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.