Not enough music in the day for mandolinist Chris Thile

Chris Thile was 2 when he fell in love with a mandolin he heard played at a bluegrass jam. Since then he has formed bands, has built a repertoire running from Bill Monroe to Radiohead to Bach, and dreams of more.
Chris Thile was 2 when he fell in love with a mandolin he heard played at a bluegrass jam. Since then he has formed bands, has built a repertoire running from Bill Monroe to Radiohead to Bach, and dreams of more.BRANTLEY GUTIERREZ/Brantley Gutierrez

Google the word "mandolinist" and take a look at the suggestions that drop down in the search bar. The name "Chris Thile" is sure to be at, or near, the top.

Sure, it takes more than a search engine to properly assess an artist's worth. But it's a convenient shorthand for the fact that Thile has revolutionized his instrument — not only by furthering the evolution of bluegrass but by bringing the mandolin out of its niche and making it a viable contributor to a variety of styles. When he won a MacArthur Foundation "genius grant" last year, he was cited for a synthesis of styles that "is giving rise to a new genre of contemporary music."


It's worth pointing out that Thile is 32.

His latest gambit is a gorgeous recording of three of Bach's six sonatas and partitas for solo violin (Nonesuch). Though limited in its sustain and depth, the mandolin's dry, plucked sound turns out to be an ideal vehicle for realizing the music's contrapuntal passages. Bach will form a major portion of Thile's Sunday night concert at Sanders Theatre, part of the Celebrity Series of Boston.

Far from being a new passion, though, the Bach recording is the fulfillment of a long-held dream that began 16 years ago, when he first tried to play the Prelude to the E-major Partita. As he was fumbling his way through it and comparing his version to a famous recording by violinist Arthur Grumiaux, a light went on.

"I instantly thought, I'm gonna learn this music, and I'm gonna record it," Thile said recently by phone on his way to a gig in Roanoke, Va. "I can't even tell you how much fun it's been, playing this music over the years. And how nerve-racking it was — feeling that I'm not going to be happy unless I record this music."


If this commitment to Bach sounds like a precocious realization for a 16-year-old bluegrass musician, consider that Thile defies the prodigy label. He chose the mandolin after seeing the frontman of a local bluegrass band play one at a regular jam session. He was 2. "I begged my parents for three straight years to get me a mandolin and let me have lessons," he said. "Finally they relented when I was 5, when they realized I wasn't gonna shut up."

When he was 8, he formed the acoustic trio Nickel Creek and it would go on to release six albums, including one Grammy winner, over the course of 18 years. Since its hiatus, he has formed the band Punch Brothers, whose repertoire runs from Bill Monroe to Radiohead; released solo albums; and collaborated with artists ranging from bluegrass guitarist Michael Daves to jazz pianist Brad Mehldau to cellist Yo-Yo Ma.

Asked how he navigates his artistic route, Thile said a key element is a balance between careful planning and chance encounters.

"As I drift off to sleep at night, I do a lot of thinking about what I want to do. I love music, I love the feeling I have at the end of the day when I've learned something new about it. And when I'm going to sleep, it's almost like, how do I do that tomorrow, how do I do it next month, next year, in 10 years? And I hear very specific sounds and I see very specific steps to getting those sounds."


At the same time, "sometimes you're in pursuit of those dreams and you get distracted. And they can be very beautiful distractions — something you wouldn't have imagined." One of those distractions was the Goat Rodeo Sessions, a quartet consisting of Thile, Ma, fiddler Stuart Duncan, and bassist Edgar Meyer — four musicians with personal connections among them who decided to see what would happen if they started playing together.

"It wasn't necessarily part of the plan," Thile said. "But you gotta be flexible enough to go, wow, this could actually be really great, something . . . worth halting what I perceive as my forward progress. And then all of a sudden, that was the right way to go."

Unsurprisingly, Thile is no fan of genre distinctions. "Genre, to me, is a very sloppy way of trying to communicate about music," he said, though he admitted that labels are necessary for talking and writing about music because "we don't have a better way, other than sitting down and actually playing each other's stuff."

And genres are not just imprecise, he added; they stifle creativity.

"It's almost like, if you can definitively apply a genre to a piece of music, chances are that piece of music is a little overly derivative, right? Bill Monroe — what he did was so creative that he got to apply a new name to it," he said, referring to the man widely credited with creating the bluegrass style.


"That's what you want as an artist," he continued. "You don't want to create a new shining example of something that already exists. You want to get in there and shake things up a little bit. Doing justice to the spirit of someone like Bill Monroe, paying homage to him as a creator, is not to re-create what he did, but to look at that kind of innovation and kind of live with that spirit."

That shake-things-up principle goes for Thile's concert programs as well. He estimated that about half of Sunday's concert would be Bach. Without naming anything specific, he called the program "a celebration of musical contrast," intended to keep a listener engaged in both body and mind.

"I think a lot of times, through no fault of Bach's, he gets listened to with people's 'serious hats' on," he said. "And it's incredibly serious and ambitious. But there's also jokes in it. They're dances, for the love of God. So the setlist is trying to encourage a real come-as-you-are-and-have- fun, listen however you want to listen.

"If you want to listen with your serious hat, by all means, the music can stand up to that," he continued. "And so can the non-Bach music I'm going to present. But if you're there because you're a bluegrass fan and you want to have a foot-stomping good time, I think there's nothing about the Bach that will stop you from doing that. That could be the foot-stompingest time you have."


David Weininger can be reached at globeclassicalnotes@gmail.com.