interview with mandolinist Chris Thile

September 15, 2009, 11:40 PM ·

A mandolin is a lot like a violin, except...

"There's twice as many strings as a violin -- and half as much sonic capability," said mandolinist Chris Thile, laughing. "But it is a fun little instrument."

Thile, whose fingers seem as much at home with Bach as they are with Bluegrass, has explored the fun little instrument anew, with the creation of his concerto for mandolin and orchestra, which he premieres this Thursday with the Colorado Symphony. (He will also play the concerto in Oregon, Alabama, Los Angeles, Winston-Salem, Delaware and Portland later this season, see this page for dates.)

Chris Thile
Photo by Cassandra Jenkins

"The piece is really all about me stretching myself, and thus the name, Ad astra per alas porci, which is Latin for 'To the stars on the wings of a pig,'" Thile said. "It was Steinbeck's personal motto, and he would always accompany it by saying, 'I am earthbound, but aspiring.' I love that. If that doesn't describe the human condition, I don't know what does. That's what being a musician is all about to me, continually reaching out and trying to grasp things that are really sort of beyond me. Every now and then you get a little piece of it, and it just feels so good, it propels you forward, and you can grasp a little bit more the next time."

Thile, 28, has astonishing facility on his instrument. He is probably best known as the mandolinist in the band Nickel Creek, a trio which was formed in 1989, when its members were still in grade school. Over the next 18 years, the band produced three popular albums (which are permanent fixtures in my iPod, a rarity) and went on hiatus 2007.

Since that hiatus, Thile has been exploring new territory and new tonality, experimenting with his new band, Punch Brothers, playing with artists such as bassist Edgar Meyer and composing the mandolin concerto. I spoke to him on the phone on Labor Day, just before one of his Punch Brothers rehearsals.

"I feel like it was a fairly natural extension of my existing activities," Thile said of the mandolin concerto. "I had written a string quintet for what is commonly thought of as blue grass instrumentation, about two and a half years ago. It was written for Punch Brothers, and it's on our record, Punch, which is our only record. The piece is called The Blind Leaving the Blind. It is sort of weirdly the halfway point, between Nickel Creek and this mandolin concerto."

Thile began working on the concerto in December and finished it in June, and "I can't even tell you how much fun I had working on it," he said. "It was also very very stressful for me, it exists right at the ends of my musical abilities, both as a performer and as a composer and as a lover and appreciator of music."

"I feel like I've done a lot of examining of the mandolin's possibilities, but this is the culmination of my efforts in that direction thus far," Thile said. "And I like the instrument more now, having really tried to write things that maybe could only be done on the mandolin."

As far as the orchestra is concerned, "it's for mandolin and fairly-full orchestra," Thile said. "We're avoiding the trumpets and trombones, just because that's a pretty loud element to introduce to the mandolin world. Even so, I'll have to be amplified, which I hate, but we will do as tastefully as possible."

Thile said he strove for "a legitimately collaborative relationship with the orchestra, so that the relationship is not purely that of soloist and orchestra. Not that I'm in any way belittling that sort of relationship, but for me, what's more exciting is to make it as if there was a mandolin section, which I am. That isn't to say that the piece isn't still essentially driven by the mandolin part; I'm not trying to re-invent the wheel before I know how it actually works. I wanted to essentially play by the rules: the piece is in three movements, it's fairly standard instrumentation."

Will this concerto be published so others can play it?

"I have every intention of publishing it, at some point," Thile said. "It would be the most flattering thing in the world if anyone else decided they wanted to take a whack at it. It's certainly not a piece that's written as a personal manifesto about mandolin playing; it's not something I intend only to be possible from my hands. It's a very difficult piece and does have some improvisatory elements, but they're directed properly; theoretically. Someone would know what to do. It's not like all of a sudden the mandolin writing is blank, it has little directions."

"Really, in my mind, that's going back to the way concertos used to be written: the performer always had to improvise during the course of the performance – at least the cadenza," Thile said. "None of that is left to chance at the moment any more, and to me that betrays music's inherent spontaneity and urgency, when every last thing is scored out. I even toyed with the idea of trying to get some improvisatory element into the orchestra writing and then ultimately decided not to. For my first orchestral adventure, I wanted to keep it between the lines."

I wondered if the concerto would sound like Bluegrass.

"No, I wouldn't think," Thile said. "Then again, it could strike someone who doesn't have much in the way of Bluegrass background as having some of that flavor to it."

"I'm just a bad judge of that kind of thing, because it all sounds the same to me, really, as far as the way I'm evaluating music at this point," Thile said. "An A chord is an A chord, whether it's Bluegrass or whether through some crazy pattern, Berg hits an A chord, it's still an A chord. It's the same thing, there's no difference. The differences are all purely aesthetic, not structural. So I'm kind of a bad person to ask about that."

