Chris Thile is a certified genius. The mandolinist, now in his early 30s, won the $500,000 MacArthur Foundation Genius Grant in October 2012. The Foundation said of Thile, “through his adventurous, multifaceted artistry as both a composer and performer with various ensembles, Thile is creating a distinctly American canon for the mandolin and a new musical aesthetic for performers and audiences alike.”
Thile’s current gig is with the Punch Brothers, a group which includes the talents of Noam Pikelny, Chris Eldridge, Paul Kowert and Gabe Witcher, who are collectively pushing the boundaries of acoustic music. Before the Punch Brothers came together, Thile was a member of the influential group Nickel Creek for over 15 years.
The focus of the MacArthur Foundation grant, however, is to encourage artists to explore other sides of their creative abilities. For Thile, that includes bringing the music of the great composer Johan Sebastian Bach to life on the mandolin. The end result is Thile’s new album, Bach: Sonatas and Partitas, Vol. 1.
A part of Thile’s genius is his ability to connect the dots between diverse musical genres such as classical and bluegrass. In an amazing video recorded for the Wall Street Journal, he expounds on that concept. As Thile talks about the differences in reaction to live music by the audiences of various genres, he plays compositions ranging from Herschel Sizemore’s “Rebecca” to “III Allegro” from Bach’s Third Brandenburg Concerto to Radiohead’s “2 + 2 = 5,” all with brilliant fluidity and technique. As Thile blends together Bach’s “I Allegro” with the old time fiddle tune “Temperance Reel,” he says, “You will see so much genre-hopping by musicians in the very near future that it will cease to be genre-hopping. The walls between things will be so worn that you won’t have to hop anymore. You can casually step over them, or they will wear to the point where you can shuffle through them.”
This month’s Jam Story focuses on Thile's road to Bach’s ‘Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin’ by an unlikely source: bluegrass and old time musician John Hartford. In this interview with Thile, we explore that genre-hopping connection.
For most of his teenage years and well into his 20s, Thile toured in Nickel Creek with Sara and Sean Watkins. Along the way, he was fortunate enough to spend time with great older musicians such as Doc Watson and John Hartford.
With Watson, Thile performed with the renowned North Carolina High Country artist on the now defunct Crook and Chase television show and at MerleFest.
“(Watson) made such a mighty contribution to music that even the young people who don’t know of Doc, who may not even know his music, they know music that has him deeply embedded in it,” Chris explains. “So, they do know his music through associations with other musicians. Any young person who hears me play music, I would like to think they are hearing a little bit of Doc, too. I certainly don’t think I’d be the musician I am without him. He revolutionized flat picking guitar. He revolutionized playing with a flat pick. I play with a flat pick. It’s no different. I’m a big believer in not imitating exactly what great musicians did, but rather imitating the spirit with which they created their music. If Doc had worried about imitating other guitarists, he wouldn’t be Doc. He made his own thing, and that’s exactly what we are trying to do.”
John Hartford is considered by many as the Godfather of Newgrass Music. His groundbreaking Steam Powered Aereo Plain album from 1971 cleared the musical air in a way that encouraged bands like the New Grass Revival to create a new genre. An earlier song written by Hartford in the late 1960s, “Gentle On My Mind,” became the third most recorded song in history at the time. The royalties from that hit enabled him to play and explore the kind of music he wanted to play, to follow his muse wherever it led him.
Unfortunately, for the last 20 years of his life or so, Hartford battled non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. The illness would eventually claim his life in 2001. As fate would have it, Thile and his Nickel Creek band mates would play with Hartford at the IBMA Hall of Famer's last-ever concert. I've listened to a recording of that performance and it is one of the saddest things I have ever heard. I knew Hartford a little bit, and to hear him try to play at a time when his hands began to not work anymore was heartbreaking. Thile remembers it as a “truly humbling experience.”
“He taught me so many things,” says Thile. “He would say, ‘Hey man, don’t crack your fingers.’ ‘Practice with the metronome.’ ‘Play in time.’ ‘Play the melody.’ He learned how to write music late and he had started to collect old fiddle tunes.”
But prior to that final concert, Thile was lucky enough to spend some quality moments with Hartford, back when the legendary artist was still relatively healthy and musically engaged. In fact, a big part of the reason that Thile recorded this new album of music by Bach was because of the encouragement of Hartford years ago.
“John loved Bach’s ‘Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin,’” says Thile. “It was John Hartford who told me to get Henryk Szeryng’s version of ‘Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin.’ So I listened to those, top to bottom, so many times. The next time I saw him I said, ‘John, I’ve been listening to ‘Sonatas and Partitas.’ I’m trying to play them like Szeryng right now.’ And he was like, ‘I got to hear it. I really want to hear it. Play me one of them.’ So I played him the E major Prelude and he was just all over it.”
In an emotional exclamation point to that musical link, Thile played the music of Bach at Hartford’s final concert.
“He loved that music so much,” says Thile. “And, even after that, anytime I saw him he’d ask me, ‘Hey, do you have your mandolin with you?’ I would say, ‘Yeah.’ ‘Would you play me that Prelude again?’ He always wanted to hear it. And that show, that last show, he was still singing great. He sang 'Goodle Boys' and he talked a little bit about music. At a certain point he said, ‘Hey Chris, would you play that Prelude for me?’ So, I did.”
Now, 12 years after Hartford’s death, there is more to the story. The account centers on the two musicians having dinner while at MerleFest, about a musical challenge being thrown down, and a historic piece of paper saved for the ages.
“One night, we were at the Sagebrush (Steakhouse) outside of Merlefest and there was a big, giant group of us all around one big table,” says Thile. “John and I sat together. He got one of his little note cards out, one of his three-by-five cards, and all of a sudden he was quiet for a while. I was sitting next to him, talking to Natalie McMaster or somebody like that, and he started writing. All of a sudden, he handed the piece of paper to me and he said, ‘You can read music, right?’ ‘Yes.’ He said, ‘I just wrote a first part. You write the second part, and it will be our new tune called “The Sagebrush Gathering.”’ So, I sat there and wrote a second part down, put the ‘repeat’ signs in, he signed it in that beautiful script, and I still have it in my office. He gave me that three-by-five card of that little tune we wrote together. No one has ever played it.”