In the Artist’s Own Words: Chris Thile
Firstly, from the bottom of my heart, thank you for carving some time out of your life to be here. It means the world to me. Secondly, the good people of Carnegie Hall asked me to write a little something about how I make music, so …
My creative process has always started with the focused consumption of existing music. It fuels the fire (when I hear something good, I wish all the more fervently to make/be a part of making something good). It can be the fire (when an existing piece of music collides with an attentive listener, something new is spontaneously generated in the same way that blue colliding with yellow generates green—I feel like I’m never hearing exactly what I’m listening to, but rather a combination of what I’m listening to and whatever is going on in my inner ear, which occasionally results in ideas I decide to explore). And I just really, REALLY love listening to music. It reminds me that for all our myriad flaws, we human beings are capable of extraordinary beauty. It also reminds me that when we succeed in making/finding something beautiful, our first instinct is to share it with our fellow human beings, and that gives me hope.
Speaking of human beings, let’s talk about collaborative composition, which factors heavily into this residency and my music in general—but I mean, it factors into everyone’s music, right? Show me a composer who has lived their entire life without hearing a note of music besides their own and I’ll (bewilderedly) show you a composer who doesn’t compose collaboratively. Otherwise, we’re all in this together! No matter how isolated our various processes might appear, all the music we make is a reaction to and/or in conversation with all the music we’ve heard.
That said, my appetite for the in-the-same-room-at-the-same-time-working-on-the-same-thing kind of collaboration is probably larger than some, which I attribute to things like my family’s tradition of reading Tolkien out loud at bedtime, a childhood full of bluegrass festival jam sessions, and having attached myself barnacle-like in my late teens to Edgar Meyer and Béla Fleck, both of whom are among the world’s most skilled and enthusiastic practitioners of collaborative composition.
Then there’s the performance aspect of working with other people (a particularly attractive feature for musicians such as myself, who have trouble separating the desire to create from the desire to perform): We become each other’s audience, which brings some of the energy of the concert hall into the writing room and can provide instant proof of concept. Not that it’s all hell yeahs and high-fives, of course. There can be tense, high-friction moments (as in any substantive relationship), generally related to the obligatory sacrifice of control, but I feel like that’s a small price to pay for the deeper well of experience, expanded frame of reference, and all the exciting new tools in the toolkit ... to say nothing of the infectious, cumulative nature of inspiration! Yup. I’m a fan.
Ok, let’s get into genre for a second, and then we’ll be done. I’ve gotten a lot more comfortable with genre descriptors in recent years (i.e., bluegrass, classical, etc.) because it seems like we’re all starting to agree that they only rarely speak to more than the various instrumentations and/or performance aesthetics with which a given musician or group of musicians is most comfortable. One of my dearest, least important hopes is that one of these days, a person sitting next to me on an airplane will say, “I saw you put an instrument case in the overhead bin. What kind of music do you play?” To which I’ll be able to reply, “Well, bluegrass, kind of,” knowing beyond a shadow of a doubt that it won’t mean any more to them in terms of what my music sounds like than a painter saying, “I work predominantly with oils” would mean to them in terms of what her paintings look like.
But I digress, and what’s more, I betcha that painter, the person sitting next to me on the airplane, you, and I all want the same thing: to be of use, to bring something into this beautiful, terrifying world that makes the people around us happier to be here.
Music is the thing I’m handiest with, so here goes ...