composer | media artist

Interview with Jordan Rudess

by Akos Janca

Originally published at Korg Zóna website in 2009. | link

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As a member of the Hungarian Korg Zóna team I had a unique opportunity to meet and have a long interview with Jordan Rudess, then to enjoy the fantastic Dream Theater show at the Budapest Arena on July 1, 2009. Both were a great experience. I tried to ask also unusual questions and even if Jordan was in a hurry, he was very kind to answer all of them. He talked about technology, learning, performing and his personality. Please find the full original text in 4 chapters below.


Q: Korg OASYS – the flagship workstation – is the center keyboard of your rig, do you find it better than other ones and why?

A: Well, the beautiful thing about the OASYS is that it’s a very cohesive concept. I love the 'workstation' idea because the whole thought behind it is to make a very powerful musical instrument that a musician can wrap their head around and to use as many ways as to be a performing musician today, it so does include having very advanced computer systems and all kinds of software and all the stuff. And I choose at this point not to do that and to use the Korg OASYS for a very specific reason, that is because I have a very big job to do, it’s a very serious job. I have to be on stage every night, I have to have things work, I have to step through hundreds of sounds, I have to be there, as to be reliable, I have to sound good, and I have to be able to understand what’s going on in one place. So if you like, the OASYS provides that for me. Now I can very secure walking on stage, that everything’s gonna be just right.

Q: Yeah, just a word about the security. You have a spare OASYS with you as a backup.

A: I do. Yes, of course.

Q: Is it also loaded and ready to use backstage – if something happens?

A: No, it’s not loaded and ready to use. Because – knock on woods, you know – it works!

Q: So you trust it.

A: Yeah. Usually if something‘s gonna happen also would probably be apparent in the soundcheck, because something would have happened in moving, right? If it’s gonna happen, it’s gonna happen when it’s being worked around. The chances of it happening when it’s set up ready to play – very slight.

Q: Which piano sound you use, is it the built-in Concert Grand Piano or something else?

A: I use them all. For some things I use the original factory sound and for other things I’ll use the expansion block piano (EXs2).

Q: It’s still the expansion, so not a third-party sample?

A: Not at this point, live, because using the OASYS‘. I was considering using something else but I’m happy with where we’re at right now.

Q: Yeah, it’s nice to hear that.

A: Yeah, yeah.

Q: Do you program your own sounds? I mean, you are using the Radias, the new synth, with many possibilities… don’t you find it complicated?

A: I do a lot of programming. As a matter of fact, in the studio when I’m creating all this music what I do is I will use all different types of tools. It goes beyond the OASYS into all my various software, all my things, but then when it comes down to play live I need to figure out how to get a lot of things done on the OASYS, ’cause that’s my tool. So that includes doing a lot of sampling on the OASYS and also includes doing a lot of programming to make the things happen that I need to happen. So, what’s lucky is that in a tool like the OASYS there are so many sounds to begin with, that you don’t need to 're-invent the wheel', for the most parts. You can find a starting point that’s similar to what you need and then shape it from there. So I do, these days I do, mostly shaping of the sound to get it to be what I really want: lowering the filter changing, the attack maybe, taking off the release a little bit, maybe adding a little LFO. Little things that usually what’s needed once I find something that’s close. So I mean for other projects, like if I’m doing a soundbank for Korg or somebody else then yeah, I’m going in all, try to invent something really new and different. And that’s the way it works.

Q: On your last solo album – the 'Notes on a Dream' – you used software instruments: the Ivory and Logic.

A: Right.

Q: But we know that you love the real piano. So, didn’t you miss the vibrating body the instrument and the soundfield around it?

A: Oh yeah, sure. I have a really gorgeous Steinway piano at home. It’s a 9-foot piano and it’s very beautiful. My problem with using it is that for the recording it lacks two things. One is that I have pets at home. It’s not in my piano room in the house with the piano set up, it’s not in soundproof environment. It’s not in a place that‘s really cohesive to true fine recording.

Q: I heard the story about the dog snoring under the Steinway…

A: Yes, you heard it for sure… So that was the big part of it I couldn’t really get it quiet… So, and the other part is that I’m a musician these days who is very used to working in a studio MIDI environment. This is the reality. So I enjoyed the process of working with my computer and being able to record… and I know, you know what, I played that note oh, too light… but I punched-in there. With the piano it’s really hard to punch-in. Now I'm my own egineer, it’s not like I’m in a studio, somebody else is engineering and I’m at the piano where we can’t do certain things. In this case if I make a mistake in the middle of an arrangement – ah, I got to start at the beginning, so it’s really tiring. So I’m very very satisfied with the Ivory sound, I think it’s a great piano sound. So that’s it.

