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In Conversation with Chris Thile

Chris Thile is a musical omnivore. A creator of powerful and poignant music, the dazzling mandolin virtuoso and charismatic singer finds a through-line between seemingly disparate worlds and reminds us that great music is great music, regardless of genre. As holder of the 2018–2019 Richard and Barbara Debs Composer’s Chair at Carnegie Hall, Thile’s residency focuses on his performance and compositional skills, revealing the unique art of a performing composer as well as the evolution of collaborative composition. In a recent conversation with Jeremy Geffen, Carnegie Hall’s senior director and artistic adviser, Thile shared his thoughts about the perceived division between performer and composer, and how music thrives on the combined forces of the two.

You’ve come to Carnegie Hall as a performer, but you’ve always blurred the line between performer and composer.

I’m never separating those various aspects of my musicianship—the part of me that is a composer, the part of me that’s an improviser, the part of me that performs, the part of me that sings. I’m a musician, and I feel like musicians owe it to themselves and owe it to music to concern themselves with as much of music as interests them. Even if you decide that you’re never going to compose, you will be a better performer if you concern yourself with the craft of composition.

Do all musicians have inherent compositional skills?

There’s a lot of steps between there not being music and there being music. Composition is one part of that, but if no one performs it … It’s like if a tree falls in the forest and no one’s there to hear it, does it make a sound? Improvising is writing, too—there was no music and now there’s music. So that’s composition. And any time you take any sort of a performance liberty, you’re making a compositional choice. I don’t know a serious performer who hasn’t made compositional decisions, who hasn’t engaged in the art of composition. And I don’t know serious composers who haven’t engaged in the art of performance in one way or another. I would encourage people to not really think about those things as being very different. I mean obviously I’ve got skin in the game. It’s kind of one of my things—I love getting my hands dirty with all of it because music, the width and breadth of it, lights me up.

There’s a perception that a composer is a singular person who does his work on his own, and then delivers a product to a performer, who then presents it to the audience. Most of your music is not binary that way.

There are many people who are involved in it. And in the classical world, it somewhat seems like a dirty little secret that the end result is not the product of one person’s imagination—that you are working in a world where everyone’s input is appreciated, if not always accepted. I’m fascinated by the lack of a traditional editorial position in the compositional process. Novelists have editors who make big changes, or at least make suggestions that if followed necessitate big changes in the structure of a work. Not that composers don’t, but it feels to me like there’s less of that right now. I’m curious why some of those separations developed. Remember Brahms presenting the first draft of his Violin Concerto to violinist Joseph Joachim, and Joachim sending it back, full of notes? I mean that was a very collaborative process. Brahms’s name is on the score, but it wouldn’t be what it is without Joachim’s notes. In my experience, the piece you’re working on only gets better when you give ears that you respect their due and when you subject that piece of music to other people’s approval. It’s rare that I’ve had a piece of music that goes straight from me to the stage without going through multiple editorial phases with outside input. And I really love that. You can see the music start to take on all these different characteristics—and the opportunity for personal transcendence, to learn from a great music maker, to learn from a great performer, maybe someone who’s not even really a writer. It all brings completely different perspectives to the writing of music. I consider it essential.

A favorite segment of your Live from Here radio show is the “Song of the Week,” where you set a challenge for yourself to write a new song for each show.

Of course, the old cliché: Necessity is the mother of invention. I subscribe wholeheartedly to that. Just about every serious musician I’ve ever met puts Bach in the pole position in any discussion of who was the greatest musician to ever live. He had to write something every week. His pieces are among the greatest pieces of music ever written. I’m not going to complain about having to write a song—for the love of God, I should be able to write a song every week. The greatest thing I ever write will never be one-millionth as good as the worst thing Bach ever wrote. But one of the things that impresses me about Bach was the workman-like aspect of his musicianship, that he simply would go to work and write. There’s a quote of his: “I was obliged to be industrious. Whoever is equally industrious will succeed equally well.” It seems that he was more industrious than most of us could ever dream of being. For me, the “Song of the Week” is like taking laziness prevention measures. I can sit there and get really precious about an idea and kind of noodle around and put it aside. That’s all good, but you need to produce—you need to be in there working, and you need to be building the lightning rod higher and higher. We all talk about that figurative strike of lightning. But lightning hits lightning rods more often than it hits the ground. And so you need to be at your desk building higher lightning rods. And yes, when lightning figuratively strikes, it’s such a wonderful feeling as a musician. But just sitting around waiting for it to happen doesn’t work—you have to be coaxing that light, out there in the field, holding up a long piece of metal. The “Song of the Week” has been really wonderful for me in that regard. I have no option but to write something that is communicable. The more you write, the better you get.

From your perspective, what determines today’s musical legacy?

I think over the long haul, music is a meritocracy—that it’s a little cleaner in terms of why we celebrate the things we celebrate and less tarnished or compromised by the pursuit of power or fame, particularly in terms of tradition. And though music today is being tarnished by the pursuit of fame and wealth and power, that music won’t last unless it’s also good. I think there’s probably really wonderful music that has been lost due to the lack of preservation methods way back in the day. And there are always things I have questions about, like how performance practice develops over hundreds of years. Is this or that current performance convention the result of a long game of telephone that has resulted in something untrue? I think we need to constantly be subjecting what exists to our powers of analysis and thought, which admittedly are wholly informed by what currently exists. We owe it to ourselves to be pursuing all avenues of personal development and artistically derived pleasure.