In bewildered America, this fraying rocker counts as classical

In bewildered America, this fraying rocker counts as classical


norman lebrecht

September 22, 2015

At the top of this week’s classical crossover charts (Billboard) and sales (Nielsen) is this man.

ben folds

He’s called Ben Folds, he’s 49, and he was the founder of a rock group, the Ben Folds Five. Now he’s on his own.

The only reason Ben Folds counts as classical is that he employs the Nashville Symphony as backing on his new album, So There.

Quote from Mr Folds: ‘‘I Want to Piss in Your Yard With This Record’.

Confused? So are we.

Try some.


  • Andrea says:

    This isn’t really the whole story. Aside from 8 songs where he’s accompanied by yMusic, the album does also include his 21-minute, 3-movement Concerto for Piano and Orchestra, with Nashville SO and Giancarlo Guerrero. First movement here:

    • John Borstlap says:

      It’s terrible crap. It has nothing to do with classical music. Any orchestra who gets themselves involved in such thing, commits an embarrassing faux pas.

      • Andrea says:

        Interestingly sympathetic analysis. And have you heard the whole concerto, John? Personally, I would far rather orchestras took a punt on something like this than yet another symphonic cycle by those over-exposed few and which perpetuate the museum culture in which classical music has firmly entrenched itself.

        • John Borstlap says:

          I genuinely tried to listen to this ‘piano concerto’ but had to give-up after a couple of minutes…. Recognizing something as a really bad product by a primitive mind, does not automatically mean endorsing a museum culture. One would wish much more variety in programming of classical concerts, but this does not mean pollution with this sort of misery. If one gets tired of Rembrandt and Michelangelo, wishes one to replace them by cut corpses in formaldehyde or tinned excrements? No, one wants to see other artists who try to create something that holds the interest of people whose eyes are trained by seeing canonic collections. Fortunately the great museums offer a lot of other art as well, the Louvre is full of ‘side dishes’ showing things equally interesting. There should be more of that in music life too, but please spare me the amateurish nonsense from quarters untrained in the art form.

          • Andrea says:

            I guess we’ll have to agree to differ. But really, “primitive mind”, “people whose eyes are trained by seeing canonic collections”, “amateurish nonsense from quarters untrained in the art form”!! Somehow, I don’t think you’re even trying to be provocative…

  • Eric says:

    As Andrea said, that’s the real story. Yes, Ben Folds could be considered rock, though it’s more appropriate to classify him as alternative rock, or indie rock, or even indie pop. But, he premiered his Piano Concerto a few years ago, and has performed it in the US and Australia. This album features that work in full, and features pp-style songs performed with a chamber music group. It’s not right, and not wrong, to classify the album as classical. But, of course, it has to fit in a box for charts. Please get these facts right.

  • Alvaro says:

    Rocker who wants to piss on you with his album composes a 21-minute ‘concerto’ for piano.


  • Blair Tindall says:

    Norman, seriously, you don’t know who Ben Folds is? You should listen to his music. He’s an astonishing pianist, and that he’s included us in his mix and has brought visibility to classical music is something to be lauded. He is quite well-respected among those of us who are actual musicians. But what would I know about popularizing classical music?

    • Doug says:

      Sounds like he’s not to bad in the sack, nicht wahr?

      • Blair Tindall says:

        What the hell does that mean? I’ve never met the guy if that’s what you’re getting at.

        • Blair Tindall says:

          And the word for which you are groping is “too,” not “to.”

          • Respect says:

            Price of fame. Ms. Tindall shouldn’t be subject to such deeply personal attacks, she has real insight into the American musical scene, and the courage to speak up. Thanks for the comments on the composer, I’ll make a point of listening.

          • Blair Tindall says:

            @Respect, thank you. I was on the set of Mozart in the Jungle yesterday and four of our biggest superstars stepped up to the plate acting in the show, to make us relatable. When people see it in January they are going to go nuts, it was epic. It was astonishing. I have never met Ben Folds but admire his music, and he is trying to help us. I’m not sure what that person’s comments are intended to accomplish. Ben Folds is a great musician with a platform, and he’s trying to help us. What are you doing, Norman?

  • RW2013 says:

    Not to be confused with the fascinating composer John Foulds.

  • Dominic Stafford Uglow says:

    Ben Folds is great, both with the BFF and on his own. A quirky original songwriter, and a fantastic pianist with a classical training. You should listen to him, Norman. His a genuinely important artist.

  • Christy says:

    “Bewildered Americans”??

    Ben Folds is great! He’s a tremendous musician who crosses boundaries into many different genres of music – not rock, but probably alternative pop, a cappella, folk, and yes, classical. He has long been publicly deferential to classical musicians and has slowly been moving more into the genre.

    Inviting others into classical music by being welcoming and reaching out ourselves is essential.

