Astonishing! The Many Facets of Jordan Rudess

Jordan Rudess on Dream Theater's new rock opera, his latest solo album, and the future of prog
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Jordan Rudess is arguably the best keyboardist in rock music today, and the argument doesn’t take long. He trained at the world-renowned Juilliard School of Music, where he first studied as a child prodigy at age nine. As a teen, he defected to synthesizers in a classic act of rock ’n’ roll rebellion. He came onto our radar in 1994, when Keyboard readers voted him “best new talent,” and in the more than two decades since has become the universally acknowledged heir to the shredding throne of such prog-rock royalty as Keith Emerson and Rick Wakeman. Best known for his long tenure with progressive metal potentates Dream Theater, he’s the paradigm of how much keyboards can do in the context of heavy rock.

Jordan is also as much a technologist as he is a virtuoso. Long an advocate of musical interfaces beyond the traditional keyboard, he has helped put alternative controllers such as the Haken Continuum, Roger Linn Design LinnStrument, and Roli Seaboard on the map. (He even wrote about the subject in our June 2015 issue.) And his own company, Wizdom Music, develops instrument apps for Apple iOS.

His latest project with Dream Theater is The Astonishing, a 34-track rock opera about a hero who wields the power of music against a dystopian empire. Far from mere swords-and-spaceships entertainment, it takes the listener through as many plot twists as it does musical moods, time-signature changes, and solos that seem to defy the laws of physics. We spoke to Jordan about Dream Theater’s most ambitious album ever, his new solo piano release, his latest app, and more.

How did the storyline for The Astonishing evolve?

About two years ago [Dream Theater’s founding guitarist] John Petrucci started to think about it. The band knew that we wanted to do a concept album, but had been waiting for the right time. We wanted to get fans comfortable with the new drummer Mike Mangini and get him comfortable with us. At the end of the last world tour, he handed me a synopsis of the story, which he’d been constantly pounding on and refining and rewriting. When we got to writing music to it, it was like composing for an opera or a film score. We’d have meetings about it every morning where we’d go, “We last saw this character five songs ago, so let’s use a variation on that theme . . .” It’s certainly the most detailed thing we’ve ever done.

You worked with the renowned orchestrator David Campbell, and the album contains both his arrangements for orchestra and yours for keyboards. What was the division of labor between the two of you?

We all knew we wanted the sounds to be as organic as possible: real piano and organ, real strings and choirs as opposed to virtual ones. David has a tremendous résumé, of course, and was on our radar as an orchestral arranger who had also worked with rock groups such as Muse. We thought he’d be too busy, but we asked him and he signed on! Our initial thought was, let’s do it all on rock instruments and let David arrange it, but that wasn’t really thinking ahead in terms of who we are. When we go into the studio, we tend to work on things until they’re pretty polished. So we got into what we called pre-orchestrating. I’d use any sound at my disposal to place strings where we wanted to hear strings, choir where we wanted choir, and so forth—but without getting overly specific about a certain patch or instrument library being the one, because we knew it was all going to be replaced with real players.

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Beyond the instrument sounds, did the arrangements themselves change much?

Sure, which was the point of bringing him in. He might say, “Jordan, we don’t need that thick of a string chord here, because I’m going to bring woodwinds in for the middle register.” I’d simply go, “Hey, you’re the man!” Because of his experience, he was great at knowing exactly where to do what, within our needs and budget. He used some great orchestra musicians in Prague, singers in L.A., there’s a beautiful soprano that sings some lilting, mysterious-sounding stuff. David played violin himself on an intro to one of the tracks.

This must have involved a degree of remote collaboration. How did you go about that?

John Petrucci and I would chime in via the Internet as much as we could. We’d type in a private URL, for example, and then we’d be listening to the conductor rehearsing the orchestra in Prague. David would also be online making comments. Since we couldn’t usually be there, it was great to be in on the sessions virtually. Even before that stage though, when John presented me with the story I was exhausted from the last tour, so I’d sit at the digital piano in my living room and capture musical ideas, just into my iPhone. Eventually John and I knew we needed to get together every day, so we booked time at Cove City Studios on Long Island. I had my whole world of virtual instruments inside of Logic Pro, so I just brought my MacBook, we plugged in his guitar, and for a while that was how we wrote. At a reasonable point, we started transferring audio stems to Pro Tools for our engineer, Rich Chycki, who was in charge of getting files to David Campbell.

With laptops powerful enough to do tons of audio tracks, to what degree do you still rely on MIDI to lay down your parts?