Q: You can play also the new Korg Nano Key just like a virtuoso, so how do you like it?

A: Yeah, I love the Nano. That’s a great thing. As a matter of fact, on this tour in my hotel room I’ve got the little slider Nano, and I’ve got the little keyboard Nano and I plugged them both in through USB into my computer… It’s awesome! That’s a great thing.

Q: You play all kinds of weird and unique instruments just like the ones on the iPhone. So can you imagine the dream instrument for the future for you?

A: Well, actually the iPhone has been a great creative instrument for me and a kind of a tool to look forward to understanding what could happen in the future. Because I think that the whole idea of having it, a multi-touch screen, and being able to run different applications at the same time – it’s kind of weird, it’s kind of yeah… Because anybody who gets to sit and play with the iPhone can immediately see this some real magic here – something's going on. So I think, I’m looking forward to when, filling the blank, comes out with the proper kind of multi-touch screen and hardware and software to enable us to have the future musical instruments.


Q: Your second piano teacher was a Hungarian with a strong temper... so I hope you still don’t feel bad about Hungary. :-) (smiling) It’s not the first time for you, and we hope not the last, to be here in Budapest. Do you know some things about Hungary, our strong musical culture?

A: Well, I mean, I’m certainly no expert. But I’ve been here now four-five times, walked around, and taken in the beauty of some of the architecture and the buildings and, you know, walked into the music store as where I could… which is very forecasting, classical music in this part of the world is still alive. So, it’s a wonderful thing, that’s right… lot of culture!

Q: You played on a Hungarian band’s album, this is the K3.

A: Right.

Q: So, how did it happen? Were you playing here or have you sent the tracks on the internet?

A: I have a friend whose name is Peter Rajkai, who is a very good keyboard player who lives right here in Hungary, and he had done an arrangement to one of the Dream Theater songs on piano years ago, and we met, we became friendly, and through that connection he introduced me to this other musician with whom he was working with, and asked me if I would just play a lead on his track.

Q: So you played it here?

A: No, I did it at home.

Q: And you sent it on the internet.

A: Yeah.

Q: Do you have plans to continue with this band? Or was it a…

A: With Dream?

Q: No, with the K3.

A: With them? Oh. No. It was just a one type of thing.

Q: Finally, you got into the Juilliard School to be a classical pianist, then after 10 years of learning – when you were 17 – you met with progressive rock and you realized this is the style you want to play. So, what happened after, at that moment, I mean – you simply decided to be a keyboard player on your own and quit the school? I mean you were a talented guy, expecting a nice career in the classical world – so what was the opinion of the family and the teacher? Was it a big move, a big change?

A: It was a very big change. When I was younger I never really had my like teenage rebellion. I was a very straight placed, focused kid just practicing classical music, which was great for what it was, but I reached the point where my interests and things like improvising and the new music that I was hearing – Emerson, Lake and Palmer and Genesis and Pink Floyd – those things were really taking me away from the classical stuff. And I just I had been to Juilliard for a long time already, so I really felt this strong need to move away. So I did. And the teachers were very very upset because they were telling my parents that 'your son could be the next great pianist coming out of New York'.

Q: That’s the point.

A: You know, it was heavy, yeah.

Q: Yeah, understand. Did you like practicing as a child? If not – maybe not – what helped you to stay with it?

A: Well, I’m like any kid, there were times when I had to practice that I didn’t want to. But in general the piano was something that I was always drowned to and I would go to. Even if I didn’t have to practice I’d love to play. And it filled a need for me when I had something emotional that I had to release. I was always a big improvisor, so if I was sad or whatever I could walk over to the piano, and just to get it out… It was a vehicle for me to let go of my emotions – to this day it’s still the same. So I loved to play so much that the practicing was not painful, it was something that I wanted to do. That things said it’s not like some crazy kid, all he likes to do is practice, and also sometimes didn’t want to (laughing). I wanted to go outside and my mother used to say 'hey you‘ve got a lesson, don’t you want to go practice, don’t you think you should?'. But my mother wasn’t really very pushy, she was not like a real stage mother. She wasn’t like my Hungarian piano teacher (laughing) but more relaxed… And the funny thing about my Hungarian piano teacher is that her son, whose name is Bruce Steeg – not sure if he’s alive anymore but anyway – he went to Juilliard, he went to the college and he was gonna be a classical pianist but he got into Guy Lombardo’s band and he… so here we‘re completely away from the classical thing towards the end. And when I came to her as a student, she was like 'this kid is gonna stay on track!'ß (laughing). She’s rolling over in her grave right know...

