Chris Thile Plays Bach

Chris Thile

Bach, Sonatas and Partitas, Vol.1

Nonesuch CD/LP/Digital

Why Chris Thile Playing Bach on the Mandolin is a Good Idea

(A gentle rejoinder to performance practice purists)


1- Attack and decay

The Partitas, three of which are played by Thile on his latest Nonesuch disc, were probably originally played on the violin. But harpsichord looms large in Bach’s chamber music. Like the harpsichord, mandolin also has a sharp attack and quick decay. There are a number of correspondences between the timbre and fleetness of the two instruments that one probably wouldn’t capture if they played the Partitas on, say, clarinet.


2- Melismas


Both baroque chamber works and bluegrass instrumental music share an affinity for melismatic passages (layperson language: lots of fast runs). Anyone who has heard Thile play a solo with Punch Brothers knows how cleanly he can execute fast passage work, sometimes dizzyingly fast passage work. Listening to the Nonesuch disc, it is clear that Thile even upped the ante; he practiced his tuckus off.


3- Edgar Meyer


One of Thile’s frequent collaborators, the composer and bassist Edgar Meyer produces this recording. He is also one of those who spearheaded the bluegrass/classical crossover phenomenon in the 1990s, writing for and encouraging colleagues ranging from Bela Fleck to Yo-Yo Ma to explore the fertile vein of American roots music in a “classical” context. Meyer has also recorded Bach. He “gets” how Bach and modern folk stringed instruments fit together.


4- Bela Fleck


Banjo player Fleck has recorded Bach’s music too, focusing on the Inventions. Didn’t this open the door for a mandolinist to try his hand at recording some JSB? Why should Fleck get to have all the fun?


5- This Isn’t a Lark … or a Stopgap


Unlike some classical crossover projects, which serve as catalogue placeholders or a means to cash in on one the few quasi-lucrative subgenres in the classical recording industry, it is clear that Thile is passionate about this project and humbled by the material he is assaying. In a live video posted on YouTube, after playing a selection by Bach, Thile says that Bach is a tough act to follow with one of his own songs. It’s a joke he often shares in interviews; the jocular self-deprecation contains a great deal of humility.


6- Vol. 1


This also isn’t just a one off. Thile plans to record all of the Sonatas and Partitas on Nonesuch.

7- Tempo and Lightness


Bach is often transcribed for instruments that weren’t prevalent in interpreting his music during his lifetime. Many of us first encountered Bach in translation – played on the piano instead of the harpsichord. Pianos existed during Bach’s lifetime, but he was “old school” in his choice of keyboards: he preferred harpsichord and, above all, clavichord. There is a famous story that illustrates this. Late in his life, Bach travelled to visit his son at Frederick the Great’s court. After having Bach play on his extensive collection of pianos, Frederick offered to give him a piano-forte to take with him. Bach declined, indicating that he preferred his harpsichord at home. (I think this may have had as much to do with carting it home on unpaved roads through a war zone, but that’s just my own suspicion).


While there have been a great many influential interpretations of Bach’s music by pianists – and I don’t seek to assail them here – there is a presto tempo that some movements of the Partitas seem to require, with a lightness of texture and touch, that is quite difficult to obtain. It isn’t so much about the metronome marking at which one can play all of those sixteenths and thirty-seconds, but the limpid fluidity of their utterance, that makes these sections of the Partitas succeed. Thile on the mandolin can achieve this delicate fleetness where many pianists have not.


8- Lute


While we on are the subject of transcription, Bach himself transcribed his own music (and others) for a variety of forces. We hear his violin Partitas played on the lute: why not his partitas on another plucked stringed instrument?


9 – Mandolin isn’t just a Folk/Bluegrass Instrument


We most often associate mandolin with vernacular styles of music: folk, country, rock, and bluegrass. But it has appeared in a number of pieces of Twentieth Century and contemporary classical music. Witness Gabriel Faure’s Verlaine setting Mandoline. Even Schoenberg used it, in his Opus 24 Serenade. Dare we hope for Chris Thile to record some Schoenberg? (I’m half kidding, but I bet he could make it work!)


10 – Historical Accuracy vs. Historically Informed Performance


Truth be told, none of us are hearing Bach’s solo instrumental works as he heard them performed. Most often, they were heard in an intimate setting, a small room, not in a recital hall, not in a formal concert with the etiquette (and ticket prices) of today, and certainly not on a recording. We are both fortunate to live in a time where we are able to turn on a Bach recording anywhere, and impoverished that Bach’s music has become cultural shorthand – for a formality and canonical type of thinking he likely wouldn’t have recognized. And perhaps this is why Chris Thile’s Bach performances get some of the purist crowd up in arms.