I grew up with MIDI and still rely on it a lot for flexibility. But it lives within the computer and on virtual instrument tracks, at least in terms of my writing workflow. What I’m not doing so much anymore is sending MIDI data all around the room to trigger all my hardware keyboards—they’re still there, but more to be played in real time when I get inspiration. Now, the worries are more about making sure all my samples are properly organized on hard drives and that my iLok is handy and my licenses are up to date! [Laughs.]

Some people are cynical about the whole concept of “concept rock.” They view operatic storylines and extended instrumental movements as hokey. What would you tell them?

First of all, I’d say it’s a privilege to be in a group that can even pull this off, both musically and in terms of the support from management and the fans. Our fans are an amazing bunch; they’ll analyze every note we play and discover things we didn’t even know existed! [Laughs.] So to give them a story is appealing and, well . . . fun! Another reason I’m excited about doing this is, I feel like the way we listen to and even how we create music is all very scattered. People might download one song here, stream a channel there. We’re all multitasking and consuming our music in dribs and drabs—and that kind of sucks.

But this very fact makes a lot of people still crave the long-form experience like when you put on headphones and lose yourself in an album, and a lot of those people are our fans. So we’re putting it out there because we can. We’re even telling our fans, “If you’re looking to hear big previous hits like ‘Pull Me Under,’ this tour is going to be all about The Astonishing from beginning to end.” We plan to do it in really nice theaters where people can relax and listen actively.

It also needs to be said that both in terms of musicianship and musical moods, this surpasses any previous Dream Theater album. It can go from very heavy to very delicate, such as the almost chamber-music section with harpsichord on “A New Beginning.”

Yeah. Though this is definitely a “Dream Theater album,” it called upon us to go even deeper and broader than we normally do. It’s . . . fusion of sorts. In one sense it’s “prog,” but it goes beyond any combination of elements we’ve ever done. Some of that fell to me. I had to go into my electronica world to create the sound of the Noise Machine creatures, which enforce for the bad guys. It also had me thinking about musical theater a lot of the time, and that sort of song form. My wife is a theater producer and my daughter is going into theater, so there’s a lot of theater in my life!

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You said fusion. Some of the songs had a precision to them that reminded me a little of the Dixie Dregs, which you played in.

What’s funny about that is, when I first joined Dream Theater, they were very aware of the Dregs. I’d play something I felt came from my progressive rock influences—Gentle Giant, King Crimson, Yes, ELP, early Genesis—and they’d go, “Hey, that sounds kind of Dregs-ish!” When I met Steve Morse and was in the Dregs, I remember thinking, “This is sort of a different take on a Gentle Giant thing, with the counterpoint and switching time signatures and such.” So subconsciously, there may be some Dregs-like things in there, but if it has to be pinned on something, it would more likely be classic prog.

You also mentioned electronica, which shows up on The Astonishing in interludes like “The Hovering Sojourn,” “Digital Discord,” “Machine Chatter,” and “Power Down.” What can you share about their sound design?

Those encompassed a lot of different things. First of all, Spectrasonics Omnisphere 2, which is the one thing I go to all the time. Richard Devine made some really cool patches for it, and if you’re looking for futuristic, glitchy sounds, he’s the king. I’m very much into the Heavyocity tools, such as Damage and Evolve—Dave Fraser, who’s one of their main guys, made me some amazing custom sounds for ships hovering and all those “impact” sounds you hear. I would walk up to the keyboard and be thinking, “So this is how they do it in the movies!” [Laughs.] I used Sugar Bytes’ soft synth Cyclop for some aggressive sounds. We also dug into some Hollywood sound FX libraries, and our engineer Rich was great at trying different combinations of things and layering them in Pro Tools.

“Dystopian Overture” features a call-and-answer section with a huge number of sounds rapidly playing the same line in succession . . .

That goes back and forth between the orchestra and the band. The guitar has an answer, the bass has one, I do one on piano, I do one with a mallet sound, one with a synth sound—oh, and one with a signature Dream Theater sound I call the “snarling pig.” Through the years I’ve had to reprogram it for every keyboard platform I’ve used!

Your signature lead sound often focuses on guitar-like bends, hammer-ons, harmonics, and feedback, and shows that keys can rock every bit as hard as guitars. Some keyboardists, though, say a synth player should strive to sound distinct from guitars. Your thoughts?

I definitely have feelings about that. Very often when a keyboardist simply chases a guitar sound, it’s just not going to be as cool. Not if you’re simply trying to imitate a guitar. Luckily, I feel that in my role as a synth programmer, I’ve created-slash-stumbled-upon some sounds that have impact and totally work in a rock lead context. Given the makeup and style of Dream Theater, I need something that’s going to fly over the mix—you could think of the whole band as the guitar domain.

