BEN FOLDS  -  A POP MASTERMIND GOES CLASSICAL

WHEN A POP SINGER/SONGWRITER JOINS FORCES with classical musicians, we usually know what to expect: luxuriant remakes of the artist's hits, augmented by lush strings, burbling woodwinds, and coloristic splashes of percussion. But when Ben Folds ventures into classical terrain, something far more compelling occurs.
The centerpiece of his latest album, So There, is Folds' own Concerto for Piano and Orchestra, a bona fide classical composition with stylistic kinship to the piano concertos of such early 20th-century masters as Maurice Ravel, Béla, and Sergei Prokofiev. The work, recorded with the Nashville Symphony Orchestra with Folds as soloist, is ambitious yet accessible, filled with evocative orchestration and fiery pianism.

Granted, Folds is best known as a pop artist. As a kid growing up in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, he gravitated toward the piano pop of Elton John and Billy Joel. He began his own piano studies, picked up bass and drums along the way, and attended the Frost School of Music at the University of Miami on a percussion scholarship. But shortly before graduation, Folds left school to focus on piano and songwriting, and rose to fame fronting the Ben Folds Five.

BenFolds portrait 2The group's absurdist name (they were actually a trio) springs from the same quirky sense of humor that underlies many of Folds' songs. He ironically described the band's sound as "punk rock for sissies." Meanwhile, Folds has collaborated with everyone from Sara Bareilles and Regina Spektor to "Weird Al" Yankovic and William Shatner. He also served as a host for five seasons of NBC's a cappella singing competition series, The Sing-Off.

With the Ben Folds Five and as a solo artist, Folds blends solid pop songcraft with a subversive, mischievous streak. His songs sometimes blend sweet melodies with scatological humor. And he's avoided conventional songwriting partners in favor of collaborations with respected literary figures such as dark fantasy writer Neil Gaiman and novelist Nick Hornby. Shortly before the Hornby collaboration album Way to Normal was released in 2008, someone leaked rough recordings of the new songs. That "someone" turned out to be Folds, pranking his fans with a "fake" version of the album, recorded over the course of a single night in Dublin.

In other words, Folds is a rule-breaker. And the shorter pieces on So There represent rule-breaking at its most profound. While the ambitious Concerto for Piano and Orchestra transports Folds fully into the classical music realm, the album's pop songs straddle two worlds. Eschewing conventional session players, Folds collaborated with the members of yMusic, an innovative classical chamber ensemble. Freely mixing pop and classical techniques, the resulting tracks don't sound quite like anything from either tradition.

Folds sees such collaborations as a necessary path forward: "The world of classical music is from whence all our ideas of composition grew," he recently wrote on his website. "That world is hurting right now, and it could use pop musicians. And pop musicians could use the classical world because it's so full of possibility and sounds. It's endless."

Folds took a break from his busy touring schedule to discuss his pop/classical explorations.


What inspired the idea of collaborating with yMusic on So There?

I had finished recording my piano concerto with the Nashville Symphony Orchestra and was about to finish the record using a variety of small chamber ensembles and soloists. I met yMusic through a mutual friend, and that was that. The idea of using anyone else went out the window, and it became obvious we would record songs with singing, as opposed to instrumental pieces. It all went from there.

Who are some of the classical composers that most inspire you? Are there any particular works for piano and orchestra that are closest to your heart?

I love the works of Ravel, Bartók, Janáček, Prokofiev, Chopin, and Beethoven. Rachmaninoff's piano concertos blow me away—especially the third.

You were trained as a classical percussionist. But was composition part of your music education as well?

Sort of. I had music theory, and a few times I cheated my way past my advisor to take some pretty advanced composition classes. I've always found it really useful to have composition tools for when you're stuck.

How did you refine the craft of orchestration? Did you work with an orchestrator? Was there much trial and error in the process?

Yes, I worked with an orchestrator quite a few times. Generally I put all the notes there, but there's a lot to know about what can actually be done and what can't. A part that seems good in theory might never be heard above another voice. So I usually need someone to translate things realistically. Still, each time out I learn a lot more. With the concerto I put damn near every note into the orchestration, but it's nice to have someone let me know that the clarinets won't be what I'm looking for in a particular harmony, with English horn in that strain, or that the French horn player was just hospitalized in bar 85.

On your website you talk about how both classical and pop musicians can benefit from studying one another's methods for creating, arranging, and performing music. Can you expand on that idea? What are some specific ways you think music might benefit from the intermingling of those traditions?

Just the way yMusic does it: by bringing innocence and willingness to try another process when bringing "classical" music to life. Or by using the tools of classical music (pen and paper, rehearsal, communication, complexity) to pop music. In other words, classical musicians could learn from garage bands about doing what it takes to get it done. Listening, for instance, instead of just watching the conductor. Asking questions, or questioning interpretations. Pop bands could learn from classical musicians by being prepared and planning rather than simply adding notes until it feels right, or just relying on the moment while recording.

How might your classical explorations affect your approach if and when you return to working with more conventional pop instrumentation?

I've always written out my background vocals on staff paper, even if just for myself. I will do more of that for arrangements in the future because it's incredibly useful. I still get to make up stuff on the spot, or change it. But having a visual roadmap is underrated in pop music. I think I've always aspired to melodies and forms that are as "classical" or "jazz" as they are pop.

You've been playing a Yamaha NU1 Hybrid Upright. What are your observations?

I find the NU1 the best solution for me. It's humble. I don't like a lot of sampled pianos because they often try too hard to be huge. An upright is a surmountable electronic substitute. It's more articulate and succinct. For me, it's either that or a real piano.


“I FIND THE YAMAHA NU1 THE BEST SOLUTION FOR ME. IT'S HUMBLE. I DON'T LIKE A LOT OF SAMPLED PIANOS BECAUSE THEY OFTEN TRY TOO HARD TO BE HUGE.”

BenFolds horizontal


What prompted you to collaborate with literary figures? How did the experience of working with Nick Hornby and Neil Gaiman differ from working with "regular" songwriters?


I've been called a "short story writer of a songwriter," or a character student. Working with guys who are really writers confirms that to an extent. But it also shows me where that's not true, and how the art forms are different. In pop music, I welcome good writing that doesn't adhere to the usual language, you know? I have joked for years that I'd rather write music to a physics book than have to use the typical songwriting language and arc. Nick and Neil are huge music fans, but they're also authors with distinct voices, and it was a pleasure to make music out of their work. I recently improvised a song from a book called Black Hole Blues by Janna Levin. Maria Popova of Brain Pickings fame passed me the book backstage. [Popova's blog, www.brainpickings.org, assembles compelling think pieces from many fields.] The book confirmed my love of writing to the work of a good author—especially when writing about physics!

Who are the pop pianists and songwriters you most admire? Any names that might surprise your fans?

I don't think my list would surprise anyone. Regina Spektor, Amanda Palmer, Elton John, Billy Joel. My daughter Gracie is actually one of my favorites. I know that will be written off as a biased statement, but when you hear what she's doing, you'll get why I say that.

Are there any other ambitious and unconventional projects you hope to pursue one day?

Hopefully I'll find time to make some pieces for university orchestras and choirs. I'd like to do something "naughty," by which I mean, "stuff you don't normally do in school". Not naughty as in "nasty"—just off the normal map.