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Ben Folds at ATTPAC -- Can We Talk About Rock Orchestras?

Ben Folds with the Dallas Symphony in 2009
Ben Folds with the Dallas Symphony in 2009
Patrick Michels

You've got a rock band. They're pretty good. They rock out. People seem to like them. What's the next logical step in the progression of this band or musician's sound? Get louder? Play faster? Dig the same groove onto the next album? Maybe even get quiet and introspective for a bit, but not enough to alienate the fanbase?

Nah, let's stick an entire orchestra behind them. That'll do it.

The orchestra, as a tool of the rock musician, is something that serves to detract from both party's core sounds and qualities. I can't think of a single case where an orchestra has improved rock music. I'm willing to learn, I am. Please someone tell me what to listen to.

I'm not knocking the concept of an orchestra, far from it. That would be ridiculous. Just, when you take something as regimented and precise as a hundred or so people all playing the same piece of music, the aspects of music you lose are the exact aspects that make rock music so entertaining. The looseness. The improvisation. The rocking quality of a heavily distorted sound. The orchestra possesses none of these things.

Let's take last night's performance from Ben Folds outside on a gorgeous Arts District evening as an example. Folds is an outrageously talented piano player. His improvisational skills are amazing. His playfulness, his lack of an ability to take himself seriously at all, and his knack for a good tune are all what combine to make him probably the last of a dying breed, the good-time-piano-singer-songwriter that can hold a room.

If you take Folds and his piano and then add dozens of musicians all playing to a conductor who is nervously glancing at Folds in case anything goes wrong, you reduce the whole spectacle to a slow plod through some of Folds' least interesting tunes, but now turned into a Disney soundtrack.

The heft, though. That's what people argue for when they think putting an orchestra in is a good idea. Imagine how loud it will sound! Just think of the air of authority and regality (I checked, regality is a real word)! Can you imagine ten violins playing that one breakdown? It'll sound incredible!

It won't, though. It'll sound like rock music muted, like a good time kept inside crushingly strict boundaries. Even on Folds' better-known slower tunes, you can't help but imagine the song without the orchestra. For an orchestra to work in this context, I need to be blown away. I wasn't last night. I can't imagine I ever will be.

For the encore, Folds came back out by himself, as the orchestra was packing up, and raised the crowd to its feet playing his best honky-tonk dancing Ben Folds Five tunes. And do you know what? He improvised his way through them. Nothing was set in stone, nothing was exactly how it should have sounded. For the closing bars of "Army," Folds missed the correct key completely, informed the audience he'd wrecked the song, carried on playing in the wrong key anyway, and sung the closing bars of the night in a tone so deep that he had to puff his own chest out to hit the note and to keep from laughing.

The audience was laughing. They were having a good time. They were seeing Ben Folds without an orchestra backing him up, and it was much, much better.


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