An Early Evening with Chris Thile: Look Back

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Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

Not only did Chris Thile grace Swarthmore’s campus with his music in a concert this past weekend, but he also agreed to a demonstration accompanied by a Q&A session beforehand. A Grammy-winning mandolin virtuoso, Thile is both the lead of Punch Brothers as well as a successor of Garrison Keillor. He came out onto the cozily-lit stage in a casual outfit with his mandolin tucked under his arm as if it were second nature. It became clear to me over the course of the hour that Thile has earned all the praise and accolades given to him. Audience members shook their heads in disbelief during the particularly fanatic sections of the piece, where it seemed like he had 4 extra fingers flying across the mandolin’s strings. His playing was masterful, and you would not have to be a fan of bluegrass music to appreciate his sound.

After a brief intro, he played one of his earlier pieces: “Daughter of Eve”. He commented that the song, for him, was not a piece born from a lightening strike of inspiration, but from putting in the hours, a note that became a theme later on in the hour. After hearty applause, Thile dove into the aforementioned Q&A section of the hour. It became clear that he is not only a master musician, but he also has quite interesting insights into the musical process and life in general. He elaborated on the idea he mentioned about lightning striking versus “constructing the lightning.” His compositional process is all about putting in the hours, not waiting for a stroke of inspiration to motivate him to work. This struck me at first as perhaps atypical for someone in the arts. We usually associate “clocking the hours” with 9 to 5-ers, not careers in the arts. But Thile insisted that the key to creating music is consistent work, forcing the inspiration to happen, not “being all artsy about it.”

Thile gave us more clues into his process besides the sheer number of hours he puts into composing. He draws inspiration from taking quiet walks rather than always being plugged into already-created music while he walks. He also says that while a lot of musicians “leave musicianship on the stage or in the practice room,” he tries to think about or work on his music everywhere, making music a way of life.

Also, more specific to his genre, he says he often finds himself in a rut of tunes that resolve themselves. He comes from a background of fiddling and playing music that goes around in predictable patterns designed to loop back around to the same chord they started on. In order to open up his little fragments of music to fit in with each other, he goes about “lopping off resolutions.” By taking off the self-fulfilling aspect of a phrase, it opens up to a myriad possibilities of where it could head next.

From the resurgence of vinyl to genre-bending, Chris Thile also shared his thoughts on some aspects of the modern music industry. He has some interesting theories about the concept of music genres. He believes they are disappearing, for better or worse, and that there are three “real” music genres: music made to impress your friends, music made to be popular, and music made for money, with every musician falling in some mixture of these categories, irrespective of what instruments they play or what kinds of sounds they make. On the topic of vinyl, he says there’s no point in it if the music ever went through a computer at some stage of its being produced. He recommends only 20th century vinyl listening.

Listen to Chris Thile’s Playlist (so maybe you can be half as cool as him):

  • “My Bubba” – Swedish/ Icelandic indie folk duo
  • “Julian Lage” – Jazz guitarist and composer
  • “Tame Impala” – psychedelic pop group
  • Caroline Shaw’s Partita for 8 voices
  • Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly

Also, if you want to listen to some of his work but aren’t sure where to start, here are a few recommendations:

  • His most recent grammy-winning work – his album with Edgar Meyer, Bass & Mandolin
  • For some solid bluegrass sounds – his album with Michael Daves, Sleep with One Eye Open (also grammy-nominated)
  • For more indie folk, newgrass vibe – the Punch Brothers’ album, The Phosphorescent Blues
  • For the classically-inclined – his album Bach: Sonatas and Partitas 1
  • For a jazzier feel – his album with Brad Mehldau, Chris Thile & Brad Mehldau

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