Chris Thile on Bach
The mandolin virtuoso and MacArthur grant recipient reveals a deep history with Bach's music through conversation and performance on The Bach Hour.
On the program:
Two-Part Inventions Nos. 8 in F, BWV 779, 11 in G minor, BWV 782, and 10 in G, BWV 781 - Till Fellner, piano
Cantata BWV 49 Ich geh' und suche mit Verlangen (translation) - Caroline Weynants, soprano; Lieven Termont, bass; Il Gardelino, Marcel Ponseele, director
Partita No. 1 in B minor, BWV 1002: VIII. Double - Chris Thile, mandolin
Sonata No. 1 in G minor, BWV 1001 - Chris Thile, mandolin
Hear Chris Thile's conversation with WCRB's Brian McCreath, and see the interview transcript below:
Brian McCreath I'm Brian McCreath, and I'm here in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, with Chris Thile, the mandolin virtuoso, and Chris, I really appreciate you taking a couple of minutes with me today.
Chris Thile Thank you so much for having me this ... it's beautiful back here.
Brian McCreath It is. People come to the Berkshires for the beauty, but also for the music. And you were just in the Shed last night at Tanglewood doing the Goat Rodeo Sessions. But this kind of leads to my first question for you. You've recorded an album of Bach's music and on the surface, Goat Rodeo, and your background and roots and bluegrass ... Bach. These seem very distant, right? But is that just an illusion, or did you really have to step outside of your normal musical life to sort of take on these solo violin pieces by Bach for the mandolin?
Chris Thile Well, when I was 15 or 16, my grandmothers, they were both classical piano teachers, and they realized that their little mandolin playing grandson was actually very serious about music, even if he wasn't serious about the same music that they'd always been serious about. They both sat me down with Bach separately, around the same time. My grandma Celia played me a great recording of the Brandenburg Concertos, and my grandma Sal played me Gould's second recording of the Goldberg [Variations]. And previous to that, I had always sort of considered, you know, again, for lack of a better word, classical music to be kind of, you know, stuffy or whatever it is. I was thinking powdered wigs and music that just didn't necessitate a physical reaction in the way that I think of folk music as kind of that's really the point, is to is to get you moving in some way or another, even if it's just a tap, like, your big toe.
But when I heard Gould play the Goldbergs, and especially that second recording, it was so important to him to have a really rhythmically, like, an orderly, rhythmic presentation of those pieces so that it was so clear that they basically, Bach was riffing on that, you know, [sings]. She sat me down and he kicks into that first variation. [Sings] And I defy you not to tap your foot. Like he presented that music so ... at equal parts... It's so matter of fact. It's so elemental. But at the same time, you know, it's presenting this example of human ingenuity that's about as striking as it gets. And so right then everything changed for me, and I realized that my perception of classical music was, was horribly askew. [laughs]
And that the works of Bach and Beethoven and Mozart and things like that, they were living, breathing things that could be presented in such a way that, you know, your, again, that your body would absolutely have a reaction, not just your mind. And that's when I started. I found Grumiaux's recording of the sonatas and partitas. And, you know, right when he tucks into... You know, it's on and he plays the beautiful Adagio, and I'm going, you know, it's beautiful, it's violin-y. And then that fugue comes on, and, you know, these three and four part chords, and I started going, "Wait, wait, wait." I mean, this! The mandolin might actually be able to present this in a really interesting, completely different and utterly, like, acceptable way. I got a copy of the score and taught myself to read music just so that I can play the sonatas and partitas.
Previous to that, I'd been learning everything by ear. So I think that's a long way of saying that I think it's a very natural extension of just a life spent in the pursuit of musical development. I've always just wanted to have a better and better relationship with music, and I think, for just about any serious musician, interacting with Bach is an essential part of that relationship.
And, you know, I feel like the arguments among musicians always start after Bach. You know, and that, you're sitting down with a beer and, you know, "Who's the greatest musician ever?"