    I would gently point out that in the UK, people like Kathryn Jenkins (with whom I have no problem) are called “opera singers,” repeatedly and everywhere.

    In the US, the time she was referred to this way on Dancing with the Stars, there was so much outcry, the program had to change its advertisement. In the US, we have several – if not well known, at least familiar to a good portion of the public – real, actual opera singers. These singers are also known internationally. The UK has some wonderful singers, but when an “opera singer” is called on for a public occasion, it’s never a real, actual opera singer, is it? It’s always the KJs of your country, who are, of course, announced as opera singers.

    In the US, we have the large classical category of the Grammy Awards for both vocal and instrumental, performance and composition. In the UK, you had the Classical BRITS, but they were changed to the Classic BRITS, and now honor Musical Theater and groups like Il Divo (mostly).

    At the same time, the UK has the Proms and world class opera houses. It’s quite the dichotomy, and the situation seems quite…. bewildered. 😉

  • Dominic Stafford Uglow says:

    Now I’m awake and in the office, I’ve been listening to this album on Spotify.

    I’ve been listening to Ben Folds since the Ben Folds Five (an Alt Rock/Jazz trio) released their first CD in 1997.

    He’s a wonderful artist, who articulates the neuroses of his generation with great eloquence. He has the pop writer’s gift for writing unforgettable hooks (listen to F10-D-A on this album, for example). He’s a fine lyricist, who relates complicated issues in a simple way. And he’s a wonderful musician. His touch at the piano is great. He could hit a piano with a hammer (and did) and it would still sound identifiably like Ben Folds.

    His willingness to ignore generic boundaries is emboldening. Take a song like Underground, for example, that abruptly changes from a teen anthem to a jazz canter, complete with Bill Evans chiming cascades.

    He’s not alone in following this route. Kurt Wagner’s Lambchop produce songs of great beauty and wry alienation and Rufus Wainwright (another fine pianist) does too.

    I know you’re a great fan of Leonard Cohen. If so, you should be listening to these guys, and promoting them, because these are the younger artists that people like Cohen admire. They play in the major concert halls and bring in an audience that is happy moving from classical, to jazz, to pop and back again.

    Remember how in the Death of Classical Music you lamented that Long Form Marketing had divided the music audience?

    Time to start heeding your own advice, Norman!

  • Paul Mann says:

    I remember, Mr Lebrecht, some years ago, you endorsed and then added to a list of musicians, which included my friend the late Jon Lord, that you’d most like “to kick off the classical labels”.

    Then when our studio recording of the Concerto for Group and Orchestra came out, you featured it on your blog, and reviewed it appreciatively. So, as Peter Cook once said, you seem to have learnt so well from your mistakes that you can repeat them at any time. Why be so reactionary and reflexive? It makes you sound like exactly the kind of snob that hurled brickbats at Jon when the Concerto was first heard in 1969, and continues to regard the rare musicians who can successfully embrace different genres as somehow inferior to those who don’t. Some of us have moved on.

  • Anon2 says:

    Well, he seems to be attracting an interesting audience. 1st time I’ve heard about a brawl breaking out in the audience at Boston’s Symphony Hall.

  • V.Lind says:

    Dmitri Hvorostovsky started out as a heavy rocker in darkest Krasnoyarsk. He has also recorded Russian popular songs. I don’t see any diminution of his reputation or ability.

    There really is the most fearful amount of tosh talked around here the minute someone strays from the straight and narrow, or someone else reaches out beyond what their image has presented to date.

    • John Borstlap says:

      Considering that there is a difference between art music and mere vulgar entertainment music is not ‘straight and narrow’. In contrary, people who could not possibly see, or rather hear, any difference at all, are living in the most straight and narrow mental prison imaginable.

      • V.Lind says:

        Of course there is a difference. But the straightness and narrowness is contained in not being open to anything other than the received canon (including “acceptable” or “approved” new music). And in failing to take on board different styles. Yes, a discriminating ear is required to separate wheat from chaff. But a preference for one man’s chaff does not make those who like it satanists, or otherwise evil.

        • Dominic Stafford Uglow says:

          One does well to be reminded of Oscar Wilde’s observation that there is no such thing as high or low art, moral or immoral art. Art is either good or bad, and nothing else.

          I come from a family packed full of artists and writers. I’ve been around great artists all my life and two things unite them all. Firstly, their capacity for organised and extensive work and, secondly, a curiosity that crosses boundaries and is not affected by ego or feelings of low self-esteem.

          I’ve seen Oscar Peterson play Verdi and wondered at the depth of his expression.

          The songs of Bob Dylan beat most late C20th art song into a cocked hat.

          Only two examples, but you hear this same curiosity in Beethoven, Verdi, Britten, BArtok – the list goes on – all of who incorporated this, so called, vulgar art into their own works.

