Interview: Paging Mandolinist Chris Thile

Chris Thile. Photo: Danny Clinch.

Would you believe it if you got a telephone call telling you that you’ve just won the MacArthur Foundation Fellowship, known as the “Genius Grant?” There are many stories about “the call.” One such anecdote: In 1982, when composer Ralph Shapey got the call, he thought it was a prank; he couldn’t believe that he would be given such a generous award with no strings attached.


One can understand the awardees’ surprise: after all, it isn’t every day that an artist, scientist, or author gets a half million dollars out of the blue. After highly secret deliberations, a representative from the MacArthur Foundation calls a recipient of a fellowship to tell them the good news: you’ve just been given a large sum of money to acknowledge what you do and, hopefully, enable you to engage in your work more fully for years to come.


As he relates in a conversation this past Wednesday, when the MacArthur Foundation called mandolinist Chris Thile to tell him that they planned to give him an award, Thile initially didn’t take the call. En route to a gig with his band Punch Brothers in Nashville, Tennessee, he saw a number come up on his mobile phone and decided not to answer.  Since this is election season, he thought a call from area code (312) – Chicago – might be someone reminding him to vote. Later, the caller left a message, indicating that they had a matter of ‘extreme importance’ to discuss with Thile. Guessing it might be someone who needed a mandolin player for a gig or a recording session, Thile didn’t immediately return the call.


At the gig, he got another message. This time, in addition to stressing the importance of the matter, the message also said, ‘don’t tell anyone about this.’ About then Thile went from disinterested to scared.


He says, “After all, in the movies, when someone says ‘tell no one of this,’ that’s usually when someone else is about to get shot! So, what did I do? Went and told someone – my tour manager, who offered to Google the number and see what the story might be. When he came back and told me that it was the MacArthur Foundation calling, I started to freak out.”


Thile was familiar with the foundation because Edgar Meyer, a musician he greatly admires, a frequent collaborator whom he considers a mentor, had won a MacArthur Fellowship.


“Two weeks after learning the news, I’m still surprised and humbled, still just coming to grips with this honor,” he says. “I mean I’m a mandolin player – I just hope I can blend in with the other recipients of the award. It makes me feel like I’ve got to step up my game in order to somehow become worthy of this honor.”


Self-effacing though he may be, Thile needn’t worry about his worthiness. Not only is he one hell of a mandolin player; he’s also a musician who has done a great deal to break down musical barriers and genre distinctions.

His prodigious exploits as a precocious musical youngster, followed by crossover appeal as part of the ‘Newgrass’ band Nickelcreek, work as a solo artist and with a host of collaborators – Meyer, Yo-Yo Ma, guitarist Michael Daves, and his current band Punch Brothers to name just a small sampling – demonstrate a work ethic that serves as a through line: Thile inhabits a stylistically versatile and keenly collaborative ambit.

The latest Punch Brothers recording, Who’s Feeling Young Now (Nonesuch, 2012), which Thile and the rest of the band are currently touring to support, is an object lesson in the mandolinist’s versatility. “Movement and Location” has an atmospheric alternative rock ambience, complete with a reverberant vocal hook, and is led by a propulsive mandolin ostinato and shadowy fiddle lines. “Flippin’ the Flip” is a hoedown tinged showcase for the whole band, while the title track features a funky groove and suave vocals and provides ample room for mandolin, fiddle, banjo, and electric guitar alike to strut their stuff in alternating solo turns. The band creates a layered and evocative sonic tapestry on a well-considered cover of Radiohead’s “Kid A” and assays a blustery barnburner of virtuosity on “New York City.” Those hankering for material with a more traditional folk/country vibe aren’t turned away either; “This Girl” and “Patchwork Girlfriend” find the Punch Brothers quite comfortable to craft arrangements with an acoustic bent and a wry sense of Nashville-tinged swing.


Although Punch Brothers are Thile’s current regular band, they comprise only a fraction of the musicians in his musical orbit. When asked about the range of collaborators with whom he works, whether this is a model he wants to sustain in his future activities, Thile replies enthusiastically, “I think it’s the way of the future for musicians. Recently, I got the chance to premiere my Mandolin Concerto with the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra. They were so open-minded, which made it a wonderful experience.”


What about mandolinists who, for Thile, fit the “genius” category? Again self-effacing, he makes it clear that, in mentioning artists whose music is a touchstone, he’s not comparing himself to them.


Thile says, “Listen first for the music that someone is making, not the instrument they are playing. An instrument is like a hammer: it’s a tool. The house is so much more than the hammer. The musicians I most enjoy listening to transcend boundaries; they transcend themselves when making music. There are so many that it is hard to mention just a few, but I get that sense of musicality when I listen to Edgar Meyer or Bela Fleck; Charlie Parker, Glenn Gould, and, more recently, Brad Mehldau and Hilary Hahn. In terms of mandolin players, again it’s hard to mention just a few. For starters, I’d say you’d have to mention Sam Bush, John Reischman, and Mike Marshall. And John Moore, a wonderful mandolinist who was one of my teachers and remains a great influence on me.”