"Who's the second great musician ever?" Arguments!
So I was touring with Brad Mehldau earlier this year. And, you know, it's again, same thing. So what Bach are you messing around with these days? Everyone, everyone, pop musicians, everyone wants to... Edgar Meyer, who produced my Bach record, always says, you know, every musician wants to associate with the greatest musician of all time. And that's what we do.
Brian McCreath Very nice. And I also like that it was really your grandmothers that brought you into Bach. There's something very appropriate when it comes to Bach. His own family was so important to him. But I still do wonder, you know, there's a little bit of a more, maybe, affinity between mandolin and harpsichord, being plucked instruments rather than violin. Maybe it was that Grumiaux recording. But what more is there that made you want to do solo violin pieces rather than maybe Well-Tempered Clavier or anything else for the keyboard?
Chris Thile Well, first and foremost, I can play it by myself. And you know, at the time, I didn't really know anyone who could read music well enough to play like another part if we were to do... actually, the Goldbergs work really nicely as like a mandolin in the right hand and something else playing the left. Or the Two-Part Inventions, or... A buddy and I just started working on the D major Partita, the Piano Partita. But I wanted to be able to work on the thing. Also, I was so self-conscious about how bad a reader I was... I was sitting there, you know, with some of the greatest music ever written going, Every Good Boy Does Fine, and the little hashtag thing means that it's one higher, you know? So it was at that speed, and I actually did try and learn the E major Prelude, the [sings the opening of the Partita No. 3 for violin] that one... I tried to learn that by ear. And I got halfway through it or so before I was just like, "This is really slow going, and I'm not sure that it's right." Like, I'm not sure beyond a shadow of a doubt, I think it's pretty good. I've got a good year, but I just want to make absolutely sure. And so I got, yeah, Mel Bay's instructional book on, you know, "Teach Yourself to Read Music." I was homeschooled, so that was just kind of improvising again, improvising even how to learn classical music.
But I do think, just at that time, it was important to me to be able to just sit on my front porch and and just kind of slog through this stuff. And you know, the other thing is that Grumiaux's recording - and I found Szeryng's a little bit later, Henryk Szeryng's recording of the sonatas and partitas - and really, those have been kind of my two benchmark recordings of the sonatas and partitas. And they're almost polar opposite. Grumiaux has, actually, kind of a mandolin-like approach. He's very delicate and very elegant. And, you know, not that Szeryng is not elegant, but Szeryng is less delicate. And then, you know, so, so strong, Szeryng's recording of it. So I would go back and forth. And then, of course, just listen to Gould all the time on anything I could get my hands on.
Brian McCreath So people in almost any kind of music are always messing around with Bach. It's something that people do to wake up in the morning sometimes, or chill out after a concert or whatever. But where comes the leap from that kind of messing around with this, "I love these recordings" to "I'm going to put them on a disc and release this." What did you do that for?
Chris Thile I think for me, all music that I work on is, if I feel like it's a worthwhile way to spend time, that I will ultimately want to present it. I love showing people the stuff that I love. And when I actually decide that, for instance, something I've written is good enough for public consumption, I mean, I can't wait to show you, to check out, check out this thing I've been working on. "What do you think? Is this an interesting chord change?".
The first thing that made me feel like I might actually have something to say on these pieces was those three and four part chords in the fugues. It's like, it's such a hurdle for a violinist. As you're going along in, say, the G Minor Fugue and you're like, [sings] like, all good, fine. And then the double stops start happening. [sings] Still, fine, can get around those. [sings] You know that stuff starts happening, and then you get like a four part chord and it's [sings] And it's incredible what they're able to do. But your rhythmic continuity has to be interrupted. And that can be a really interesting thing, the way that violinists get around that problem is always really interesting to me. It's not a problem on the mandolin.
