The Sound of Genius

I opened the paper this morning to the wondrous news that Chris Thile – celebrated l’enfant terrible of the mandolin – was one of the 2012 recipients of the MacArthur Foundation Fellowship grants.

You gotta love it when a kid who starts off in bluegrass ends up being recognized as a MacArthur “genius” – the popular term for the winners of the $500,000, no strings attached annual award.

Here’s the description from the MacArthur Foundation website:

Chris Thile is a young mandolin virtuoso and composer whose lyrical fusion of traditional bluegrass with elements from a range of other musical traditions is giving rise to a new genre of contemporary music. With a broad outlook that encompasses progressive bluegrass, classical, rock, and jazz, Thile is transcending the borders of conventionally circumscribed genres in compositions for his own ensembles and frequent cross-genre collaborations. Although rooted in the rhythmic structure of bluegrass, his early pieces for his long-time trio, Nickel Creek, have the improvisatory feel of jazz; his current ensemble, Punch Brothers, evokes the ethos of classical chamber music even while adhering to the traditional instrumentation of the bluegrass quintet. The Blind Leaving the Blind, a song suite on Punch Brothers’ first album (Punch, 2008), extends the sound of bluegrass in its range of harmonies and polyrhythms. Thile further explores the symphonic dimensions of the string quintet in both the improvised and elaborately composed works of Antifogmatic (2010). Among his many collaborations, Thile has expanded the reach of the mandolin in Ad Astra per Alas Porci (2009), a three-movement mandolin concerto, and in his solo mandolin interpretations of Bach’s works for violin, which showcase his technical mastery and fluid, soulful phrasing. Through his adventurous, multifaceted artistry as both a composer and performer with various ensembles, Thile is creating a distinctly American canon for the mandolin and a new musical aesthetic for performers and audiences alike.

Chris Thile studied music at Murray State University (1998–1999). From 1989 to 2007, he was a member of the trio Nickel Creek, and in 2006 he formed Punch Brothers. His additional recordings include Here to There (1997) and Why Should the Fire Die? (2005) with Nickel Creek; Who’s Feeling Young Now? (2012) with Punch Brothers; and the solo albums Not All Who Wander Are Lost (2001), Deceiver (2004), and How to Grow a Woman from the Ground (2006).

That’s all true.  But for those of us who have been listening to this phenom for a decade or two, he’s simply otherworldly.

There are many musicians who paved the way for Thile’s genius to bloom. His current band, Punch Brothers, plays with the same configuration of instruments – with the mandolin at the center – that the Father of Bluegrass, Bill Monroe, established in the 1940s. Traditional music virtuosi such as Doc Watson and Earl Scruggs showed that roots music could include branches outside the strict confines of bluegrass and folk.  Monster string players such as Tony Rice and Mark O’Connor demonstrated that traditional musicians can play with a speed, tone, touch, and musicality that raised the bar in the acoustic music world to levels once thought to belong only in the jazz and classical genres. Dobro master Jerry Douglas and Newgrass pioneer Sam Bush bring a physicality to their playing that helped shaped this key aspect of Thile’s music. Composer and bandleader David Grisman almost single-handedly took the traditional string band instrumentation and showed how gifted players could play a wonderful blend of jazz, world, bluegrass, and classical.

Thile combines all of these talents, and more, in one incredibly energetic and creative individual.  Take, for instance, the Nickel Creek live classic, The Fox. In this version from a Merlefest performance that Claire and I saw a few years ago, Thile and his band mates take off on a traditional tune, and then find all sorts of ways to venture out into other music and genres, before meandering back to the original.

But Thile doesn’t have to be in a band setting to shine.  Listen to this wonderful Bach E Major Prelude, which Thile takes to the mandolin:

Jerry Douglas’ We Hide and Seek is a tune known to most fans of Alison Krauss + Union Station featuring Jerry Douglas.  However, in this trio version with Thile on the mandolin, you get more space to hear (and see) Thile’s work with one of the masters of Nashville.

Why not show TWO MacArthur genius grant recipients together?  Because, the talent here might just blow you away.  But if you are game, take a look at Thile and double bassist Edgar Meyer playing Farmer and the Duck.

This could go on for days.  So to wrap things up, let’s end with a fun tune by the Punch Brothers, Brakeman’s Blues, where Thile gets to channel his inner Jimmie Rodgers.

Congratulations, Chris Thile.  Well deserved!  And congratulations to the folks at the MacArthur Foundation for recognizing genius in some of the hidden places of American life and music.

More to come…

DJB

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