Ben Folds introduces his Piano Concerto

Guest Fri 27th June 2014

The Ben Folds Five frontman and songwriter on the influences behind his Piano Concerto

Ben Folds is touring his Piano Concerto in the US, UK and Europe throughout June, July and August

Ben Folds is touring his Piano Concerto in the US, UK and Europe throughout June, July and August

I took piano lessons from the babysitter for a year when I was nine, and I got better than her pretty quickly. And at that time I was reading the music, and it was all going in a lot faster than it does now, I can tell you that! But my serious discipline was percussion – that’s how I paid for my college, I got scholarships, and that’s what I worked like a fiend on. But the piano was something I did to bring out the songs I was hearing in my head, it became a song-writing tool. So by the time I was 10 years old I was just writing songs, I wasn’t learning anything – I’m surprised I can play at all when I think about the lack of scales and arpeggios, exercises, sight-reading and technique…

I’m a left-handed drummer and that’s the way I play the piano – all the emphasis is always going to be on the left hand. As a rock‘n’roll piano player, that came in handy because it gave me a solid rhythmical left hand. But classical music – especially when you get up to the early 20th century – is surprisingly hip in syncopation; I’m not sure that was ever pointed out to me but it’s something I’ve learned as an adult. I love seeing where there’s great rhythm in classical music.

Using strings in my music was an expensive habit! In fact the first Ben Folds Five record has a piecemeal string quartet put together by a student on the last track of the album. But as we could afford it more we did it more. And I learnt how to arrange strings for rock band that way – the arranger Paul Buckmaster has taught me a lot since then. I just find it moving when it’s done well – in rock‘n’roll you do these overdub sessions where you kind of fill out the music, and it’s always bothered me because it’s not harmonically satisfying. So I like bringing in strings because you can tell the story with the strings, but its also more measured, there’s a way of articulating it so it really sits in the track.

My Piano Concerto came about in the way most of what I do comes about – it just happened. It was discussed over dinner with the head of the Nashville Ballet, and I don’t know if he suggested it or if someone over the table suggested it, but anyway I said ‘Yeah, I’ll do it!’ And I went down a crazy path for 18 months while I was working on it.

I listened to string quartets until I was turning blue – there’s a Beethoven quartet, and the Ravel, which I’ve come to love like they’re pop songs. Then I started listening to piano concertos. I really connect to those from the early 20th century – Rachmaninov, Bartók and Ravel. I like Gershwin’s a lot – I had a feeling I was heading that way, it made sense to me. I just listened everywhere, and after months of a diet of waking up and sitting between the speakers, I started getting scores to the concertos that I really loved. And that’s when I started working on my piece.

The context, the atmosphere that I would like to think that I have created in my concerto is this: I live now, and I’m me and I play piano. And I can do things that a lot of classical piano players would find difficult, and I can do almost nothing that they can do. So if I take a quote of some kind, or tip my hat to a ‘classical’ composer, it’s a needle drop, it’s sampling, it’s a rap artist putting a Queen beat underneath his rap for a couple of minutes, or sampling a little bit of Annie or something. That’s the way I feel that it is. There are moments when you think ‘Boom, it’s gone Russian all of a sudden, oh it’s gone French, oh there it is, now it sounds like Copland.’ I know that’s going on all over the place. I could have curbed it, but I felt like this is where I am in my life, I’m sampling all this music and I’m enjoying it. 

Now I have to practise it – my do I have to practise! It’s not an easy piece to play. But my great dream would be that, after I perform it, it gets played by someone else at some point – that would be amazing. 

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