Interview: Chris Thile

chris thile

Bach and Bluegrass, together at last

World renowned Mandolin player and Punch Brothers band leader Chris Thile is bringing a unique solo show to Australia, perfoming pieces from his new Bach: Sonatas and Partitas Volume 1 album as well as his more contemporary repertoire. Les Thomas had the chance to catch up with Chris Thile before he hopped on the plane about his extraordinary accomplishments, the modern listener’s relationship to classical music and reviving 300 year old violin music on the mandolin.


I believe you last visited Australia with Punch Brothers about a year ago?
A little over a year because I remember it being rather cold there, and I suspect it’s not cold now.

No, today is a lovely 31 degree day and it’ll be warm when you get here in a bit over a week.
It’ll be amazing for me because it’s been some of the coldest temperatures on record in New York. So I’m gonna step off the plane and my body will be in shock!
I can’t guarantee you anything in Melbourne because it’s more changeable than anywhere in the world. You can expect warm weather in Sydney!

This time will be a different event because you’ll be bringing your Bach work.
Yeah, I’m really excited. The last time I was in Melbourne, which was the first time I was in Australia, I was really blown away by the performance experience. We had no idea what to expect, and when we stepped out on stage it was like an ideal environment. If I could draw up a performance environment it would be like that. The Bach program that I’ve developed is trying to frame the Works in a different context. I love pointing out the similarities between instances of good music. Truly great music has more in common with other instances of great music than it does differences. The program is constructed around that principle. It’s half Bach and it’s half other things; trying to keep people on their toes. So often we listen to Bach with our serious ears on, when Bach is just as well listened to with your fun loving ears on.

Or your dancing shoes?
Absolutely! So, I wanna remind people that Bach is first and foremost just great music. It’s  not first and foremost complicated music, or music for the mind.

What would you say about the relationship of modern listeners to what’s called classical music, compared to the vernacular or everyday music?
I went to Carnegie Hall to see Mahlers 9th Symphony which is a piece that I absolutely adored, a tremendous orchestra, conducted by [Daniel] Barenboim. They got to this passage in the third movement and they just killed it and sat in my seat as said “Yes!” and was shooshed by several people around me and realised how far that is from what I think the act of performing and listening is. That, in a nutshell, is my issue with the conventions of classical performance. One of the greatest things that can happen as a listener is to be transported to the point where you forget yourself and you just start reacting. Mahler’s 9th Symphony is an incredible piece of music in that sense because it is completely transporting.

It’s a fascinating development in the history of music because at the time a lot of classical music or opera was written you would have full audience engagement. The first time Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring was played it was a virtual riot.
Mahler himself was someone who wanted it quiet in the concert hall and would shush people. Not only was he the composer and the conductor, he had everything he wanted well in mind. Imagine the electricity in a Mahler conducted performance of a Mahler Symphony when he was shushing people; that would have been electric, that would have been incredible! Why that became the prevailing aesthetic is completely befuddling to me. I don’t want to pick on classical music because it’s where some of the most exciting music in the world is being made. I just think we should approach it with the ears we’ve been given and not some more proper wig wearing set of ears.

The way you approach these pieces on the mandolin, you have such an ability to bring in groove and shoulder shrug in a Bluegrass kind of way. It’s aclear sign to the listener that “you need to be awake for this bit”; it’s a nice approach.
I do want it to resonate. I think if you can people’s bodies moving it’s a great sign. I think it’s so important to have moments in life where we forget ourselves, how we’re coming across, where we can lose ourselves for a second. Music is such an important part of that process. For it to almost physically grab your body and start moving it, apart from your own will. I think the music Bach wrote absolutely does that- all you have to do is get out of the way and play the notes.

In your own playing, Chris, there’s no shortage of movement. The mandolin is a quite small instrument but your whole body gets involved when you play.
[Laughs]I love to move to music. When I see videos of myself playing, I’m often taken aback by how much I’m moving, I’m almost embarrassed by it. Ultimately, it’s just what happens, I’m not gonna change it.