          I’m afraid, John, that you’re the one living in a prison…

          • Patrick says:

            Thanks for these insightful comments. Music, like all art, is in the eye of the beholder -there is no objective reality to it that can be measured and evaluated. Music is what we say it is. What people bother to perform and listen to. And that is a good thing.

          • John Borstlap says:

            We know that Wilde’ life did not end particularly well, so we should be careful by quoting his sayings as examples of wisdom.

            Artistic curiosity is, of course, part of any artistic enterprise, otherwise nothing would be created. But that has nothing to do with quality and intention. There is music to entertain, nothing wrong with it, and serious music. If there were no differences between genres, there would not be any context for value judgement. The denial of context is the product of modern egalitarian society, producing people who have no idea what culture is, what entertainment is, what anything whatsoever is, because in a world without distinctions everything is OK. And in that happy, wide-eyed inanity, any notion that could undermine the immature playground mood, is immediately treated with hostility…. “We don’t like party poopers!”

        • John Borstlap says:

          Accepting the difference between entertainment music and serious music does not mean locking oneself up into the received ‘canon’…. Great composers of the past had a healthy curiosity, now & then, in entertainment music, and often incorporated its elements in their own music, but they changed the elements so that they could fit-in, in a very different context. Nobody in his right mind would think that Debussy’s incorporation of the folk song ‘We are as yet not going home’ in ‘Jardin sous la Pluie’ or in ‘Rondes de Printemps’ is suddenly sinking the artistic level of the piece. But the material has been processed… not to mention similar treatment by Stravinsky, Bartok, etc. One could not possibly say these composers were ‘not open’ to other genres. But they knew the differences of context. It is remarkable that a defence of quality is so often understood as a restriction rather than a liberation; probably that comes from the wish to have one’s bad taste confirmed rather than criticised? Or from the need to imagine oneself that something innocently entertaining and nothing more, should go for ‘high art’? I am merely asking for information….

          • Dominic Stafford Uglow says:

            Oh, John, do stop being quite so obdurate. You’ve listened to five minutes of a concerto design to bring new people into a concert hall and made a prejudiced decision as a result.

            You know very well that composers including: Britten; Ravel and Schubert, set folk songs without altering them one jot.

            As for your objections to Oscar Wilde’s viewpoint being, in your opinion, dubious because he was a homosexual; what about Walter Pater in The Rennaissance, who made exactly the same point? Or Ruskin, perhaps?

            Art is maths made pretty – and maths is democratic, not snobbish.

      • GB says:

        Says the guy who comments on literally each and every SD article. Lmao

        • John Borstlap says:

          O yes? I thought I was quite selective…. only commenting on subjects which, to my feeling, especially deserve some serious opposition. Maybe you give my comments really too much weight.

  • Jaxon says:

    I think I most enjoy reading Slipped Disc because it reminds me that the dinosaurs who are holding the classical music world back are fading into bewildered obscurity.

  • John Borstlap says:

    To Dominic’s accusation of obduracy: these folk songs (Schubert, Britten, Ravel, etc.) are treated in such a way, that the material is elevated to a higher artistic level, and have become art music. You can also have attempts into the opposite direction, like the walzes of Johann Strauss jr. which were so admired by Brahms (great stuff). As for arriving at a prejudice because only having listened for a couple of minutes to something really [redacted], that makes me think of Cosima Wagner who attended a full performance of some light french opera which got very popular in Germany at the time, I think it was something by Chabrier; she reported later-on that she thought the piece utterly disgusting but stayed the entire duration, observing her increasing level of discomfort and indignation. I don’t think masochism is appropriate in combination with music. As for poor Wilde: for him, art was morally free and disconnected from social contexts. But I think art should take responsibility beyond its mere pleasures, if we do not want to remain in the gutter (Wilde: ‘We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars’.)

    And as for obduracy: I read these commentaries by music lovers and, seemingly, some professionals, with an anthropological interest, and I am often stunned by the ignorance about music which goes with so much enthusiasm. Should be a subject for a research programme.

  • John Borstlap says:

    The confusion arises when horizontal difference (the differences between genres) is confused with vertical difference (value hierachies). So, if someone says this or that is not so good, based upon vertical distinction, in an egalitarian society people tend to think such person disapproves of their preferred genre and feel offended. But in every genre there is good and bad and everything in between. And of course a value judgement of entire genres is also possible which is again something else. To state that congo drumming is less artistically developed than Debussy’s ‘La Mer’ does not mean looking-down upon the drummers, but conveying an obvious observation. And there is nothing wrong in enjoying congo drumming – as long as it is not claimed to be on the same artistic level as Debussy.

    Giving-up any critical sense produces a grey mist of irrelevance and meaniglessness, where culture cannot thrive.