for everybody, was the multitouch surface. The first one that came out that everybody could put their hands on was the iPhone, right? It wasn’t incredibly expensive, people could actually hold them, use…
Although when the iPhone came out it didn’t really do anything at all – musically or visually, however there was some very basic kind of sounds and visuals that Apple had released… So when I got my hands on the very first iPhone – at this point many years ago, I started to really imagine and envision what would be possible with touch. The idea of having each finger that goes down on the surface, actually independently control the sound and so – it’s actually pretty funny story which is that, it was about the same time that my wife and invested for my 50th birthday in a ‘Steinway D Concert Grand’. And so I have this incredible piano I just bought, but at the same time I got this this iPhone which made crappy sounds and looked terrible. But I was sitting on the couch making weird sounds, and my wife was like ‘what are you doing?!, why are you making that horrible sound, we just bought this incredible piano! You should play that’.
I was like ‘no no no, I have something in my mind. I got an idea, leave me alone.’
As it turns out that year I connected with a wonderful programmer and we developed ‘MorphWiz’, which was my very first app and it won the ‘Billboard Best Music App Award’ that year. And so, of course, Danielle (my wife) said to me ‘Oh! Keep playing with your little toy there, make some more! Don’t play the piano, play that!’
So that that device led me to all kinds of things, and also I think was a starting point for the industry to kind of expand and start to move into another important space, because out of that – Of course everybody has a multi touch device in their pocket, and so there’s all that and – especially at first, it was all this incredible creativity coming out that was kind of blowing people’s minds, things they could buy for like three dollars, that they could all of a sudden be doing on their phones and – you know, more creative, more experimental interesting things on there than any hardware that was coming out. Things like bouncing balls in the screen and they knocked into each other in a certain way that would change the harmonies, granular synthesis… all kinds of cool stuff so I think what happened was – It opened up the door for people to start to think about hardware as well: When you started to have instruments like the Continuum, the Linnstrument, the Roli Seaboard…
And to this they were watching that all expand and that’s really a place where I’m particularly involved and interested, is and all those kinds of expressions because I feel like I kind of was there at the beginning kind of envisioning some of that and now watching it all happen…
You’ve worked on your “Bach to Rock” tour lately – How was the reception? Why do you think it was important to show those worlds face to face?
Well, it was really wonderful for me personally because, you know, the piano is like ‘Home Base’ for me – it’s how I got started.
This one instrument that I feel I can truly just sit and express myself I have to say it was the piano, although I love playing so many things, but the piano is a ‘Home Base’, it’s very comfortable for me to express my emotions and my musicality.
So to come back and have a kind of focus to go back and literally learn some Bach and some Chopin and, you know, write some original piano music and arrange ‘Dream Theater’ music, it was a great thing for me to invest my time into it, it was great my hands, I felt it was great for my musicality – you know, return to the classics, get the foundation that’s strong again, and be able to get to a point where I could present it all in public. It was also a life story it was really my journey. The shows were a mixture of playing and also telling the story, my whole path – some of which I shared with you today in this interview. And then I feel like the audiences around the world really appreciated this journey. And people love to listen to music, there’s no doubt, but they also really appreciate something conceptual, a story along with it.
So this show kind of provided that, it was a chance to play some music – very satisfying personally but also something that was entertaining for the fans around the world, so I got some wonderful reaction, it was so nice, and I hadn’t really – I’ve never done like a world tour on piano before, as long as I’ve been playing piano you’d think I have, but my life got so busy with my groups – ‘Dream Theater’ has been twenty years now!
So this year I had the time and I decided that it would be really great to do this. Actually one of the things that helped me along the way is that my wife Danielle is a theater producer, so when we started to talk about this idea of my going out and playing and doing piano shows, she was like ‘Oh, Okay! I hope you kind of develop a concept for it’, so we did that together. That’s how it kind of came about. So we worked on this show.
What is your creative process as an individual? What inspires you, how does a “Rudess” composition take form?
Well, my composition process is always a little bit different, because I use a lot of different technologies probably and I’m very open to different ways to do things, different ideas… A lot of my creativity comes out of my improvisations, I’m a big improviser so, like for me to sit at the piano and just play something that’s off the top of my head that comes to mind, can be very easy. The only thing that might stop that process is that there may be a lot of distractions in my mind, you know – things in real life kind of getting in the way of just relaxing, sitting down, just playing music. But generally I stay fairly relaxed, which means I can go to the piano, start playing something that you’ve never heard before. So that helps in a big way to the composition process, because I can get ideas started.
One of the biggest ways that I write music is, I’ll go into my studio, I’ll start to play something – I got a feel for something, and then I’ll just record it. And then I’m able to go back because of, you know, our wonderful software these days: I can play something, I can go back and look at it in notation. And then I can start to overdub tracks, maybe what I played end up being almost like a pencil sketch and I’ll take that out, if it’s just a piano – because on the piano you can obviously express harmonies and bass lines and melodies and everything at the same time, and so that’s very helpful to get things started.
Other ways to get things started is with a particular sound. You know like all call up some amazing texture, you know, I’ll use a ‘Blendstrument’ to get something really ‘spacey’ going on and it’s really cool and then i can go in with other things maybe filling in and do something that is more sonic and more spacey.
Or I’ll start with a loop, like some kind of a drum groove, and then I’ll work from the bottom up, like with a bass line and do that.
So all kinds of ways and because you know, my musical output is very much of a fusion of different styles, that’s why I kind of come into it in different ways, whether it’s from a drum goove or a bass line or a piano piece… or just a very very cool sound effect could do it as well. And very often the sounds will really dictate what I’m gonna play. I really respond to sound… Like, if I call up one of the amazing choirs from the 8Dio collection, you know, a lot of them breathe – they’re very different than a lot of the other sounds that are out there in this vast universe of million companies making sounds. Something like the ‘Insolidus’ choir, which has the real breath, that you kinda really have to follow… Yeah, it’s gonna dictate kinda what I’m gonna do, I’m obviously not gonna play something that doesn’t sound natural with it, so the sounds tend to really lead me to my musical goal and guide me as well… There’s nothing like a great sound because it provides the inspiration.
What’s happening in your life today that excites you and that you want to share?
So there’s a lot of things going on these days – actually just yesterday I was in the studio, the final day of mixing my new solo album which is coming out on ‘Mascot Records’ in April. We’re not quite at the point where I’m announcing to name and all the details of the album but I am saying that it’s that I have a new solo album, it’s in the progressive rock vibe and I’m very excited about it – It has all kinds of cool guests playing on it.
Today my engineer is delivering the final CD to check everything about it, but I haven’t done one like this in a while, the last album I did that was related was probably the one called ‘The Road Home’, which was a collection of my favorite progressive rock tunes that I re-did, re-arranged. Before that I had an album called ‘Rhythm of Time’ which was also very progressive. So this is kind of like a follow-up along those lines, some years later but It’s the big work. There’s actually a thirty-three minute song on it, so it’s really ‘proggy’. I also did some singing on the album too, and there’s a progressive-kind of blues track on it, with a very special guest who will be announced soon.
I’m really excited…
And so that’s one thing, and then in February we’re releasing the new ‘Dream Theater’ album which is called ‘Distance Over Time’, I’m really excited about that too. We’re also going to be going on tour not only supporting the new album, but we’re celebrating the 20th anniversary of ‘Scenes From a Memory’ which is the first album that I did with ‘Dream Theater’ and it’s a very popular album so, it’s getting a lot of energy and buzz around it – I know a lot of people are gonna come out and join us and see the show, it should be really really fun.