Thile does no violence to the aesthetic in which Bach’s music was conceived; indeed he is quite dutiful in executing the material. Perhaps some of the purists aren’t reacting to Thile’s performances, but the milieu in which he performs Bach. Thile presents sonatas and partitas alongside bluegrass tunes, solo originals, and covers of alt-rock songs by Radiohead. He plays Bach for crowds that hoot and holler when they are delighted. While he is playing, there may even be alcohol with hops (from a can!)  imbibed by the audience. No one, least of all Thile, wears formal attire, no one in a tuxedo is present. It goes to show, you can win a MacArthur Fellowship and there still will be naysayers.


11 – Brubeck, Carlos, Swingle, and others


Haven’t we been through this phenomenon before? Bach played by Dave Brubeck in front of college kids, Walter/Wendy Carlos playing Bach on a Moog synthesizer, Ward Swingle arranging Bach excerpts for the Swingle Singers and a jazz combo; at one time or another, all of these approaches to J.S.B.’s music have been viewed as heretical violations of the canon. It is due to the resiliency of Bach’s oeuvre that new types of arrangements are of his works are made and that they work. Notice that other great composers’ works wouldn’t hold up to this type of treatment. Bruckner hasn’t had many synthesizer albums made of his Te Deum. Grieg’s Piano Concerto would be an unlikely candidate for a jazz meditation. Partly due to the evolving instrumentation of the baroque scoring giving artists a sense of permission, and partly due to a performance practice that, as we’ve pointed out, has included transcription for decades, Bach will continue to be reinvented and reinterpreted in a host of ways. Relax, sit down, and enjoy. Or, if mandolin doesn’t float your boat, reach for one of the many easily available harpsichord renditions of the Partitas.


12- Outreach


There’s been a lot of hand-wringing in the news media and at arts organizations about “outreach.” Who will be the audiences of tomorrow? Is classical music dying? How will we get the young people to love music when all that they seem to listen to involves twerking? You want to hear great music, played authentically, that works as artistic outreach to new audiences? It’s on this recording.



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.


Punch Brothers’ “Who’s Feeling Young Now?” out on Valentine’s Day

Punch Brothers
Who’s Feeling Young Now
Nonesuch Records

The Punch Brothers’ release Who’s Feeling Young Now, their latest CD, this coming Tuesday, February 14, Valentine’s Day, via Nonesuch Records. The next night, the band is appearing on the Tonight Show, gearing up for the start of their national tour on February 17th (dates below).

True, the Punch Brothers play a brand of bluegrass/pop fusion that’s been just as likely to explore the sadder aspects of love affairs as celebrate life’s finer moments, and this is certainly true on their latest recording. Thus, it’s not the audio equivalent of a box of chocolates for your sweetheart. But the band never gets mired in their bluesier ruminations. Many of the songs contained herein jubilate in fulsome bluegrass swing. In particular, mandolinist and songwriter Chris Thile seems to be be upping the ante, channeling the Flecktones in their penchant for mixed time signatures and copiously syncopated solos. For evidence of the group’s zesty ensemble work, download the free track “Movement and Location” via the embedded widget below.

Most of the songs are penned by the band; songwriter Josh Ritter contributes lyrics to a couple of Thile compositions. The album also features two covers; quirky and distinct renditions of Radiohead’s “Kid A” and the Swedish folk band Väsen’s “Flippen” are both unexpected delights.

