Music Makers



There's the mandolin and then there's the mandolin when Chris Thile puts it to work. Here is he is on his debut solo record when he was 12 years old. He started playing with the band Nickel Creek when he was just eight. In his early 20s, he pushed the mandolin to new places as a member of Punch Brothers.


PUNCH BROTHERS: (Singing) You should raise your voice...

MARTIN: And today, Chris Thile is stretching the limits of his instrument yet again, this time taking on Bach.


MARTIN: Chris Thile has just released an album of solo mandolin performances from the "Sonatas and Partitas," originally written for violin in the early 1700s by Johann Sebastian Bach.


MARTIN: Chris Thile joins us from our New York studios. Welcome to the program.

CHRIS THILE: Oh, thank you so much for having me.

MARTIN: So you don't so much in your musical career. Why Bach?

THILE: I was 15 or 16 when, let's see, my grandma Celia gave me a recording of the "Brandenburg Concertos" and my grandma Sal(ph), gave me Glenn Gould's second recording of the "Goldbergs." And for me that, you know, it was kind of sort of the heavens opened up and I realized that Bach, at least, you know - out of all the classical music - needs to be a big part of my life.


MARTIN: I read that you had been playing Bach by ear at first, is that right?


THILE: Yeah, I was trained completely by ear. And it was actually diving into the Bach that led me to get - there was like a Mel Bay "Teach Yourself How To Sight Read..."


THILE: So, you know, I'm sitting there with, you know, some of the most majestic music ever composed, going: Every good boy does...


THILE: ...fine and the little hash tag saying it makes it higher. OK, I got it.

MARTIN: Hey, whatever works, right?

THILE: You know, it was slow going but it wasn't necessarily slower going than, you know, trying to learn the "A minor Fugue" by ear would have been.


MARTIN: Are you in a world where people do come out and judge you for tackling something like Bach, if you are not steeped in that tradition?

THILE: I don't know to what extent that kind of thing happens these days. I think people are largely proud of being musically on the risk. Any time you talk to someone about music, I feel like everyone is kind of always underlining just, you know, how voracious their appetites for various things are. So I don't feel that much these days. I guess the, you know, the purists are small in number but, you know hardy of voice.


THILE: So, you know, you certainly hear - you'll hear a little bit about it but it just seems like ultimately they're few and far between the people who would begrudge, you know, anyone any sort of music that they're interested in.

MARTIN: You are legendary for playing fast - just the sheer speed at which you play. Let's listen to an example of this.


MARTIN: I mean, that sounds hard to me. There's no...


MARTIN: There are a lot of notes in there that just seems, on its face, very difficult to do. But is it just as challenging to play something really slow?

THILE: When something is up like that, when something is fast, you can count on it at least being interesting or entertaining. Or, you know, people listen - I mean that doesn't mean it's going to be good. But, you know, something happening that fast...


MARTIN: Speed just buys you attention no matter what.

THILE: Yeah, exactly, exactly. You know, much of my career is based on that principle.


THILE: But they present all kinds of - well, and then you think about, like, what the mandolin is good at itself. You know, mandolin has very little sustain especially when compared to the violin. So fast is not the problem. Slow is the problem because you're almost needing to create the illusion of sustain. You know, the trying to coax some sound and some emotion out of an instrument that sort of just kind of precise and delicate.

MARTIN: Do you have - is there an example on this album you could highlight?

THILE: Oh, I really love how the andante from the "A minor Sonata" sounds on the mandolin.

MARTIN: Let's take a listen to that, Chris. And then we could talk about it on the other side.


THILE: See, like right there, you've got this three-part chord that a violinist - oh, and here's a four-part coming right here.


THILE: So for the mandolin, you don't have to play these three and four-part chords, you know, any louder than you play one note. Which means, I think, on a piece like the andante, you can really - you can go for some really slow builds. So I think being able to, you know, you can kind of suspend people's sense of time a little bit, you know, if you can get these longer arcs. And again, I mean it...


THILE: It's gorgeous on the violin - no knock against it. But that was one of the big challenges of playing it on mandolin is, you know, you want to play to the mandolin's strengths and...

MARTIN: Strengths?


THILE: ...hopefully present something that's very different but equally compelling.

MARTIN: Well, it's a lovely compilation.

THILE: Thank you so much.

MARTIN: Chris Thile, his new album is "Bach: Sonatas and Partitas Volume 1." He joined us from our studios in New York.

Chris, it's been such a pleasure. Thank you so much.

THILE: Thank you so much for having me on the show.


MARTIN: And this is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin.

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