In a room with Jordan Rudess

Gowri Jayakumar, student and our resident scribe gets Jordan Rudess to talk about education, his world of music, his innovative apps, collaborations and his beard.

By age nine, he was at The Juilliard School studying classical music – an academic journey that lasted a decade! Fast forward to a time when he’s ripping it on stage with one of the most well-known progressive metal bands in the world. Having spent over 12 years as the keyboardist of Dream Theater, there is hardly a regular day in the life of Jordan Rudess. When he isn’t touring, which he is most part of the year, he’s a music app innovator for Apple and Android devices. While his love for progressive rock remains untarnished, when alone Rudess gravitates towards music that is “gentle on the spirit”. He is all about exploring the sonic landscape of the world (of music). And I managed to steal him into one of the piano rooms at Swarnabhoomi Academy of Music during his one-week workshop last month, and ask a bunch of questions. Completely at ease by a grand piano, he often let his fingers do the talking.

What inspired that beard?

The hair doesn’t grow as well on the top of my head! I used to have really long hair. I don’t know.  It’s gone through different stages – first it started to grow a little, then I went through sideburns and moustache and this and that. But yeah, finally, the beard just started to grow, and I thought this is pretty cool. And that’s it.

(If) and when you’re down and blue, what do you listen to?

I would play the blues (haha)! I generally like to listen to things are kind of more mellow than what I play with Dream Theater (DT). I like going back and listening to Michael Hedges, and more recently I’ve been listening to a lot of Sigur Rós (they’re awesome). But I’m a big progressive rock fan. I always like to listen to Genesis and Yes and Pink Floyd. I like electronic music too – things like Aphex Twin. I love Porcupine Tree and the offshoot that I actually played in for a while – Blackfield.

How has your taste evolved over the time you’ve been playing with DT?

I am interested in what’s happening sonically in the world – things that are pushing the envelope a little bit, a bit more progressive-minded. I’ve always liked spacey music, but there was a movement that happened over the last few years with electronic music right…that was very progressive, very cool. There are so many different types of genres, but they’re called IDM (Intelligent Dance Music) or Glitchy – and now there’s the whole Skrillex kind of thing. It’s interesting.

Do you play a lot of what you listen to?

I’m totally the opposite. I don’t like to listen to a lot of hard rock and stuff. It’s funny, but I like to listen to things that are more gentle on my spirit. I love what I do. I love going out with DT and playing things that are…intense, progressive, heavy and wild. But when I’m in my own space, I tend to gravitate towards things that are a little bit more calm, and I’m interested in sounds. You know … I’m a synthesist. So I want to hear cool sounds, the different timbres…I get that when I listen to Sigur Rós – they are so conscious of all the sonic elements.

The success of DT…

I think the style of DT is an interesting one because we can go into that direction where it’s technical and advanced and cerebral at many levels. But the reality is, if you look at the people in the group – like the kind of things I’m telling you and the kind of person John Petrucci is, and since we’re the main writers of the group – we love things that are melodic.

So I think what separates DT from the rest of the bands and the reason we have had a career all around the world is because we’re not afraid to be melodic … it’s this interesting combination of musicians for whom the academic side of what we’re doing comes very easily and naturally. It’s not forced, it’s just what we enjoy at that level, but at the same time we love melody, emotions … and I think that’s what the people around the world respond to.

Do you compose music keeping an audience in mind?

Well, first of all the music has to make us feel right you know. If it is something that we can relate to – if it is cool, trippy, adventurous or emotional –then that’s the beginning. Then we think ‘what will our fans think of this,’ because with DT, we make a living playing for people around the world, and there’s a lot of people very invested in what we do, and we want them to be happy as well.

Does being in DT give you complete musical freedom personally?

DT is a very large window of stylistic possibilities … for sure I can do all kinds of stuff. But since my whole life is really all about music, I mean that’s all I really do … and there’s so many different kinds of music and if I want to play like real spacey electronic music, that’s not going to happen in a DT format.  If I want to play something extremely hypnotic and mellow or something really jazzy, that won’t happen in the DT format either. The only thing that might happen is a little break in the song with those styles. I can do a lot of things but I have other outlets for that … like Liquid Tension Experiment. When we did that album, it was basically three of the guys from DT (the main writers) with Mike Portnoy at the time and Tony Levin, a wonderful bass-player. But the music really very different, and that was because we were coming into something that was a totally new thing. And we had no expectations on anybody’s part … like the fan’s part – they didn’t there was a new group – or for the musicians. They called me and they didn’t really know what I would bring…that was cool, because even with the same guys, it was different music.

