Finding the Common Chord

by Mary Unobsky | Photography by Nancy Lee Andrews

When different artistic disciplines intersect there is a creative combustion that often occurs, producing a unique hybrid. Nashville Ballet’s Artistic Director and CEO, Paul Vasterling, has been intrigued by pop piano virtuoso Ben Folds ever since they worked together on the 2012 Ballet Ball. In the following Q&A session Nashville Arts Magazine (NAM) gets the opportunity to eavesdrop on their collaboration.

NAM: What is your version of how the two of you met?

PAUL VASTERLING: Jennifer Puryear, a board member of the Ballet and the Nashville Symphony, thought we should meet, and we had a drink together one evening at the Hermitage Hotel’s Oak Bar. Concurrently, I had been talking to Giancarlo Guerrero about co-commissioning a piece of music for the ballet and symphony to use in a joint project, and the idea of a Ben Folds composition bubbled to the surface.

BEN FOLDS: Jennifer Puryear, Paul, and I went to dinner, and they had the idea for the concerto. It was conceived as “this will be for ballet,” that I was composing something for Paul to choreograph.

NAM: How would you describe the piano concerto?

PV: My take on it is Ben Folds meets the classical masters, including Rachmaninoff, Beethoven, and George Gershwin. The three movements each have many interesting textures and beautiful melodies building to a climax and then easing off into nothingness.

BF: I don’t think I’d be the dude to describe it. To me, I’ve done what I do when I write a pop song. But I had to lift a lot more weight. A pop song is three minutes long; a concerto is twenty minutes. The components are different, but the concepts are the same. I’d say it has pushed my piano playing. I’m definitely operating at the top of what I can do with this right now.

Paul Vasterling and Ben Folds

Paul Vasterling and Ben Folds

NAM: Where does creativity come from?

PV: For me it comes from the connections people make with each other, and creativity spontaneously emerges from that. So Ben and I, together with the dancers and musicians, make this thing that never existed before. It’s pretty magical, and it makes sense for me because my creativity happens with dancers in the room. It’s a real intimate relationship that begins there, and when I step away from it I realize it wasn’t me, it wasn’t you, it was us.

BF: I’m really lucky. I think that everyone is creative; some people just did or didn’t get the memo that it’s OK to be that way. In the right state of mind a steady flow of creativity happens. A relaxed, open state of mind helps that creativity. If you’re uptight and not open to things, it’s hard to be creative.

NAM: What are your main creative triggers?

PV: My main triggers are musical. I steep myself in it, and I try to find the impetus of it, my impression of it. What the music means . . . Is it dramatic? Is it emotional? Does it tell some sort of a story? What’s the connection? Then I get the piece in my head, and I start noticing things about people, and I think, I’ll use that. I start seeing how people interact, and it becomes more intense when I get in the studio. I start recalling what I’ve noticed, certain aspects of a relationship, other images or specific gestures, and I put it out there where I start to shape it.

BF: For me, it’s usually circumstantial. It’s like if someone pours out puzzle pieces on the floor and says make something, that’s cool. It’s like refrigerator-magnet poetry. Sometimes you have to hunt for the parts and find what you’re compelled to hear, but I find what I need to. Sometimes you have to search, but usually it’s there.

NAM: Does living in Nashville make it easier to access other artists in other fields and interact with them?

PV: Definitely. My impulse is always musical, so being in Music City makes it so simple. There are great musicians within our reach every moment. Being able to access them and finding that they are genuinely interested and not overly protected is very Nashville.

BF: Nashville has more creative resources, like the puzzle pieces. We have amazing musicians, studios, instruments, recording equipment . . . it’s all here. It’s a great time in music history that all of that is here. From that point of view, absolutely.

The Ben Folds Project will be performed with the Nashville Symphony May 2–4 at TPAC’s Jackson Hall.

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