New Classical Tracks: Chris Thile plays Bach

by Julie Amacher
September 11, 2013

Listen New Classical Tracks: Chris Thile plays Bach
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Bach: Sonatas and Partitas, Vol. 1 (Image courtesy of Nonesuch)

For Mandolin virtuoso Chris Thile, it is a given that he and his serious musician friends love the music of J.S. Bach.

"I kind of feel like serious musicians are sort of in agreement. There's Bach and then the arguments start about what else is truly extraordinary.

"And I kind of feel like every musician — they want to rub shoulders with the great man. We all get together and are like, so what Bach are you working on? And people from disciplines that are considered to be pretty far from classical disciplines, they're like, 'Well, I was just getting into the gamba sonata' or whatever it is. And so I think everyone wants to interact with the greatest musician in the world. I'm no exception to that. It was Gould's second recording of the Goldberg Variations that kind of lit my fire and I haven't been able to get enough ever since."

I want people to be able to tap their feet and move. The vast majority of the movements — they're dances. And I feel like you should give people a fighting chance at dancing to them.
- Chris Thile, mandolin

That explains why Chris Thile, who won a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship, or "genius grant," last year for his adventurous, multifaceted artistry (as both a composer and performer) has just released his first Bach recording. Even though Thile is best known for his progressive bands Nickel Creek and Punch Brothers, he says Bach has been part of his life for a long time. "Yeah, I was 15 when that Gould recording came into my hands via my Grandma Sal. And then my Grandma Celia virtually at the same time gave me a recording of the Brandenburg Concertos. I think my musically inclined relatives saw sort of a glaring Bach-sized hole in my life and sought to fill it at the precisely same moment. So my Great-Aunt Rosie gave me a recording of the Bach Double, and a score. And I loved the music so much that I started teaching myself to read — up to that point, I'd just learned everything by ear."

The mandolin, Thile says, does bring a fresh perspective to Bach's sonatas and partitas. "If you put the sonatas and partitas for solo violin in front of someone who really knows music but doesn't necessarily know the piece, or what it was written for, I don't think they'd have an easy time saying it was for the violin over the mandolin. I think it could be a toss-up and I think the reason for that is the ease with which the mandolin can produce three- and four-part chords, relative to the violin.

"Bach himself played pretty fast and loose with instrumental issues," Thile adds. "For instance, the G minor Fugue — he actually stole that and gave it to the organ and he also made a lute transcription of it. I don't think he felt there was anything sacred about the music being performed on the violin. I think it's beautiful and of course part of Bach's agenda was to explore the technical capabilities of the instrument and the people playing it. But I do think it lies pretty well on the mandolin and there are arguments to be made for it on the mandolin." Listening to Thile's interpretation of Bach's Sonatas and Partitas on mandolin, the first thing you may notice is the quick tempos and his focused intent behind the rhythm. He says that's something he picked up from listening to Bach specialist Glenn Gould.

"And so while I don't think that one should be militant about rhythm, ever, it needs to be about how it feels first and foremost, and I think, God, if you're not, like, moving to the Gould recordings of the Goldbergs, then you don't have a pulse. I don't think that Gould was militant about tempo. I think he was methodic about it, and a lot of times when I listen to recordings of the Bach, I feel like I'm in the backseat of a car by someone who is using the brake incorrectly. I just feel like I'm getting whiplash. I want people to be able to tap their feet and move. The vast majority of the movements — they're dances. And I feel like you should give people a fighting chance at dancing to them.

"I've been re-reading Charles Rosen's Classical Style, mainly because I don't think I really understood it at all, the first time. But a great point he makes is about Baroque music's motor, it just kind of keeps humming. Which is another reason that I think that a pretty constant pulse is really appropriate. If you have a lot of these movements where the action never stops, that's very fiddle-tune-like."

Thile says Baroque music and bluegrass do have some key parallels, like the tendency toward two distinctive A and B Parts in their structures.

"Certainly the fugues are really rangey, so they would defy that description," he adds, "And there are lots of exceptions, of course. But I do think that that's a pretty key similarity. I think of something like the G minor Presto — that's almost a fiddle tune. And a lot of the pieces, particularly the dance movements — they strike me as being pretty related, and certainly more ambitious structurally than your average fiddle tune. But I do think the very great fiddle tunes can rub shoulders with even some of Bach's greatest A-B tunes."

Chris Thile is no stranger to rubbing shoulders with other great musicians, and later this month he will begin a fall tour with cellist Yo-Yo Ma and his other colleagues in the Goat Rodeo Sessions.

Thile is really excited to be reunited with this phenomenal quartet. "So the music is a joy first and foremost. But the hang is unbelievable. I think that's something people don't know about Yo-Yo. He is warmth incarnate. And so he just cultivates this beautiful sense of camaraderie in any situation that he puts himself in. And Edgar and Stuart and Aoife and I are the lucky beneficiaries of his proclivities."

Thile says he learns a lot from these collaborations which he in turn applies to his solo work — like his first volume of partitas and sonatas by Bach.