Q: Pushing the borders in technology and music you’ve got quite far. Today you have a big influence on others, many musicians want to follow you on this path. Do you feel a kind of responsibility for them? Do you think it's a must to pass on, to transmit what you have got – to teach the interested and the talented ones?

A: I feel it’s important to be able to share, for sure, what it’s all about, you know, what the informaton that’s out there and somehow being able to spread it around and being receptive to it. So I try to work with situations where I can put some information out there. I mean, somebody asks me, like a magazine wants me to work on some kind of an article that shows a certain technique, I’ll usually try to figure out the way to do it. I have an online conservatory, the Jordan Rudess Online Conservatory (www.jroc.us) which is a place where people can learn my take on playing keyboards, and also get a bit deeper into some of the riffs from my albums and so that’s something that I put together, because I was getting so many e-mails and letters from people all around the world, and I realized there is no way for me to go in there and teach all these kids, or even to go get private lessons at this point. But what I could do is in some of my time off I could do this online conservatory, that way, who are interested, can go on and can have a system that works like that.

Q: For example, Berklee is a famous music school but there are not many like that. Do you agree there are still barricades between the classical and the modern music in general that should be removed? Do you reckon yourself as a model or a paragon of a modern musician: who has a classical background and who’s heading open-minded for the future?

A: Yeah. Berklee is a great school, a lot of the other guys in Dream Theater went there also but they didn’t stay there either because they got very involved with their career focus and then they moved on to the focus, on getting their lives together, at that level. But I’m… I ended up in an interesting place because having gone to Juilliard and that being, you know, a musician involved with electronic instruments and rock music and electronic music and other kinds of things – Juilliard didn’t teach me that at all. So I feel kind of like if I had it to do over again I mean I, I went through the school process at the time when I was going into the world of electronics. There weren’t choices like, Berklee was not what it is today. Now they have great courses in music synthesis and they’ll teach you all kinds of like different things, arranging, and things that I probably would have been interested in, had I known about it, and been aware but they weren’t – you know, it’s vital. I don’t really think they had many great courses. So, you know, things have changed a lot, there’s a lot, there’s a lot of schools now that people can learn to do the kind of things that I learned, by myself.


Q: Now some questions about performing.

A: Hm.

Q: Do you still feel some, or have you ever felt a blocking stage fright before performing? If yes, how did you solve it?

A: Blocking stage fright… Well, what I do… some shows are very exciting, for sure. Like, we just recently played at the Donington Festival in the UK it was like for 80 thousand people. It’s a ridiculous number, it’s like how do you play for 80 thousand people? So, you have to be able to deal with that feeling somehow. So what I do is a few different things. Often from a musical level: I’ll sit with my keyboard and I’ll turn on a metronome at a very kind of easy pace (he’s beating with fingers) and just really focusing and play easy things, just right, as close to the beat as I can, because I find that to be very grounding type of thing to do. So it both warms up my fingers a little bit, and also keeps me still. Even if like John Petrucci is – the guitar player – is practicing with a metronome and I’m sitting and he is playing in his very steady way, it’s helpful – it’s a weird thing but it does work. It’s almost like you’re being trained second hand, you know (laughing). But besides that to do some breathing and maybe some like stretching and yoga type of things. I studied some tai-chis and a way incorporate some of that type of thinking before the show. Anything it’s possible, you know, some of these environments were so crazy also. It’s not always possible to be doing like a full yoga set on the floor before the show ’cause it might be a little trailer or something like that. But something just as steady the mind and say: You know what? Doesn’t matter this, whatever number of people, it’s gonna… focus because this is all we are and you have to keep it together. Sometimes actually on stage I’ll be involved in something very complex or a part that would come up that’s hard then I‘ll look over to John or Mike, and it’s comforting and brings things back because I’ll see that their focus is very strong, and it keeps you from losing it, so my team mates (laughing) also compose about this – and we’re just doing our thing. It’s interesting.

Q: How tiring is performing? Are you tired at the end of the shows – or the opposite, excited?