We have other problems, such as, you know, the beautiful, like a beautiful lyrical passage where where the violinist is like finally going, "Oh, thank goodness for this, because I thought it was about to die there." And like the mandolinist gets through the chords, and all of a sudden, here comes like a slow, lyrical passage. And we're like, "Oh my god, oh god. Oh, oh no, oh no, how am I going to? How am I going to stretch this into something listenable, you know?" So it's we have polar opposite problems, I think. And then, you know, the fast stuff is just hard for everyone. You know, the string crossing is hard for everyone.
Brian McCreath I gotta say it doesn't sound hard when you're whipping through those fugues. You nail it. It's a really thrilling disc. But you talked about, you want to share everything you're working on. I have to ask when you're doing Goat Rodeo, like you did last night at the Shed, or working with Brad Mehldau, now that you've recorded this Bach, you spent time intensively more than just messing around with it, is there something different you're communicating in those settings, maybe as a result of working with Bach so intensively?
Chris Thile Oh, well, for sure. For sure. And I think again, I wouldn't say, even remotely that it's the difference between, again, for lack of a better word, classical music and non classical music. It's not that. It's the integrity of Bach's musicianship. It's him, not as a "classical" musician, as a musician and as, in my opinion, the greatest musician ever. To have spent this much time working on his music, which is the point, again, that whole trying to have a better and better relationship with music, that I feel like I understand music a little bit better, certainly understand how much I don't understand. And, you know, better in a way that helps me present anything that I do. I feel like I can express improvisatorily, more difficult ideas than I was before I was, you know, trying to present three and four voice fugues every night, you know.
And I do think that coming from the folk world, where really goal number one is to get people to tap their foot, to approach Bach from that position, I think, is interesting. And now to be able to approach the other music that I play, having performed music as brilliant, as just roundly brilliant as Bach's music is, to approach the other music that I play with that sort of new experience is, it's so fun. It's just fun.
Brian McCreath You have tantalizingly titled this Volume One.
Chris Thile Yes.
Brian McCreath How about Volume Two? When are we going to do that?
Chris Thile I would give me like two years, and I feel like we'll get Volume Two. I mean, obviously, we have some pretty serious pieces outstanding: the D Minor, which I have played, and it's more or less under the fingers. The great Chaconne is really fun on the mandolin. I feel like it's an exciting way to hear the thing. And again, you know, to present it as... It is like improv. You know, he presents that theme and then he just riffs on it for 13 minutes. You know, that's pretty awesome. And then the C major fugue. I can't wait to get into that thing. The E major Partita is a dream, of course. I almost feel like it's desert after the first five are pretty heavy. Although he starts easing it up. They're all minor. It's almost like, at the end, you get your two sweet courses at the end of a long tasting menu, where you get the substantial one and then the petit fours, the little cookies and stuff. So that's it. That's the E major. I mean, that's very reductionist of me.
Brian McCreath Again, I don't think Bach would mind one bit. Well talk about tantalizing. Boy, you really sold Vol. Two already, and you haven't even recorded it yet. That's going to be really fun to hear. Chris Thile, thank you so much for taking a few minutes to talk with me today.
Chris Thile Thanks so much for having me. This was fun.
Chris Thile My grandmothers both sat me down with Bach, separately, around the same time. My grandma Celia played me a great recording of the Brandenburg Concertos, and my grandma Sal played me Gould’s second recording of the Goldbergs. And, right then, everything changed for me, and I realized that my perception of classical music was horribly askew.
Brian McCreath That epiphany Chris Thile felt in his teens is probably one shared by many people upon encountering Bach’s music for the first time. And for years Thile’s own mandolin playing has provided an epiphany of its own kind for anyone who loves folk and bluegrass. Meanwhile, Bach was, for the recent MacArthur grant recipient, a private, personal pursuit. That is, until now…
Chris Thile joins us for a conversation about – and performance of – Bach’s music, coming up on The Bach Hour.