Your most memorable collaborations.

Oh I love collaborating. You know I don’t have that much time, but when I do, I search out and welcome the opportunity to play with new people, because it’s just so interesting. I’ve collaborated a little with Steven Wilson of Porcupine Tree, I love his musicality and whenever we  have a chance to do  something together I welcome that because I can relate to where he’s coming from musically, and I think about that sometimes when I’m playing by myself. You know, I’m a classically trained musician from Juilliard, but I was always interested in improvising and things that were natural as well. But Steven is someone who is totally coming at it naturally and I’m fascinated with that, because music – the core of it is really just a natural experience. And since we’re here (SAM) right now, I just had  my first little jam with Prasanna today and I was like, wow this is so cool, because he’s coming from such a different space that there’s a lot I can learn from, and that to me is really exciting.

How important is music education?

It is incredibly important. I feel like people around the world almost think like, with great musicians it’s almost like magic or something. That they’re all of sudden able to do things, create great leads in all kinds of parts, but the reality is to play an instrument, be it a piano, guitar, trombone, voice, or even to use your computer effectively to make music, you need to have the developed skill. It doesn’t just “happen”.  Anything that you hear in your head, there’s a technique to controlling the notes. It’s got to be clean and precise, and these things on a physical instrument like a piano or guitar, are like sports – that is what I keep telling the kids here – because you have to really develop the muscles. Your fingers need to have strength. I remember once, the drummer of Motley Crue walked into a room where I was playing and told me “Your fingers are like little machine guns!” Hahaha that was really funny.  But yeah, it comes from a lot of practising. Practising things that are really boring, but I always try to practise in creative ways.

Describe a regular day in your life.

It’s never regular, because I’m on the road for most part of the year with the band…but when I’m at home, I’m often playing catch-up with a life that I’ve missed while I’ve been away. It could include driving my girls. The older one’s in college but the younger one still needs to  be driven to her various activities. Or I’ll be working on a project. I have a company called Wizdom Music that makes apps for iPhones and Android devices, etc … so I spend a lot of time doing that too…I’m really busy you know, so when I sit with my synthesizer, I try to really make my time there mean as much as it can. I try and develop ways to practise that are very efficient. I stay focused and try working my fingers so they really mean something.

When did you start developing music apps?

A few years ago I got my iPhone, and I remember there was very preliminary kind of piano on the iPhone, and I was just playing it.  It didn’t do really anything, but it really triggered some creative ideas. I thought ‘wow I could do some amazing things with this’.  And I was sitting on the couch in my living room, and my wife saw me and said “What are you doing? We have a beautiful Steinway Grand in the other room. What are you doing with that?” And I said “No, no. No, it’s okay. I got something in mind here. It’s something cool, so let me do this.” She looked at me like I was crazy or something. Haha. So I got into really looking at some of the creative things people were doing on that platform, and I began to reach out to different developers and talk about some of my ideas, and I found one guy whose name is Kevin Chartier who is a brilliant programmer. We decided to work together and we decided early on that we’d split it 50-50 but let’s just do it! And that was the beginning of Wizdom Music. Now we have about six apps. The first one was called Morphwhiz which is my favourite. It enabled me to look into and work on this concept to show how these devices like iPads etc can be actually an expressive musical instrument…

“it’s such a nice environment. Everyone’s in a different headspace, they really want to learn and they’re respectful… so it’s been a real pleasure”
Jordan Rudess

How has your experience in India been?

I was in India about 16 years ago, doing a clinic in Chennai back then, but my experience this time has been really (really) cool. It’s a little bit of a culture shock here. Although I’ve been all around the world, usually I go into the big cities, and if pass rural areas, I’m just driving right through them, but I’ve never driven through anything like what I did to come here (SAM) – with goats and cows over the road – it was a crazy wild scene. I was like whoa!  But once you’re here, it’s such a nice environment. Everyone’s in a different headspace, they really want to learn and they’re respectful … so it’s been a real pleasure.

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