I’ve never really found stock sounds on any synth that suit that purpose. I have sounds I made when I played Kurzweil technology, which I brought into the Korg realm. Currently, the joystick on my Kronos brings in different harmonics, the two assignable buttons bring in two more, and the ribbon control brings in a sub-octave plus a little more grunge. So it’s not meant to sound like a guitar, but to be as effective as one in the world I live in, not to mention playable with the articulation controllers my gear provides.

On this album, there’s also a lead played on the Roli Seaboard Grand Stage that’s a similar idea. [Hear this solo starting at 1:19 on the song “The Path Divides.”] I wanted something to cut, but also to take advantage of the Seaboard’s style of gliding, which lets you do long bends across the entire key range. It would be very hard to even think like that on a guitar.

Did you use your new app GeoShred for any guitar-like solos?

Yeah. It was just coming together as this album was being made, but I had to use it on one rockin’ solo! You can hear it on the tune “A New Beginning” between 4:27 and 4:42. [For more on GeoShred, see the sidebar below.]

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Speaking of GeoShred, how did your interest in being a synth app developer begin?

When the first iPhone came out, somebody had made this little one-or two-octave app for it, which had a one-or two-octave piano keyboard and made a very basic sound. It was about the same time my wife and I had bought our nine-foot Steinway D. I’m sitting there playing with this app, and my wife goes, “What are you doing? There’s this beautiful grand piano in the other room.” But I was fascinated. I knew there was the potential to put your finger on one spot to make a sound, then move it and get more expression. I kept my eye on the App Store to see what others were up to, and eventually met a developer named Kevin Chartier. We worked together on what would eventually become MorphWiz. That won a Billboard award in 2010, which gave me some momentum, and Wizdom Music was born.

Tell us more about your work with the Seaboard from Roli Labs, for whom you’re now Chief Music Officer.

I’ve always been interested in hardware that lets you think outside the keyboard box about controlling pitch and adding expression. It’s very exciting to see a company that’s trying to evolve the 12-note keyboard into a multi-touch, multi-expressive surface. The Seaboard Rise model has what they call “5D touch,” and all of it is on a per-note, polyphonic basis. Strike velocity, pressure, left-right glide, lift, and slide, which tracks the Y-axis of the keys.

As a longtime fan of alternative controllers, why do you think they haven’t caught on more broadly yet?

One of the challenges, especially for a keyboardist, is playing a simple chord. It gets pretty deep to think about hitting the right notes at the same time you’re pressing harder on this one as you slide up on that one. But we’ve got to push into a place where that kind of thinking is more mainstream. I think it really helps that the Seaboard retains the piano keyboard shape and therefore it’s relatable. Some things that have come before were very expressive, but their interfaces were so left-of-center that they only appealed to the enthusiast segment—guys like me. But I think the Seaboard could appeal to, say, a violinist who’s also an arranger-composer, needs to get a line down before a show, and realizes, “Look, I can add vibrato by rocking my finger.” For the keyboardist who wants to put some brainshare behind finger independence, I think it can really up the whole game. Look at the evolution of guitar. When Clapton or Hendrix were first hitting it big, no one could even imagine how a Steve Vai or a John Petrucci plays today. I’d like to see the Seaboard or something like it do the same for keyboard playing.

Let’s discuss some more album tracks. “Three Days” is one of the lyrically darker tunes on the album. Why the saloon-style honky tonk piano shuffle smack in the middle?

Things can get rather serious, rather academic and baroque, in the prog rock world. So we’re always looking for moments where we can do something kind of fun and maybe make people smile. At that point in the storyline, things are bleak and it’s villainous, so it seemed a good time to throw in that juxtaposition. There’s an almost Dixieland section later on, too, which I mocked up on a bunch of virtual instruments and sent to David Campbell. That’s a good example of John and I digging a little deeper than we normally would stylistically—and learning something in the process.

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The Hammond organ is a prog staple, but we don’t hear a lot of it on this album, so it stood out on the track “The X Aspect.”