Punch Brother 2012 U.S. Tour Dates

February 17, Appalachian State Performing Arts Series, Boone, NC
February 18, Brooklyn Arts Center at St. Andrews, Wilmington, NC
February 19, Shaftman Performance Hall, Roanoke, VA
February 23, Somerville Theatre, Somerville, MA ^
February 24, Somerville Theatre, Somerville, MA ^
February 25, Higher Ground, South Burlington, VT ^
March 1, Park West, Chicago, IL ^
March 2, Varsity Theater, Minneapolis, MN ^
March 3, Liberty Hall, Lawrence, KS ^
March 6, Neptune Theatre, Seattle, WA ^
March 7, Wonder Ballroom, Portland, OR ^
March 8, The Fillmore, San Francisco, CA ^
March 10, El Rey Theatre, Los Angeles, CA ^
March 12, Bluebird Theater, Denver, CO ^
April 15, Mountain Stage Radio, Morgantown, WV
April 17, Lexington Opera House, Lexington, KY *
April 19, Bijou Theatre, Knoxville, TN *
April 20, Cannery Ballroom, Nashville, TN *
April 21, Variety Playhouse, Atlanta, GA *
April 22, Track 29, Chattanooga, TN *
April 24, Theatre of the Living Arts, Philadelphia, PA *
April 26, The Town Hall, New York, NY *
April 27, 9:30 Club, Washington, DC *
April 28, MerleFest 25, Wilkesboro, NC
June 2, Appalachian Uprising, Scottown, OH
June 16-17, Clearwater Festival, Croton-on-Hudson, NY
June 21-24, Telluride Bluegrass Festival, Telluride, CO
June 28-30, ROMP: Bluegrass Roots & Branches Festival, Owensboro, KY
July 27-29, RockyGrass, Lyons, CO
July 28, FloydFest 11, Floyd, VA
~ with Loudon Wainwright III
^ with Aoife O’Donovan
* with Jesca Hoop

Bartok meets Banjo on new CD!

Jake Schepps
An Evening in the Village: the Music of Béla Bartók
Fine Mighty CD or digital via Bandcamp

Banjoist Jake Schepps crosses over into classical music on his latest release An Evening in the Village (out this week via Fine Mighty). Joined by a group of crackerjack country music performers, he explores the repertoire of Twentieth Century Hungarian composer Béla Bartók (1881-1945). While at first glance this might seem like a curious cross-pollination, on further inspection bluegrass and Bartók share a number of affinities. Both are use traditional folk music as source material, both value syncopation and other rhythmic surprises, and both employ a pitch language that favors scales that depart from unadorned major and minor to instead explore other patterns.
In addition, one can readily see a kinship between the Eastern European  folk bands that performed the material that inspired Bartók and, apart from the banjo, the composition of a bluegrass ensemble. But Schepps does a fine job of performing this music convincingly on the instrument, and he ably leads his collaborators through the various metric shifts and dissonant surprises that populate Bartók’s scores. This is not adulterated Bartók; it’s the real deal, just re-orchestrated. That said, the CD’s musical equilibrium is equally supported by the spirit of bluegrass.
Schepp is performing music from the CD in Brooklyn on Monday.

An Evening in the Village with Jake Schepps
Monday, October 10, 2011
376 9th St

Brooklyn, NY

See map: Google Maps

An Evening in the Village CD Release Tour!

released 04 October 2011
Jake Schepps: banjo
Ryan Drickey: violin
Matt Flinner: mandolin
Grant Gordy: guitar
Ross Martin: guitar
Ben Sollee: cello
Greg Garrison: bass
Ian Hutchison: bass
Eric Thorin: bass

All music by Béla Bartók, ASCAP except
Cousin Sally Brown: traditional, arr: by Jake Schepps, BMI

Produced by Jayme Stone
with Jake Schepps and Matt Flinner

Chris Thile & Michael Daves: Sleep with One Eye Open (CD Review)

Chris Thile & Michael Daves

Sleep with One Eye Open

Nonesuch CD

Chris Thile is best known for his work as vocalist and virtuoso mandolinist with the bands Punch Brothers and Nickel Creek. And while his fancy finger work frequently dazzles, he’s been criticized in the past for allowing the production values imposed on his music to have to glitzy a sheen: blunting the “authentic-sounding” quality that connoisseurs often prize in traditional music-making. But his recently collaboration with guitarist and vocalist Michael Daves restores a sense of folksiness, grit, and yes, authenticity to the proceedings.Daves is a wonderful foil for Thile. His stomping grounds are in Brooklyn, but his sound is a spot-on reanimation of old-time Nashville. Ironically, the recording takes place in that very city, in a new studio with vintage equipment – Jack White’s Third Man studios.

The concept for the album is beautifully simple. Thiles and Daves went into Third Man and, in four days, recorded all sixteen of the album’s cuts: traditional songs and material by beloved Bluegrass icons such as Flatt and Scruggs. Just two guys standing toe to toe, playing with youthful energy and nimble virtuosity and singing their hearts out.  No backing band, no overdubs: none necessary.

In an era of glitzy presentation and overproduction, of far too many cooks spoiling an often thinly appointed stew, Sleep with One Eye Open is an object lesson on how to do it right. Recommended.