Hello, I'm Brian McCreath; welcome to The Bach Hour from 99-5 WCRB, a part of WGBH Boston. Taking Bach’s music into different sound worlds is far from uncommon. But each time an artist or composer makes that leap, there’s a unique, fascinating alchemy of sorts. It’s as if Bach’s music remains simultaneously untouched and transformed through the injection of a distinct new personality into the music. You’ll hear that alchemy at work later in the program with Chris Thile.
Also on the program is Bach’s Cantata No. 49, Ich geh' und suche mit Verlangen, or “I go forth and seek with longing.” You can find a translation of the text for that piece at our web site Classical WCRB dot org, where you can also hear this program again on-demand. Again, that’s at Classical WCRB dot org.
Before that cantata, though, here is a set of the 2-Part Inventions by Bach. This is pianist Till Fellner.
A set of the little keyboard jewels known as the 2-Part Inventions, performed here by Till Fellner.
The Cantata No. 49, Ich geh' und suche mit Verlangen, or “I go forth and seek with longing” is one of several so-called “Dialogue Cantatas” by Bach, in which two soloists play out a conversation between Jesus and The Soul. In this case that conversation is inspired by the parable of the royal wedding feast in the Gospel of Matthew. It makes for a sort of dual symbolism. As in other Dialogue Cantatas, the soprano sings the role of The Soul, and the bass sings the role of Jesus. But in the context of a wedding, Jesus is the husband, and The Soul is the wife. It makes for an unusually sensuous cantata, creating the feeling of a love poem with two characters, pining away for each other and finally uniting in the end.
Bach starts with sparkling, instrumental movement that evokes a celebration. It features a virtuosic organ solo, which Bach may have had in mind for his eldest son to play when the piece was new in 1726. By that point, Wilhelm Friedemann was quite the accomplished organist, and Bach liked the music so much that he returned to it years later to refashion it into the opening movement of a harpsichord concert.
The dialogue begins with the bass soloist singing a text drawn from the Song of Songs, that set of love poetry from the Bible. Over a plodding, winding accompaniment from the instruments, he sings, "I go forth and seek with longing for you, my dove, my loveliest bride."
From that point, the two soloists’ dialogue is nothing short of ravishing and maybe even erotic at times, with lines like "Come and be kissed, you shall enjoy your rich feast" and "My heart remains entwined with yours." As the counterpoint to the bass soloist’s opening aria on searching, the soprano soloist sings an aria that beckons him with the words, “I am glorious, I am beautiful, to enflame my Savior.”
When the two characters come together to end the piece, the soprano sings a verse from the chorale “How beautifully shines the morning star,” symbolizing the new beginning that comes with unification with the divine.
If you’d like to see a translation of this piece from Boston’s Emmanuel Music, just visit us online at Classical WCRB dot org.
Here is Bach’s Cantata No. 49, with soprano Caroline Weynants and bass Lieven Termont. They’re joined by the Belgian ensemble Il Gardelino and their director, Marcel Ponseele, here on The Bach Hour.
[MUSIC – BWV 49]
The Cantata No. 49 by Bach, Ich geh' und suche mit Verlangen, or “I go forth and seek with longing.” The soloists were soprano Caroline Weynants and bass Lieven Termont. Marcel Ponseele directed Il Gardelino.
When he was chosen as a Fellow by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation – what most of us call getting a “genius grant” – in 2012, mandolin player, composer, and singer Chris Thile said, “I’m trying to find the middle between music that’s visceral and music that’s cerebral.” He went on to say that he had recently been exploring both a solo violin sonata by Bela Bartok and “Surf’s Up” by the Beach Boys.
For all the energy, creativity, and outright fun that Chris Thile brings to any of his performances, it’s all based, ultimately, in searching. That was the sense I got when I met Chris Thile the morning after a concert he gave for thousands of people at Tanglewood, in the Berkshires of western Massachusetts. He had played with cellist Yo-Yo Ma, fiddler Stuart Duncan, and bassist Edgar Meyer in a project they call the Goat Rodeo Sessions, but it was something a bit more intimate we talked about: Bach, played alone on the mandolin.
