Dream Theater are back in 2016. With the release of the band’s staggering new two-hour prog-opera ‘The Astonishing’, keyboard wizard Jordan Rudess took us through the composition of the new album, and what he thinks is in store for the future of music technology.
Where am I finding you at the moment?
I’m on my way to New York at the moment to go into rehearsal because we have our first show in London on February 18th, so we are about to get into a big rehearsal period, as well as a production rehearsal and then we can take this show on the road.
How are you feeling about playing the record live?
It’s really intense because, well, first of all, I’m really proud of this album. It turned out very, very well. I think it’s the best thing we have ever done, and also a lot of work to get it together and play it live. Second of all, there are a lot of orchestral parts – just a lot to it, around the musical level and just the whole production in general. Right now I’m in the thick of pulling it together.
So are you like the Musical Director of this show?
Well, John Petrucci and I really kind of put things together. We wrote the music and we also worked with all the video production people.
The record on paper reads like ‘Scenes from a Memory’, but listening to it, it sounds more like ‘Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence’. How was recording for this record different to those albums?
First of all, this concept is much deeper than the story behind ‘Scenes from a Memory’. That was a good story, but it was very loose. This story, John Petrucci wrote more in the form of a classic story, to the point where we could turn around and make it into a book or a movie. For that reason, going in to [doing] the album was a different kind of process, where we would use the music to kind of accentuate the story, to make it clear what was going on. When we were composing, it felt at times like we were doing a film score, or writing for a musical. Also, just the length of the whole thing makes it very different. For the process, John and I went into the studio and told the other guys that to do the album like this, we really had to sit there together and compose it in a focused environment.
The whole thing with putting a story together is that you have to, I guess craft it is the right word. We had all the different scenes, and we had them all laid out of the different computer programs that we were using, and we literally were composing using different thematic and sonic material for the conception. Then we would go back to it, and visualise it, so we could see how everything fitted together. We were in there with my keyboard and his guitar, and we would have morning meetings where we would discuss, “ok, this is what’s about to happen with the story. This is what’s happening to this character. This is what’s about to happen.” While he’s talking, I’m thinking in chords and all. That’s how it came together. With ‘Scenes from a Memory’, that was my first album with the band, and for that I didn’t know what was going to be happening before I walked into the studio. I just had to come in with a whole bunch of different music and riffs for them to hear. But this of course is much later.
What did the rest of the band think of the concept?
Everybody was really behind the idea of doing a concept album. It was good timing for that. When we told them about the story, everybody was into it and they liked the idea of allowing us to do our compositional work before they came in and did all their parts. It made sense for what we were trying to do. James got to do his best role in show business yet, doing all the roles of all the characters.
When is the “right time” to do a concept album?
It was so long ago that we had done a concept album, and I think first off we are a prog metal band, so anybody is going to do a concept album. I wanted to do it even earlier, but it just wasn’t the right time, because Mike Mangini had only joined the group six years ago, and we wanted to establish him being in the group with more basic Dream Theater music, rather than shake it up.
Reading about your synth sounds, I read an article in which you mentioned 10 different albums that inspired you, and saw you mentioned Rick Wakeman on which he plays the Moog in what you call “a very calculated style”, where you try and be freer with it. How do you settle upon your sounds in the studio?
At this point in time, there are so many virtual instruments both on the computer and also throughout general hardware. So if you take the time to look, you can almost become overwhelmed with different sounds, like people might not get any work done because they could be sound hunting all day. For me though, it comes down to the real favourite programs. So over the years I’ve kind of discovered things that I really love to use, like for instance Omnisphere is a program that I use a lot, or another called Alchemy, which I use at times. I have a large library of sounds, which I have created for all the music and all the tours, and stuff like that. So seldom do I have to start something from scratch. I can usually find something in existence that I just modify a bit to get what I really want. Of course there is a sound effect element too, for which you have to do a lot of searching because there are a lot of sound effects. Creating all the electronic music parts that was another challenge where I had to start manipulating the controls, and taking away things and all.
Where do you think music technology could be in the next 10 years?
Well, in addition to being in Dream Theater, I also have a company called Wizdom Music. We make cutting edge music software. Over the last six years or so, I’ve been coming out with different applications for iPhone and Android, even Windows. I’m also a consultant for a company called Roli and all together we are doing some very interesting things with technology where we are looking more at the interaction between the human being and the machine. We want to figure out how to get the most expressive music through technology. There was an old argument years ago where people would say, “oh, electronic music isn’t expressive, but your acoustic instrument is.” Now, that’s really changing, to the point where you could almost argue that electronic instruments are more expressive because they are so sensitive to every touch that you make. I think it’s heading in a lot of directions, but the direction that I’m excited about the most is the direction of allowing electronic music and technology to become even more human and less outside of the experience of the player. What’s interesting is that the concept of the new album is about the idea of noise machines going out of control and taking over society, and hypnotising everybody as a ruling party. So, we will see where it all goes.
Does that storyline reflect your own fears with what could happen with music in the future?
My feeling is that there is definitely concern because there is a lot of music that is made by machines that is not very good. It’s very possible that we could be absorbed by technology, and that could have not very pleasant results.
Do you think bad electronic music is the fault of the technology or the composer?
I think that it’s a bit of both. Some tools are not very friendly or musical. They don’t involve the player that much. Some tools could be harder to use, but those could be more expressive or organic. People are very creative and somebody could make use of an instrument or a tool that isn’t every expressive in a very cool way.
To finish up, if you could have a lesson with one musician today, who would it be?
Probably an Indian percussionist, because they play with some amazing instruments and rhythms, so it could be fun to learn from someone like that.
‘The Astonishing’ is due out January 29 via Roadrunner Records/Warner Australia. You can purchase the album here.