A: Yeah, you know what… it depends. Every show’s a little bit different. Some of the shows here in Europe have been a little bit difficult, only because we’ve been playing at a lot of this big places but they don’t have much thought about the air and the air conditioning sometimes, it’s very hot, so, I sit there dripping wet which right away is like… this is not fun. It was tiring ’cause this is hard to be sitting up and sweating. And then some places, there’s smoking in the air, it’s not the easiest thing, so that bothers me a lot as well. So, it all depends on the nature of the gig. I can get through it just with excitement and joy if the conditions are right that allow me to connect with my music and my band mates and project positive energy. But sometimes it’s like, ooh (moaning), you know, these things are a kind of hammer on you and weigh you down a little bit. Sweating like a pig – and do it! (laughing)

Q: People like very much what Dream Theater is doing. Are you satisfied with yourselves or you are criticizing yourselves after the show – I mean reviewing every moment?

A: Well, we’re perfectionists, for sure. We like everything – that's about Dream Theater is – we like everything to go right, we like to play one song and immediately be ready and start the next (snapping his fingers) and “bing-bing-bing-bing-bing”, things are dialed-in, together, go – and not to be any problems. It’s not a loose, you know, rock and roll drinking band (laughing). It’s a very organized band and we definitely, if something does go wrong in anybody’s world, guitar world, keyboard world, we’ll talk about it, try to understand what it is, fix it, and have it go better the next time.

Q: Besides concentrating do you or can you think about anything else on stage? Do you have a special method to memorize what you have to play, or is it “just” a lot of practice until you know it all?

A: Yeah, it’s a real combination. What helps me when I’m on stage – and I think what a good recommendation to our viewers – is that when you’re on stage and you’re trying to get through a piece of your music, it’s very very important to stay in the moment. Because, if let’s say you memorize something, you’re singing and playing it but all the sudden you start to worry about what’s hack gonna happen eight bars ahead – that’s gonna mess you up. That’s when you’re making mistake, when you’re starting to think about “do I know what’s coming up in eight bars or in sixteen bars so I have to worry about it”… as exactly when it happens. You know, I’ve played with enough musicians and we all finally realized that’s what it is. (laughing) So what I do to avoid that is I’ll almost like stay with the moment by singing to myself, by either literally humming, if – who can hear me in a rock show – I’ll just be right there, just right on that, right where I am, and that way I avoid thinking about the other stuff or going back or… that’s a very dangerous stuff. But of course, we‘re human beings and all of our minds wander and things happen. The other thing that works but doesn’t mess you up necessarily is if your mind is wandering freely – that can sometimes work, too. The problem is when you‘re worried about what you’re doing. So, if you’re nervous. A lot of times the performer will think about what he’s doing and go forward and backwards – that’s bad. If you’re just playing and you’re thinking about the beach somewhere or about a lovely day you had on a drive, it’s no problem because then the music just flows, music is very drenching, it's just something that just seems to the pass through our minds from wherever – and if we’re open to it like that can work! It’s fine.


Q: You are a kind and calm person, you have friendly atmosphere around you. What makes you angry?

A: It’s hard to get me angry. Really is. And even if I’m angry, I’m not a… it’s hard to… I don’t know. People who know me know that I never get angry. Of course, with those kind of people it’s more internal and maybe just a feeling – it doesn’t get expressed in the same way that somebody could view and say 'he’s an angry guy'.

Q: Is there a spiritual background behind it that helps you to be who you are?

A: Well a little bit, yeah. I mean not, not in a religious sense, but in more of a kind of like metaphysical sense. Things like what I was saying before, connecting things like thai-chi or yoga or music – it’s a big part of it (laughing).

Q: Any musical style you dislike?

A: Well, I like all music. I get bothered a little bit by like… certain kinds of jazz music that… when they’re so focused on the notes that they’re not thinking about the sound they’re making, a lot of times and… I wouldn't say anything bad about any style. But a lot of times in certain music, not even jazz, other types, whenever people are thinking of just about the notes they’re playing, and not listening to the sound they’re making – then I have a problem with it, then it bothers me. So I’m very very sensitive to sound, and I can’t avoid it, so I don’t care about so much like what note. You know, you’re in a C scale and all the sudden you’re playing a passing tone – and then, who cares?! It’s what, what’s the sound, you know – for me.

Q: Do you listen to a lot of music or you prefer the silence?

A: I like both. I listen to a lot of different kinds of music. Actually some of my favorite music these days is some of the electronic music that people are doing. Some of the things like coming from the Apex Twin, Autechre, Boards Of Canada, where they’re taking sound and really sculpting it very carefully, and the sonic experience is really well thought out, and you can tell that every single sound you heard is just very refined artwork. I like that a lot.

Q: Finally, do you have a message to the Hungarian audience?

A: To the Hungarian audience? My message is: It’s great to be back here! It’s really fun! Fun to be able to come back and to be able to play and share the music. Yeah.

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