It’s early days in terms of deciding what to do with the MacArthur Award, but it’s clear that Thile envisions possibilities for ambitious projects. He says, “I hope to have the chance to work with some of my favorite artists and to have the time to compose; to work on writing things with other musicians. I’d like to work together on some pieces that are, say, in lead sheet form – and some unfinished pieces that are in the idea stage as well. One thing’s for certain: winning this stokes the white-hot fire of creativity in me.”


In awarding a fellowship to Thile, the MacArthur Foundation seems to have chosen someone who, while possessing the skills of a virtuoso, is much more than a mandolin player. His speech is nearly as nimble as his fingers on the fretboard. It makes him an excellent advocate for the importance of music in our schools, our society, and our day-to-day lives. Thile’s enthusiasm for music is infectious.


Congratulations Commander Carter

Elliott Carter in New York, 1983.

Allan Kozinn reported yesterday in the New York Times that Elliott Carter will be made a  Commander in the French Legion of Honor. The composer, who turns 104 in December, will be presented this, the highest distinction given by France, in a ceremony later this year to be held at the Cultural Services Office of the French Embassy in New York.

Carter first mentioned being contacted about this in an interview for Bloomberg back in June; it’s nice to have the details confirmed. For those keeping score, Kozinn reports that Carter will outrank Paul McCartney, who is an Officer, not a Commander, in the Legion of Honor. Of course, McCartney’s only seventy; presumably he’s got time for an eventual promotion!

Tuesday: NY Phil celebrates Dutilleux

Tonight the New York Philharmonic celebrates French composer Henri Dutilleux, the recipient of the orchestra’s first Marie-Josée Kravis Prize for New Music.

Dutilleux has decided to use the prize money to commission three composers to write works for the Philharmonic in his honor. He’s already selected one – Peter Eotvos. Who would you recommend to Mr. Dutilleux as the other two commission recipients?

Alan Gilbert will conduct and Yo-Yo Ma is the featured guest soloist.


Métaboles (1964)

Ainsi La Nuit for String Quartet (1976)

Cello Concerto — Tout un monde lointain (A whole distant world) (1970)

Read This

Book Review

Listen to This

By Alex Ross

New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 384 pp.

Published in 2007, The Rest is Noise, Alex Ross’ first book, was an engrossing and thoughtful survey of Twentieth Century music, equally useful as an introduction to neophytes and a refresher to specialists (he’s since tweaked the paperback edition to be even more comprehensive, including updated info and a “go-to” listening list). By “classical music” standards, the book was wildly successful, and Ross subsequently garnered a number of honors, including a 2007 National Book Critics Circle Award and a 2008 MacArthur Fellowship. Its follow-up, Listen to This, doesn’t limit itself to contemporary concert music. Instead, it’s a wide-ranging survey of musical topics, including portrait essays of musicians as diverse as Radiohead, Marian Anderson, Sonic Youth, and Cecil Taylor, discussions of specific musical genres, and thought pieces on the state of music education, the record industry, and cultural consumption at home and abroad.

Ross has been a music critic on the staff at the New Yorker since 1996. While most of these essays are culled from his writings there, Listen to This never strikes one merely as a “greatest hits” compilation.  Rather, the volume is structured to tease out several overarching concerns. One of them is the working musician. In one chapter, he demystifies the grueling touring schedule of chamber musicians, pointing out that even acclaimed groups such as the St. Lawrence String Quartet have to hustle to make a living in today’s economic climate. Far from being another “death of classical music story,” Ross argues for the relevancy of these touring ensembles that, despite these challenges, bring music of a very high level of artistry to locations far and wide, many of them off of the beaten path. Another topic is globalization’s affect on postmillennial music, which is explored in a particularly fascinating travel essay detailing a concert-filled trip to China and in a jaunt to Carnival in Brazil with Björk.

While there’s no mistaking Ross’ erudition, a trait that allows specialists to prefer his writings to those of some of his journalist colleagues with less musical knowledge, Listen to This is an approachable collection. One of the ways in which it speaks to a wide audience is with an eagerness to share in what Leonard Bernstein called “The Joy of Music.” Indeed, Ross is that rare writer on music who can share his enthusiasms for an artist’s work with unabashed honesty. But even when backstage with Radiohead or following Björk through the streets of Salvador, he defuses any notions of fanboy journalism – a trend that, alarmingly, has infiltrated all too many publications of late. Instead, Ross seeks to put a human face on artistic process, detailing the origins of Björk’s eclectic musical tastes and providing a foil for the singer’s exotic costumes and playful demeanor by detailing a studio session in which, while humane, she is exacting in eliciting musical details from collaborators. There’s an emotional openness, even vulnerability, which runs through a number of these essays. His eulogy of the exquisitely talented mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberson is one of the most affecting yet observant tributes to this recently departed artist (rereading it was made all the more poignant by the passing in April of her husband, the composer Peter Lieberson).

