Stories Five Questions with Ben Folds

By Ricky O’Bannon

Songwriter and rock pianist Ben Folds stopped in Baltimore this week as part of his Ben Folds Orchestra Experience Tour. Folds will collaborate with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra in a concert featuring his hit rock songs and his piano concerto, which he premiered in March 2014. Folds talked briefly before rehearsal Thursday with the BSO.


Q: You were quoted as
saying there’s too often a wall between people who listen to classical music and people who listen to rock or pop. Why do you feel it’s important for that to change?

A: I just think when something's not happening as it should, you just have to say we can all do better. For orchestras and audiences, the gap has to be bridged on both sides. And it's happening. I see a lot of pop artists who are more and more interested in a hybrid [of music genres], and I see more and more people in the audiences as I do [these types of concerts.] So it's certainly coming around.

Q: Has anything surprised you about playing with orchestra musicians?

A: I like symphony orchestras. It's like you're unpacking a lot of toys. The combinations are endless. They don't seem endless until you start to get into it, and then you realize that the textures [you can] get are absolutely incredible. With the synthesizer, which I'm not particularly good at, you have far more options. But I feel like having far more options actually takes the art out of it.

Every night I look back at the orchestra and think, "How can I do this or that? How does doubling the flutes [with] the first violins impact the way the measures after that feel and the surprise of another reed coming in later?" It's just fun.

Q: Are there lessons from this experience you think you’ll take with you for your next rock project?

A: I don't know if I've taken anything particularly away from it. I do think rock musicians are fairly well ahead of classical players in terms of getting to the point musically. There's a huge system to circumvent when you're playing with the symphony orchestra. You can't just say "I'm going to pound my foot on the floor, and we're going to do this slowly in four for two measures and get it right." ... With a rock band you just yell "Stop! Stop! Let's get that right for a couple of bars!" And I actually think classical musicians could learn to adjust their system a little bit. At the same time, I'm learning an incredible vocabulary of stuff that as a rock musician I never knew existed. That's one of the reasons I think I'm interested in both of them.

Q: You’ve used the term “sampling” to describe your thought process as you mix in a Rachmaninoff or Gershwin-influenced section in your concerto. What is it about that idea that you find worked for you writing the piece?

A: When I say sampling, that's a way to relate it to someone who listens to pop music. ... I think I was explaining why to me it wasn’t completely off limits at all to say, "Here's four bars where I'm dressing up like Gershwin. Here's four bars where I'm dressing up like Prokofiev." I think that's more acceptable in this day and age because people are very used to Lady Gaga, for instance, grabbing parts from other things. That's a real way to be expressive. And for my purposes, I'm a baby. I've never composed anything for a symphony orchestra before. And that's where I'm entering… is being excited about the stuff that I like.

Q: What would it be like for you to one day hear another pianist play your concerto in concert?

A: My secret greatest wish [would be for] that to happen. That would be incredible. That is success when you write a piece. … People don't cover my music. A cappella groups have covered it in droves, but it's never been covered commercially. Well I had one song covered by Bette Midler early in my career. But you want to be covered. That would be amazing, and I'd like to see a great pianist do it.