Chris’s recording of Bach’s music brings a public expression to what he had been playing largely in private for many years. It was his grandmothers, both music teachers, who separately introduced Chris Thile to Bach when he was a teenager.
Chris Thile My grandma Celia played me a great recording of the Brandenburg Concertos, and my grandma Sal played me Gould’s second recording of the Goldbergs. And previous to that, I had always sort of considered classical music to be kind of, well, you know, stuffy, or whatever it is. I was thinking powdered wigs, and music that didn't necessitate a physical reaction in the way that I think of folk music, as that's really the point, to get you moving in some way or another, even if it's just to tap, like, your big toe.
But when I heard Gould play the Goldbergs, and especially that second recording, it was so important to him to have a really rhythmically, like an orderly rhythmic presentation of those pieces, so that it was so clear that basically Bach was riffing on that [SINGS]. She sat me down, and when he kicks in to that first variation, [SINGS], I defy you not to tap your foot. He presented that music so— at equal parts, it's so matter of fact, it's so elemental, but at the same time, it was presenting this example of human ingenuity that's about as striking as it gets.
And so, right then, everything changed for me, and I realized that my perception of classical music was horribly askew, and that the works of Bach and Beethoven and Mozart and things like that, that they were living, breathing things that could be presented in such a way that, that your body would absolutely have a reaction, not just your mind.
[MUSIC – BWV 1002 mvt. VIII]
Brian McCreath So, people in almost any kind of music are always messing around with Bach. It’s something people do to wake up in the morning sometimes or chill out after a concert, whatever. But where comes the leap from ‘yeah, I’m kind of messing around with these, I like these recordings,' 'I’m gonna put ‘em on a disc and release this.' What'd you do that for?
Chris Thile For me, all music that I work on is, if I feel like it's a worthwhile way to spend time, then I will ultimately want to present it. I love showing people the stuff that I love. And when I actually decide that, for instance, something I've written is good enough for public consumption, I mean, I can't wait to show you! "Check out this thing I've been working on! What do you think? Is this an interesting chord change?"
The first thing that made me feel like I might actually have something to say on these pieces was those three and four part chords in the fugues. It's such a hurdle for a violinist as you're going along, in, say, the G minor fugue, and you're like [SINGS], like all good, fine, fine, and then the double stops start happening, [SINGS]. Still fine, can get around those. [SINGS], you know, that stuff starts happening, and then you get to like a four part chord, and it's [SINGS]. And it’s incredible what they’re able to do. But your rhythmic continuity has to be interrupted. And that can be a really interesting thing, the way that violinists get around that problem is always really interesting to me. It’s not a problem on the mandolin.
Brian McCreath And that fugue you just heard Chris Thile use as an example of what the mandolin is capable of is just one part of the Sonata No. 1 in G minor by Bach.
[MUSIC – BWV 1001]
Chris Thile I’ve always just wanted to have a better and better relationship with music, and I think, for just about any serious musician, interacting with Bach is an essential part of that relationship. And, um, I feel like the arguments among musicians always start AFTER Bach. You know? And you’re sittin’ down with a beer, you know, ‘who’s the greatest musician ever? BORING! Who’s the second greatest musician ever? Arguments!
Brian McCreath Chris Thile, sitting on the back porch of a house in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, where I met him to talk about his recording of solo violin sonatas and partitas by Bach. You heard one part of that recording, the Sonata No. 1 in G minor.
There is much more of my conversation with Chris Thile at our web site, Classical WCRB dot org. Chris talked about some of the other recordings of Bach’s music that captured him early on, and what playing Bach has meant for all the rest of the music he plays. That’s also where you can hear this entire program on-demand. Again, that’s at Classical WCRB dot org.
Thank you for joining me today, and thanks also to Chris Thile and to audio engineer Antonio Oliart Ros. I’m Brian McCreath, and I’ll hope to have your company again next week here on The Bach Hour.