By Bradley Klein
September 4, 2013 - 12:00 pm
The universe of mandolin players has no higher profile musician than Chris Thile. Bluegrass prodigy, founding member of Nickel Creek, leader of Punch Brothers, MacArthur fellow, composer, songwriter, and sought-after collaborator.
Thile's musical partners have included those with roots in bluegrass like Michael Daves, Bela Fleck, and Stuart Duncan; jazz pianist, Brad Mehldau; and classical giants Yo-Yo Ma, Edgar Meyer, and Hilary Hahn.
For years, Thile has performed the occasional Bach selection within shows ranging from the rowdy Punch Brothers' New Year's Eve at the NYC rock palace, Bowery Ballroom, to a solo encore at Carnegie Hall after performing his own mandolin concerto with the acclaimed Orpheus Chamber Orchestra.
It's a practice with a long history. In rock, think Jethro Tull and Bach's Bourrée - in jazz Duke Ellington and Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker Suite. And quite a few musicians with their roots in bluegrass have done the same, including Mike Marshall, Bela Fleck, and even Frank Wakefield.
But Thile is in the vanguard of a new generation of genre-benders. Musicians whose from-the-cradle exposure to a vast and diverse catalog of music is leading them to routinely cross musical borders. They are multilingual performers who can move with authority from the classical concert stage to the jazz club, and even speak bluegrass like a Kentucky native.
In the interviews that Thile has done since the CD's release in August, he's been clear about the scope of his ambition. He's not aiming for novelty or even 'crossover' in the common use of the word. "It's about Bach being one of the greatest musicians of all time, the solo violin music being some of his best work, and the mandolin having the potential to cast it in a new and hopefully interesting light." We initially spoke by phone and I started with the kinds of questions that mandolin players love to debate: questions about instruments, microphones, strings, and picks.
Bradley Klein: You own two February 18, 1924 Lloyd Loar signed Gibson F-5 mandolins. One that you acquired in 2011 (#75316), and a second purchased after winning a 2012 MacArthur fellowship — the so-called "genius prize." And you've recorded and performed extensively on a contemporary instrument by Lynn Dudenbostel. Which did you use for this project?
Chris Thile: The Bach recording was made entirely with the first of my two Loars. The new one is not playable yet. It's a beautiful axe both visually and aurally, but I'm going to — as (Australian luthier) Stephen Gilchrist would say — modernize it. Every original Loar I've ever played plays pretty damn out of tune. If you're going to play difficult music on a mandolin, then a fully original Loar is just not practical. I feel very strongly that they don't show themselves at their best until you get in there an manipulate them a little bit.
Gibson F5 mandolin #75316. Lloyd Loar's personal F-5 precedes Chris' by one serial number.
Photo credit: Crawford White
Bradley Klein: Gilchrist worked on your first Loar, will he do the set up on your new one?
Chris Thile: I don't know yet. It takes a long time to get used to a new instrument. The new one is remarkably similar in the way the neck feels and how it responds to me. But it's going to take some time. The little nuances of an instrument... you want to know everything about it before you take it into battle.
Bradley Klein: A lot of classical musicians favor European mandolin designs over what I call the American mandolin, the F-5 design that was perfected at Gibson in the 1920s. Did you ever consider recording this project with another instrument? Maybe a bowl-back or even some new design?
Chris Thile: No. Not even once. I'm sure that a lot of my bias toward the American mandolin is because I'm American and grew up with that sound. And the guys that I emulate for tone — who brought me into mandolin consciousness — all play that style mandolin. First, my teacher John Moore. Then John Reischman, who has been a lasting influence on my attempts to get good tone out of a mandolin. I hold that guy up at the very top of the heap. And I have to mention David Grisman, as well. And of course Sam Bush... the thunderous substantial sound he gets.
Bradley Klein: Do you get any push-back from classical players? Do they object at all to the Loar sound?
Chris Thile: I haven't interfaced with the classical mandolin scene that much, so I don't really know. I've talked to Caterina (Lichtenberg) a little about it. She prefers the bowl-back mandolin, probably for the same reasons that I prefer the American mandolin. That's what she's used to. And the funny thing is, she defends the European mandolin with the same language that I use for the American mandolin. She finds more complexity of tone (in the bowl-back) — more sound around the sound — and she describes the F-5 as sounding more delicate. And to my ear it's the opposite. I think that bowl-back mandolins sound less complex and less substantial. I would never consider switching, but that's just me. It's not an indictment of that style of instrument.
