Invent, Reinvent: An Evening with Chris Thile

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Multiple Grammy-award winner and current host of “A Prairie Home Companion” Chris Thile performed in Lang Concert Hall this Saturday in front of a full house. In addition to performing with the bands Nickel Creek and Punch Brothers, Thile has also collaborated with renowned artists in various musical fields. And as a virtuoso mandolinist, singer, and songwriter, Thile has an artistic range as broad as his musical outlook.

Thile opened the concert with a blend of the first movement of Bach’s Partita in D minor and “Here and Heaven” from the Grammy-winning folk album “The Goat Rodeo Sessions”. Notwithstanding the wide span of his music, Thile shared at the earlier demonstration that “Genre is meaningless for a great song”. As he transposed a song originally played on a different instrument to the mandolin, he challenged the division of genre, and in the act transcended the instrument’s and the genre’s limitation. Andrew Hauze, a lecturer in the Swarthmore music department, observed that Thile played to the mandolin’s strength in rhythm, and moreover, accomplished a feat by creating a sustained tone with the mandolin.

“He worked with the mandolin’s vibrancy–the impact from the initial moment of a note. But to create melody, artists must be even more creative,” commented Hauze.

Although the mandolin’s resonance does not sustain for very long, Thile found a way to create an illusion of “smooth melody” and rendered his unique take on classical, jazz, rock and bluegrass.

Thile’s virtuosity is surely among the first things that rivet the audience’s attention. Yet his artistic merits far exceed his skills, as curiosity and humor also play essential roles in his performance.

Bingxin Tu ’21 was surprised by Thile’s comportment on stage. “I have never seen a mandolinist before, but this is different from what I expected! He was so energetic on stage, and was being very much in the moment,” said Tu.

In fact, a part of Thile’s appeal arises from the playfulness he brings to music. Not only did his body sway and twirl in accompaniment to the crescendo of a song, but also he burst out lyrics at the exact instant when the tremolo was the most intense. In his rendering of Punch Brothers’s original “My Oh My” and Radiohead’s “True Love Waits”, his buoyant energy collided with his humorous inventiveness and provided great satisfaction to first-time listeners and mega-fans alike.

While his virtuosity, creativity, and humor already elevate him to be an icon, Thile’s brilliance is still enhanced by his dauntless subversion of expectations. Rather than meeting the supposed expectations to a dime, he strives to exceed them and, in the process, creates music that braces his audience for a “leap of faith” into his new inventions.

“A piece of work should speak for itself. But as creator, one should provide the necessary context and references”, answered Thile to a question regarding his creative process.

Indeed, Thile turns every note he plays into creativity, in his work as a soloist and in his collaboration with other esteemed musicians. Throughout his career, Thile has partnered and composed songs with artists such as Yo-Yo Ma, Edgar Meyer, Stuart Duncan, and Brad Mehldau– all of whom share with him the unconventional senses of how they as musicians can fit into the musical landscape. And this is what makes Thile “refreshing”, commented Hauze, as “he endeavors to create musical expression without worrying about fitting into a specific silo of a genre.”

The last song of the evening, “Familiarity”, was released in the Punch Brothers 2015 album “The Phosphorescent Blues”. One can only imagine the challenge Thile took on when he decided to deliver the quintet song on his own.

“It is like playing all the parts of an orchestra with only one instrument. Besides, ‘Familiarity’ is the first song that Punch Brothers really collaborated on, and so everyone’s role is integral to its rendition. However, he succeeded, because he trusted his audience to fill in the blanks,” explained Asher Wolf ’18, whose musical career has been ignited by Thile.

It worked just like that at the performance. During the first section of the ten-minute long song, the house listened quietly as Thile sang in his clear tenor voice:

“It’s on/ Pretend you love it because you love them/ As you explode out of your phones, amen/ to make some music of your own, amen/ You can hate it softly to yourself alone/ A man among amens.”

Soon after, there were voices joining in the singing– audience who knew the song began to harmonize with the melody. When the first section ended, Thile thumped both feet on the floor to mimic the transitional bass in the original song, and the audience joined him. In that moment, the house, packed and present, became part of Thile’s artistic creation.    

“Chris Thile has done something for everyone in what he does, He is a musician of such high caliber and has an all-embracing approach to style, ” remarked Hauze.

Certainly, a lot can be taken away from Thile’s concert by musicians and non-musicians alike. Virtuosity aside, Thile pushes the limit of genres and reinvent the capacity of instruments through his work, and all the while, make his music accessible. As for the audience, once can listen to his music, without worrying about knowing anything, and simply sit back and enjoy.

 

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