The state of music education is a frequent topic of discussion of late. Ross’ essay “The Crisis of Music Education” should be required reading for policy-makers, educators, and the parents of artistically motivated children alike. As one can tell by the title, it acknowledges the beleaguered state of arts and education funding; but Ross still provides several glimmers of hope for the future. He describes the unlikely and extraordinary flowering of a music program in the inner city at Malcolm X Shabazz High School in Newark, New Jersey. Another urban success story is detailed in Providence, Rhode Island’s Community MusicWorks, a program run by the Providence String Quartet, a group of graduates from major conservatories who prefer giving back to staking a claim for fame and fortune. Ross even gets in on the education act himself: part of his book tour for Listen to This has featured a performance/discussion of bass lines throughout music history ranging from Purcellian grounds to Delta Blues walking lines: it’s also made for a cult YouTube hit, in which Ross is joined by the Bad Plus’ Ethan Iverson and ex-Battles composer Tyondai Braxton.

A staff position at the New Yorker provides a platform from which can wield considerable influence. Some of the essays collected here have already had undeniable impact. Ross has done a considerable amount to raise the stock of Alaskan composer John Luther Adams, and his fascinating chapter on the composer’s works and working environments is another “must-read” excerpt. One wonders whether it’s mere coincidence that Providence String Quartet founder Sebastian Ruth received a 2010 MacArthur Fellowship. If Ross had a hand in this, more power to him: it’s nice to see a music critic on the side of the good guys!

RIP Peter Lieberson (1946-2011)

We’re saddened to learn from David Starobin of the passing of composer Peter Lieberson in Israel, due to complications from Lymphoma. He had been battling the disease since 2006 and for a time it had been in remission. But in late 2010, Lieberson travelled to Israel to seek treatment for a recurrence of the cancer.

Alex Ross has posted a touching remembrance on The Rest is Noise.

Lieberson’s music was an extraordinary mixture of disparate strands of influences. It encompassed  an intuitive post-tonal vocabulary, rooted in dodecaphonic training but also capable of lush verticals and, particularly in his vocal music, supple lyricism and sweeping melodies. In later years, his interest in meditation and Zen Buddhism contributed another layer of resonances and an intriguingly metaphysical counterweight to some of the modernist tendencies of his oeuvre.

Among the many honors he attained was the prestigious Grawemeyer Prize, which he won in 2008 for Neruda Songs. Although he was a finalist for the award on multiple occasions, the Pulitzer Prize eluded him. Back in 2004, I suggested that this injustice made him the “Pulitzer’s Susan Lucci.”

Of course, during this sad time, one can’t help but think of the passing of Lieberson’s late wife, the extraordinary mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, also of cancer. Lieberson wrote a number of memorable pieces for her, including the aforementioned Neruda Songs. If there’s a signature example to use when we advocate for our government to continue to fund medical research, I’d offer this one up: two brilliant creators in the prime of life laid low so cruelly. Both had so much yet to offer. It’s a tragedy that we’re bereft of their artistry and humanity far too soon.

Congrats to Michael Daugherty and the Nashville SO

Michael Daugherty

Sure, we all can complain about the Grammy Awards. For me, the lack of representation of classical music and jazz on the telecast is just one of many disappointments. But before the glitz of the runway and glamour of the broadcast, several artists were acknowledged for their achievements in these genres.

The Naxos Group nearly ran the table last night. Their artists and imprints picked up a total of nine Grammy awards.

Noteworthy among the winners were Michael Daugherty, recognized for his Deus ex Machina, and the Nashville Symphony Orchestra; they garnered 3 awards for their all Daugherty Naxos recording (Best Contemporary Classical Composition, Best Orchestral Performance, Best Engineered Album, Classical).

The NSO has had quite a challenging year; they were compelled to vacate their performance space, Schermerhorn Symphony Center, for several months due to the severe flooding that struck the city in May, 2010 (the orchestra sustained over $40 million in damages!). Now, they’re back in their renovated home and they have much to celebrate!

Laurie Anderson: “Flow” (Soundcloud/DL)

Congratulations to Laurie Anderson on her Grammy nomination for the song “Flow” (Best Pop Instrumental Performance). It’s the last track on Homeland, her latest Nonesuch release.

The label’s been kind enough to offer “Flow” for stream or download via Soundcloud.

Laurie Anderson – “Flow” by Nonesuch Records