It’s not often you hear a popular musician describe his music as bizarre, especially one who has had songs on the radio and has been a cast member of a network TV show.
But “bizarre” is exactly the word Ben Folds used when describing the untitled album he’s been working on with the New York-based classical ensemble yMusic, set to be released later this year. Fans of Folds can judge the music for themselves when Folds and yMusic perform at Portland’s State Theatre on Thursday.
“The instrumentation is totally different, mixing classical and rock and roll. It’s bizarre,” Folds, 48, said in early April. “We haven’t played a gig yet, so it’s all pretty new.”
Anyone who has seen Folds as a judge on NBC’s “The Sing-Off” should not be surprised at his classical collaboration. He’s a student of all music, and on the show he often comes off as a teacher, dissecting notes and arrangements and discussing music theory.
Folds said he enjoyed that part of the show, but that lots of the advice and assessments he gave to the a cappella singers on the show were cut by editors and never aired.
“I was aware that what I was saying was not along the lines of the usual things judges say on those shows,” said Folds. “To me, these kids had just gone through a car wash backwards, and so I felt like they should hear what was good about the performance, or how it became unraveled. Sometimes I’d give them a lecture, and it would get edited out.”
Folds is not a classically trained pianist or songwriter. He grew up in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, listening to Billy Joel and Elton John on the radio. After playing drums and piano in different bands, including a stint in Nashville in the 1980s and early 1990s, he formed a trio called Ben Folds Five in 1994. It was with that band, known for power pop and indie rock, that Folds became nationally known, turning out songs that were hits on adult contemporary and modern rock radio stations, including “Brick,” “Song for the Dumped” and “Army.”
By 2001, Folds began making solo albums and working with other musicians, and he has reunited at times with Ben Folds Five. He was a judge on “The Sing-Off” from 2009 to 2013.
For his classical album, Folds has included a piece he wrote called “Concerto for Piano and Orchestra.” He’s already performed the piece live and calls it “one of the best things I’ve done.” He said that in preparing to play it live, he practiced the piano so much he had to “ice my shoulder every six hours.” He said he also listened to hours and hours of classical music.
Folds says he’s fascinated by all musical forms, and he’s happy to see a movement around the country of young musicians embracing ways to meld classical and rock. In Portland, for instance, the Maine Youth Rock Orchestra features young musicians who are classically trained and often play rock songs with local bands.
Folds hopes that by playing with classical musicians, he is helping to “demystify” classical music.
“Classical music is so much more a part of our popular culture than people realize, but there’s this line drawn where people are intimidated to go to the symphony,” said Folds. “There’s a real excitement when you see that wall come down, and people realize it’s all just music. That’s what I’m chasing.”
WHEN: 8 p.m. Thursday
WHERE: State Theatre, 609 Congress St., Portland
HOW MUCH: $35 in advance; $40 day of the show