"The piece is sort of only precariously tonal, and it exists out on the fringes of tonality," Thile said. "It's still tonal, but maybe people not super-familiar with atonal music would find it to be fairly jarring at times."

"I would feel like a failure if it was a stylistic mash-up. Like, ooo, here we go, combining Bluegrass and Classical music, yay! To me, that's gimmicky, a very superficial synthesis," Thile said. "I'm looking for soup, not stew. I don't want to see the carrots, and the potatoes, and there's the beef...I want it to just be a color, and you can guess what's in it. That's always more interesting to me."

"I would love to be part of that ever-growing mass of composers and performers who are striving to re-integrate all these things. When this sort of thing works, it works because one is blind to the differences and is really only noticing the striking similarities between good music and good music," Thile said, "as opposed to saying: in Bluegrass music there's sort of this happy, kind of a hop-swingy thing, and there are banjoes! And in classical music, things are really complicated all the time! And here we go! Count it off!"

"To me, there's a lot of that kind of thing, superficial collaboration," Thile said. "But I would like to couch all of this by saying, I am in no way saying that I have succeeded in properly creating a real, thorough synthesis!" (He laughs) "But that is the goal, that is what I'm trying to do, and it's not even a synthesis; in my mind it would be absurd to ever separate the thing. To exclude certain elements of well-made music from your palette, as a composer, as a person who thinks seriously about music, just doesn't make sense, it doesn't compute."

Thile did an album in 2004 called Deceiver, in which he played every instrument on the album: not only mandolin, but also guitars, bass, drums, fiddles, percussion, piano, keyboards, and vocals.

I asked him about playing all these different kinds of instruments.

"I can. I shouldn't, though," Thile said. "Really, the mandolin is the only thing I play with any kind of proficiency, and increasingly, it's really all I play. In my non-existent spare time I try to teach myself how to play the piano, which I'm really sort of at 'I'm a Little Teapot,' kind of a level right now. Multi-instrumentalism is really something that lost its luster to me once I started hearing people like Glenn Gould, just going, Oh my God, if I'm ever to play anything with as much substance, I'm really going to have to focus. So I kind of ditched the idea of playing all those various instruments."

I told him that when I was dabbling with the mandolin over the summer, I found Thile's mandolin tutorial, which he made some 10 years ago for Homespun Recordings. He laughed and said he couldn't vouch for anything he'd made so long ago. Nonetheless, it helped me quite a lot and changed the way I held a pick. I wondered if there was any controversy in the mandolin world about how to hold a pick – like our shoulder rest wars.

"There is, and I take a very hard line about it. I really do feel like there's a right way," Thile said. "Hold your hand out, relaxed, insert the pick, and move your hand as little as you can to support the pick, and that should be your hold. Basically, contorting your hand the least amount possible. I think that's always the best pick hold. Of course, that means that it's going to be a little bit different for everybody, but so is holding a bow."

He had mentioned, in the tutorial, to think of holding the pick almost to the point where it is falling out of the hand. It's not bad advice for a bow hold, as well.

"It's always the illusion of control," Thile said to me. "When you're grasping something hard, you're actually losing control. Your muscles certainly move less precisely when they are clenched."

The tutorial actually has instructions and sheet music for Thile's Ode To a Butterfly, which he wrote for Nickel Creek's first album – in this 10-year-old DVD, he'd just written it. I realized, he's been contributing to the mandolin oeuvre since he was a teenager. Is he a really composer at heart, or a performer?

"I think I'm right in the middle," Thile said. "I get so much out of composing music, but I get a whole lot out of performing it as well. I'm not happy when I'm doing too much of either. I need a little of the other, or I don't feel like I've struck balance. I feel like my life as an instrumentalist impacts my life as a composer, and vice-versa."

Thile acknowledged that this song, written about a James Joyce story, "points more toward the kind of harmony that I started getting more and more interested in." The song was written by  by Thile and Nickel Creek violinist Sara Watkins, for Nickel Creek's album, "Why Should the Fire Die?" It's my favorite, enjoy.


September 16, 2009 at 11:28 PM ·

A great interview.

September 17, 2009 at 02:06 AM ·

Thanks for the interview, Laurie.  Your interviews are really broadening our perceptions of music.

September 17, 2009 at 02:32 PM ·

Nice article in the Denver Post by Kyle MacMillan before the performance, then the review by of the Thursday premiere: The Denver Post.  Be sure to read the wonderful comment at the bottom of that review.


September 19, 2009 at 04:29 PM ·

Laurie,  This is exciting for me because I live in Idyllwild where Chris Thile was brought up and I remember him as a cute little musical prodigy playing fiddle and mandolin with his father playing stand up bass. I always knew he would be famous some day.  Thank you for sharing his accomplishments.

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