Ben Folds: In the Key of B

Music Features Ben Folds

“It’s been brewing for a long time.”

Ben Folds is talking about his first piano concerto. Before our breakfast conversation is over, we’ll have discussed photography, crickets and how much Lil Wayne has in common with Beethoven.

But, for now, back to Ben and another meal—this time it was dinner with Paul Vasterling of the Nashville Ballet—that ended with a commissioned concerto.

“It all made sense for me, and I just said ‘yeah,’” Folds says, because Nashville’s the sort of place where meetings like that, ideas like that and enthusiasm about art like that happens.

Folds grew up playing in orchestras as a percussionist. Then came the Ben Folds Five and that infamous “Brick,” followed by solo albums and tours playing with symphony orchestras.

“If I strung together all the instrumental sections of all the records I’ve ever made—just played them on the piano—you’d hear,” Folds says. “It’s like, ‘Oh, I’ve been doing that the whole time.’ Listen to the piano solo on the song ‘Boxing.’ Listen to the piano solo on ‘Selfless, Cold and Composed.’”

When Folds began playing with symphony orchestras, he knew it was an investment that meant it wasn’t going to be something he did for a year before moving on.

“There’s a reason why it feels like our times are dumbed down, and you think about someone like Mozart kicking out as many masterpieces as he did,” he says. “And you think, do we not have the gene pool for that now? Why can’t people do that? And you have to take into account how life works. Do you think Beethoven was pressing his shirts and doing a school run for the kids and meeting his business manager and live-tweeting The Sing Off?”

Folds is branded as the all-knowing judge on NBC’s a cappella competition show, and he quickly found the world of concerto composing humbling.

“It’s really easy to become intimidated by the form and decide that you can do the junior version of what someone did 100 years ago,” he says. “Because it’s intimidating. You have to make it your bitch.”

His concerto isn’t a study, but he is learning a lot.

“I love the sound of a lot of people playing together. I think it’s amazing. The artform. The detail.”

Speaking of details, just because a concerto doesn’t have words doesn’t mean this latest work won’t reference the live dynamics and themes Folds’ fans have come to expect.

One of them—focus—was born out of a series of recurring dreams where Folds (a photographer in his “spare” time) is in a scene and trying to “grab focus” but finds it difficult. “I even had one of them last night,” he says.

The possible psychological meaning behind the dreams isn’t lost on Folds, and once he started working with the orchestral instruments, he realized he had the opportunity to recreate the feeling of things coming into focus using music.

“You take all your violin players and start everyone on a slightly different note,” he says. “There’s one tone center they’re all shooting for, and as they play a line they all become more and more into tune before all meeting at the same note.”

Folds admits it’s not a new idea, nor is it one that couldn’t be done on a synthesizer, but he says it wouldn’t have the same meaning in that form and “different symbols mean different things to different people’s music.”

Another section of the piece was born from a conversation with Folds’ dentist, who told Folds about a lesson he learned from crickets while growing up in Kenya.

According to the dentist, small creatures like crickets get quiet in the presence of large predators like lions and tigers. As a boy, he’d hardly notice the constant chirp of the crickets until they went silent, and then he knew to be scared.

“So [it’s about] finding moments where there is low-lying chatter that goes away, and then there’s a real distant bass drum,” Folds explains. “That’s like a tone poem. A story. A musical dynamic. I just love that about music.”

Building a three-movement concerto has come with its challenges, and Folds has been spending a lot of time examining how Ravel and Beethoven accomplished effects like slow builds.

He catches me off-guard when he compares Beethoven’s Opus 132 String Quartet to Lil Wayne’s song “This is How You Build a Beat.”

“The concept’s similar,” he says. “He’s saying you don’t drop it all in your first, you develop this and get into it.”

So how did he know when he had reached that magical point where he could look at it and know he had achieved something people would recognize as a Ben Folds concerto?

“For me, it’s when it feels like I’m breaking the law,” he says. “Does this feel like I’m going to be put in handcuffs yet?” Luckily, Folds says the answer—after several months of hard work—is yes. He says he has the feeling he had all those years ago when he broke ground by using words like “stupid” and “money” in his song “Emaline.”

Above all, he’s experiencing a lot of excitement—and enjoying it. He compares it to the first Ben Folds Five album.

“I’m making mistakes, and I can see as I’m going through the process I’m getting better already,” he says. “I can see the sequence of what I’ve written going from ‘Whoa! Holy shit, this is crazy!’ to ‘Oh, I’ve learned a few things.’ You have to keep discovering.”

And you’ll get a chance to hear it for yourself—the concerto and a “best of” pop show—in a city near you this year. As the tour progresses, Folds says he’ll also preview pieces from his upcoming chamber music album.

“It’s good to put things out there before you have a chance [to think too much],” he says. “There’s something really good about it.”

And while he may feel he’s rushing the concerto out, the last time he felt that way—with a little song called “Brick”—things turned out okay.

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