Ben Folds is no stranger to ambition. Over a two-decade career, the witty, sardonic piano rocker behind hits like "Brick" has done everything from soundtracking movies to serving as a judge on NBC's The Sing-Off. But his newly released album, So There, concludes with what might be his most ambitious move yet — a three-part, 20-minute symphonic piece named simply "Concerto for Piano and Orchestra."
Folds will perform that concerto with the University of Miami's Henry Mancini Institute Orchestra this Friday in one of only two performances of the kind he'll make this year. New Times caught up with Folds — who attended UM's Frost School of music but dropped out before graduating — to talk about the piece and where it fits into his sprawling career.
New Times: Explain a little about the show you'll present down here. It's different from what people who've seen your pop performances might know and expect.
Ben Folds: You guys are getting one of the more rare concerto shows. A lot of the time, I'll play a pop concert and we will chuck the concerto — part of it, at least — into it. But this is different because it's just straight-up concerto. There won't be a microphone; I won't be talking and shit; I won't be playing pop songs.
Have you always been a big classical-music buff?
I don't think "buff" would be fair to say, but I listen to everything. I'd say probably about a third of my records here I'm looking at are classical records, then a bunch of rock records — Belle and Sebastian, David Bowie — and a fuck-ton of jazz. My listening appears to be, as I look at it right now, kind of split in three: rock, jazz, and classical.
You're a guy who's known for your lyrics. Is writing symphonic music like writing with one hand tied behind your back?
No. I think there's a universal conservation of expression going on. I either put it all into music and orchestration and tell the story that way, or I write the words. In fact, I felt more free in some ways writing this that I didn't have to encumber it with a literal narrative.
Are there things you can express while writing a concerto, or classical music, that you can't contain in a pop song?
I think so. You have a little bit more time, and I think for someone like me, a little less constraint allows me to do some things. There was a record that my band and I made called The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner. In a way, there are a lot of elements in that album that are kind of similar to where I've gone with the concerto. My problem with writing that album was that everyone wanted pop songs and I wanted seven-minute pieces. I was that guy. And it tells me that, at the time I was doing Reinhold, I was bursting at the seams to lose the constraints of lyrics rather than the other way around.
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Your career seems to be branching outward. There's the concerto. There's the a cappella thing. You've brought the Ben Folds Five out of retirement. Do you think about your legacy in terms of the body of work you're creating?
There's nothing convenient about this. Those things, they don't sell records. It's a nice little paycheck and it's fun, but it doesn't. I try to keep stuff tied together, but at the end of the day, what really has happened is I've just followed the things I thought were interesting. I'm not really thinking about what I'm leaving behind when I die. But I'm sure I'll get to that soon! [laughs]
Ben Folds with the Henry Mancini Institute Orchestra. 8 p.m. Friday, October 30, at UM Gusman Concert Hall, 1314 Miller Dr., Coral Gables; 305-284-2241; miami.edu. Join the waiting list for tickets at miami.edu/frost.