Ben Folds is a singer-songwriter and record producer known mostly for his solo work and his early rock band, Ben Folds Five. A frequent collaborator, Folds has performed with orchestras like the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and worked with artists from William Shatner to Amanda Palmer. In March 2014, Folds premiered his concerto for piano and orchestra with the Nashville Symphony Orchestra. Folds’s piano concerto is featured on his latest release, So There, which was made in collaboration with the new music ensemble yMusic. So There is released today on New West Records.
You’re known primarily as a rock musician. How did you become interested in classical music, and what was it like making the transition into the classical realm?
My first transition was from classical to rock when I was a kid, because I started out playing in orchestras. I knew R&B music from the sixties, but I didn’t really know much rock music. That’s not to say that I knew a lot of classical music: I played in the orchestra from the time I could walk, but I’m not sure at the time of how much of it I had digested. But still, my idea of the orchestra was this is on paper, here’s a conductor, and that’s the way you play. So actually, it’s not new to me.
But then I cut my pieces as a rock musician as the years went on, and I think that’s solidly what I am and what I’ll always be. I’ve played a lot with orchestra in the last ten years. A lot can be said about playing with orchestras versus playing with rock bands. It’s a different world, but it’s not that new to me. But I’ll never be a “classical” musician—that’s not what I am. I’m pretty much a rock guy.
How did you go about composing/orchestrating your concerto for piano and orchestra, and was the process the same or different than your songwriting process?
It’s similar to songwriting in that I went with the melodies as they presented themselves to me when I woke up in the morning. That’s pretty much where melodies come from for me. They come from two places actually: they come from improvisations at shows where I will freestyle a song with chorus, verses, everything—and a lot of that stuff I call from, which I did for the concerto as well—and what I wake up with in the morning.
My feeling is that melodies, which are just really presenting themselves to me, are the stories I need to tell. So what’s great about a concerto is that you have a lot of time to get there—to tell your story—and the melodies are everything.
Another similarity to songwriting was that very often while orchestrating and arranging the concerto, I began with the orchestration. I would wake up and I would be somewhere melodically, consider it, and say, “Well, I’ll see if I can get 15 seconds of orchestration and see how the piano is going to fit over this.” The good part about that is that those moments meant the orchestration was carrying the motives and the development, and that’s truly what a piano concerto should be. A concerto should be a tug-of-war, almost a fight, like a dance-off or something between the piano and the orchestra. So the fact that I was really never hearing piano sometimes was kind of cool.
A friend of mine, who’s a big award-winning musical director from the Oscars to most of what you hear on Broadway, gave me some great advice when I started. He said: “Have yourself a copyist by your side every moment. Just hire the guy, bring him in, and sit with this guy.” I hate having someone around me when I’m creating, so that was really tough to have. But it was the best thing I could have done. He could input the stuff into the computer and after a while he proved himself almost as a producer. We orchestrated it together. I don’t know what else to call it other than that, although I played almost every note that’s in the piece myself. But to have someone go, “You know, you’ve been really working the french horns. Every time you need a pad, you’ve been working the french horns. They’re going to have to go to the hospital soon.” And I would say, “Oh really?” and he would say, “Yeah, they can’t breathe that much! You gotta send those guys home for a while.”
So that’s an orchestrator. That’s part of what orchestration is, for him to say, “I think that’s a pretty complicated way of doing it, let me show you what Rachmaninoff or Shostakovitch did to circumvent that same problem.” So he taught me a lot, which was great. I’d look at a score of Ravel or Prokofiev or Mozart, and I would look at how they’re accomplishing what they were accomplishing sometimes and realize he was right. It never needed to be as complicated as I often thought it needed to be.
My process was a complete learning curve as well, but that’s not to say that when I woke up in the morning I didn’t hear everything overlaid—when the cellos would come in and what their bowing would be and if they’d have a mute. I heard everything in my head when I would get up in the morning, and I would go for it.
How did your collaboration with yMusic begin and where do you see it headed in the future?
I could play with them the rest of my life is the way I feel about it right now. I love them. They are everything I could really want in an ensemble of any kind. They’re all the best players of any orchestra. Put them in an orchestra and they’re going to be the principal players. They’re so good.
And Gabe (Gabriel Cabezas, cello —Ed.), who’s 22 years old now, keeps on having to fly off to play on Chicago Symphony concerto recordings and stuff and come back in. He’s a star. They’re all fantastic. I’m in awe of them.
And we work together. Arranging songs with them was completely collaborative. I would just leave them to it. I would bring in something, that’d be almost completely finished, and they’d finish it up for me. They’d just dot the i’s and cross the t’s, make sure it had enough of this or that. Easy! They would do that for me. I didn’t even see what they did, we just recorded it.
Other times they would start something and I would finish it or we would do it together. Whatever they do I’m going to trust it, which is pretty incredible. I’ve never really worked that way before. Working with them was a matter of three of us getting together early in the morning and by the afternoon the rest of the group would show up. They would have their music on their stands, we would play it a couple of times and everyone would make corrections and do what we needed to do to make it work, and then we’d record it. Maybe two or three passes usually.
At concerts on your tour, you often let yMusic play music by other composers like Son Lux and Andrew Norman. Is this exchange of contrasting musical styles mutually beneficial, and how do audiences react?
Audiences have been reacting amazingly. One of the most fulfilling moments on-stage for me was standing off-stage at Bonnaroo when they were playing for probably 40,000 people who listened to every note of Music in Circles from their new record. What the audience understood was not necessarily from a classical or a minimalist point-of-view; they were hearing it as if it was Skrillex.
That’s really neat because these guys have grown up in that era, and the music that they’re playing, although they’re playing it on orchestral instruments, the arc of the pieces often develop a little more like an ambient techno song than they do a classical piece. The audience got the peaks of the songs, and I heard them go up and cheer at all the right places. It was incredible. Who thinks that an odd sextet like them sits on a stage at a festival with rap and metal playing everywhere and the audience is engaged through a 7-minute piece and cheered at the right places? I could’ve just about quit that night, it made me so happy. I was so happy to see that happen.
Have you written any other concert music (chamber, orchestral, etc.), and is there any chance for an album exclusively of that music?
In college I did. I wrote a few pieces, and I sort of stole a couple of things for the concerto actually. But I wrote those pieces without the luxury of having a piano. The only thing I could check pitches on was a bass guitar.
What I’m inspired to do right now is to make a series of pieces for university orchestras and choirs. I’m not going to put them in a form where we’ll say this is a symphony—these are going to be melodies. Folk dances if you want to call them that, but they’re songs. Like Papageno, what is that? That’s a song. Basically it’s a really odd three-minute song, and that’s kind of what I’m going for except I want every instrument to be featured at some point in a way that really pushes the boundary for them. So I’ll spend some time with some of the best instrumentalist I know, sitting with their instrument and going through the things that they could possibly do. Not just extended techniques, but I’d like to hear them break the law basically. I want them to be able to, at a university, not feel bound by the gestures of really old music all the time—learn from it and do all those things—but I think it would be neat if they started to have music, more and more of it, that was specifically for them.
Lyrics are going to be lyrics that I write in the way that I do them. But the textures I can already hear with a lot less formality than I just put into my concerto.
That’s what I want to do right now. I want university pieces that are specifically for them. I don’t even know if they’ll go on an album, but if they do go on an album I’ll record them at universities and make sure that they’re the ones represented. But I’m not interested in the recordings of them as I am actually interested in what’s on paper and what gets played at schools. I think that would be fun.
So There is out today on New West Records.