As someone who went from classical piano at Juilliard to being into Rick Wakeman and Keith Emerson, I did pay more attention to the synthesizer side of things than the organ side. My first instrument beyond the piano was a Minimoog. In the past, I’d use an organ sound from whatever my main synth was at the time—there have been organ parts on DT songs for sure, and we once covered the entire Deep Purple album Made In Japan—but we’ve never really been a “Hammond band.” For this album, again, we wanted everything real, but I actually wasn’t sure what the organ would bring. Then we went into this one studio that had a great Hammond B-3 and a killer Leslie. First of all, it was loud as shit! It growled and made your bones rattle. [Makes a growling sound.] I thought, “So this is what the guitar players get to feel!” Especially when you do techniques like a palm wipe, you just can’t get that feeling out of a synthesizer. Maybe if you play a straight fifth or something, but once you start moving around, it’s all the little inconsistencies that just make it. I’m really proud of the organ sounds I’ve programmed over the years, so I hate to admit it, but the real thing is very, very cool.

The fast portamento synth part on “The Walking Shadow” is almost Zappa-like in its angular quality. What was its inspiration?

That’s another great example of John and I having the freedom to be a little quirky and bring in new styles. The funny thing is, it’s played against this heavy Metallica-like guitar riff, dunduh-duh-duh-dun. The sound is from the Korg Kronos. As a prog band we’ll often tip our hat to the 1970s, so a portamento Minimoog-type lead, which I programmed in octaves, was perfect.

Do you have any favorite keyboard moments on the album that we haven’t yet discussed?

There’s a fun part at the end of the first single we released, “The Gift of Music.” It’s light, and started out with what might be a Dregs-ish kind of part in the eyes of my bandmates. I wrote it down, because I thought it would be cool to come up with a line that went against it. John then wrote another part you can hear panned in the other speaker, but thought the final result was too quirky to use. I pushed for keeping it, and I’m glad we did!

There’s a debate in jazz that may have a parallel in prog. One school of thought says jazz should be straight-ahead and all about bebop; another says it should always be trying new things—the dictionary definition of “progressive.”

This is a really big topic, and I talk about it a lot. What does progressive rock mean? To a lot of people, it means you’re emulating what happened in the ’70s: Yes, Genesis, ELP, Pink Floyd, King Crimson. I think the word came about because those guys were seriously pushing the boundaries for the time, using the energy of rock but the harmonies and rhythms of a whole lot more. I think where we’re at now is, we’re in that spirit but always searching for more musical influences to bring in. That can mean that bands—Dream Theater included—occasionally sound retro and make references, not unlike what modern jazz players do. Everyone in our audience has a Yes headspace, a Genesis headspace, and so on, so we can speak those languages and use them as communication tools. If we can also apply some literally progressive ideas, like bringing in ambient electronic influences or using instruments like GeoShred or the Seaboard that people haven’t seen before, to me that’s really exciting. For my solo music and projects with other groups such as the Liquid Tension Experiment, I’m always looking for that edge, and also to do things that wouldn’t necessarily fit in the Dream Theater context. So I get to be progressive in that sense, and at times when musicians come over to my studio and it’s a big sonic party where there are no rules!

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THE UNFORGOTTEN PATH

Recorded at home on his prized Steinway D, Jordan Rudess’ latest solo album comprises haunting piano arrangements of originals and an eclectic mix of covers. “A lot of these songs are ones that for a long time, if I just sat at a piano I’d gravitate towards playing one,” he explains. “But I’d never recorded my own versions of them, and had a little chunk of time in my studio last August before the whole Dream Theater thing got crazy again. I had my friend John Guth over, who has all these beautiful mics and the know-how to record it properly. Then I just had to pick the songs. They’re a combination of progressive rock melodies I love—things like King Crimson’s ‘Moonchild’ or even ‘Grandchester Meadows’ by Pink Floyd. Then there are Beatles songs like ‘Here, There, and Everywhere’ and even Sondheim’s ‘Send In the Clowns,’ which is such a beautiful melody. The originals include ‘For Japan,’ which I wrote after the tsunami and earthquake of 2011, and ‘Tribute to Jobs,’ which I originally wrote on my MorphWiz app after Steve Jobs passed. As much as I get into the synthesizer headspace, playing my piano equals emotional home.” Check it out on iTunes, Amazon, or CDBaby.

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GEOSHRED

“GeoShred, my company’s new iPad app, is based on a physical guitar model. One thing it can do really well is to create organic feedback I’ve never really been able to get from a synth. It’s like you’re really controlling the beast—like the feedback is going to get out of hand unless you harness it,” says Jordan. “The programmers are all people I initially met at CCRMA [Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics] at Stanford University. They had all sorts of incredible applications for modeling, many of them developed by Professor Julius Smith. Sure, you can make it fretless so you can do crazy bends, or lock it down so it only plays pitches in a given scale. But it explores many more interactions between the touchscreen and the underlying model that really, the iPad is the ideal interface for playing in a way that’s really musically effective.”

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