It’s been so integral to your existence from age two. Has there ever been a time when mandolin hasn’t been totally part of your life?
Two is when I wanted to start playing. I didn’t get to start playing. And since then it’s basically been with me. I haven’t gone more than a day without playing. I love it. It’s not the mandolin, in particular, that I love. I have a fondness for it. Sometimes people over emphasise the importance of the actual instrument, like an architect getting too excited by hammer wielding skills. The mandolin is a hammer; it’s a beloved hammer, though. I do take delight in slinging it. The thing that really lights me on fire is being to interact with music, and try to improve my relationship with it gradually.

You’re bringing different qualities to the particular sonatas and the partitas which was written for violin. The use of the pick and the ability to strum full chords in a way that you can’t on the violin. You’re creating a somewhat different sound.
You’ve brought up the one thing where I think the mandolin has the clear advantage over the violin, particularly in the context of the solo Bach music. Bach was such a contrapuntal thinker and he wanted to bring as much counterpoint out of the violin as was humanly possible. It’s hard on the violin to do that. As a mandolin player, that’s just not a problem. Playing three and four part chords on the instrument – it’s by nature more polyphonic than the violin is. Of course violins kick it to the kerb on the more lyrical passages, but we all have our crosses to bear when it comes to the difficulties solo Bach presents. I relish the lyrical passages- the chance to draw people in to a smaller, more delicate, almost frail version of lyricism. Mandolin, I would say can’t be lyrical, but this frail lyricism can be really exciting as long as you set it up properly.

If you try to go for the big romantic lyricism that a violin is capable of, you’re just going to overdrive the instrument and it’s just going to sound smaller than it already is. But if you try and draw people in, and look for lyricism in different places, and then when you get to the three and four part chords you can relish the opportunity. They don’t have to be huge- it’s dealer’s choice there.

You’ve already got a fan base of bluegrass or progressive bluegrass music. Bringing out 300 year old pieces of Bach, have people taken their ears up to this classical and more traditional music challenge.
So far! That’s one of the most exciting things about these programs for me. There are people who come to these shows because they like Punch Brothers, and there are people who come to these shows because they love Bach. Very few people are familiar with both. I’ve got diehard fans who’ve picked up the record and know it all backwards, but they’re in the minority.

You’re 32 now, and have had wonderful recognition for your work in terms of Grammy Awards and the MacArthur Fellowship [of $US500,000].
The MacArthur was out of the clear blue sky and such a thrill. I have several heroes who won them in the past, and to be on the list that includes them is thrilling beyond belief. It stokes the fire I already have under myself. It felt less like an award and more like an indictment. That one really kicked my ass. I want to make sure I don’t stand out for not standing out.

I think anyone who Googles the word mandolin would find your name pretty soon after in the results. The instrument itself, due largely to you, is having a rediscovery around the world. Are there any mandolin players among your contemporaries who you would encourage people to check out.
There’s tonnes. A guy I always love hearing play the mandolin is Mike Marshall. He’s got such a great handle on the instrument. He’s unique among mandolin players because he has massive hands- just huge lumps on the end of his arms there. But what he ends up doing with them, I don’t know, he’s got such a cool touch on the instrument. Sam Bush’s rhythm is something I will always be in awe of. The tone that David Grisham produces is always going to blow my mind the beauty of the tone he gets is pretty astounding.

Will you be playing entirely solo on your Australian shows?
Completely solo. It’ll be just me. That’s been the wonderful adventure for me- trying to make sure an hour an a half plus of one dude playing mandolin and doing a little singing- trying to make that as texturally diverse and coherent as possible. It’s tempting in the name of variety to play music that’s so drastically different that you can give people musical whiplash. You’re always trying to find a way to get contrast without turning it into a freak show in terms of the music that’s being presented.

When you have collaborators on stage, you have people to interact with, and human beings just love having other human beings to interact with, and performing musicians are no exception. When you’re playing solo, that means you have to look to the audience to interact with, to collaborate with. I love playing music for people. I love it most of all when it ceases to be me playing for people, and turns it into being with people. I try and to turn to the audience and involve them at every concert I play regardless of how many people are on stage. But when it’s just me I have to do that or it just gets too lonely. That’s really fun, to try to create an experience where the audience turns into my collaborators for the evening, and they become my band members. That’s been one of the most exciting aspects of playing solo.

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Melbourne singer-songwriter and Unpaved editor Follow @les_thomas on Twitter