Bradley Klein: What about strings? You've used and endorsed Elixir Nanowebs in the past.
Chris Thile: I switched from Elixir not that long ago. I had horrible luck with the D strings. I was breaking a D string just about every Punch Brothers set. So I did a blind tasting of different strings with the boys on the bus, the guys in Punch Brothers, and the D'Addarios won out every time. It's kind of that industry standard thing, you know, 'that's what mandolin strings should sound like.' And I think David Grisman is partly responsible for that. I mean, no one pulls better tone than Grisman, and J74s are part of that tone. I'm using EXPs and I have D'Addario modify them ever so slightly for me. I like a hybrid of McCoury and Grisman gauges: .0115 and .016 for the E and A, and .026 and .040 for the D and G. I feel the coating on the EXPs cuts down a little bit on noise.
Bradley Klein: I've seen you using Blue Chip picks in recent years, and you endorse a triangle that they make.
Chris Thile: I love my Blue Chip picks, but sometimes I envy violinists. Hell, I envy violinists all the time — what with the amount of sound they can produce — but those bows... the amount of work that has gone into bow manufacturing. Sartory and Tourte, and Peccatte... those are bows that perform their function as well as anything made by humans can. I love how Michel at Wegen, and Matthew (Goins) at Blue Chip care so much about pick design. They're doing a killer job. But I hope they keep pushing, because I think there's another level. I don't know if it's a materials thing or shape thing, but it hasn't hit the level of sophistication that bows have by a long shot.
Bradley Klein: I blame you for pointing out that mandolin and guitar players are smacking a piece of plastic against a metal wire with every note. Now I can't get that out of my head.
Chris Thile: (laughs ruefully) I spend a significant amount of every day trying to disguise that fact. I encourage anyone in the pick business to think out of the box, and aim high. Don't just make a small improvement so that the thing lasts longer.
Bradley Klein: Let's talk a little about how you'll be performing the solo Bach works in your concerts in the coming months. Will you use amplification?
Chris Thile: It will depend on the size of the hall. Maybe the mandolin's chief limitation is that it's a quiet instrument, meant for small rooms. If I get in one of those small rooms I'll play acoustic, but in a standard-size room I'll use amplification. One microphone will suffice — never a pickup, and not a clip-on mic. And we'll keep it at a very low volume. I want the sensation of playing totally acoustic, and I think we'll get there.
Bradley Klein: Looking ahead at your performance schedule, you'll be switching between solo shows, bluegrass duos with Michael Daves, Goat Rodeo, and Punch Brothers gigs. Is that hard to do?
Chris Thile: (laughs) Well, I think that it plays into my skittish nature. I like having a lot of things going on. It keeps me on my toes... keeps me sharp. The touring this Fall will be about half Bach, and half will be songs and other solo repertoire. Even though the Bach will factor heavily into it, it won't be a recital, in the pure classical sense. It'll be a hybrid of what one thinks of as a 'recital' and what one thinks of as a 'show.'
In Part II of Chris Thile's Mandolin Cafe interview, we'll talk about how he approaches the formidable technical and interpretive challenges of Bach's solo violin repertoire, details of performance and recording, and the musicians who have influenced his development as a classical soloist and composer.
From an article by Steven Stone for Vintage Guitar Magazine. Thile's recounting of the story of the mandolin passed on by the seller (that purchased from Bisgno's widow) was as follows: "... an 18-year-old senior in high school bought it new in 1924, played it in a mandolin orchestra for a year, then married his high school sweetheart. On his wedding night, he put it under his bed and never played it again. White (Crawford White of NashvilleVintage.com) bought it from his 98-year-old widow. So I played it and right away I could tell it already had some of the characteristics I wanted a Loar to have."
Virgil Bisagno is standing in the third row back, third from the left. There are three Loar mandolins pictured in the photo below. One other Loar in the photo has been located and identified as the Semisch Loar, #76782, and was documented in an article Bill Graham wrote for the Mandolin Cafe in 2009 entitled Shaking Hands with Lloyd.
First row on ground L-R: F5 Loar (possibly a Fern), F2 (seated - thought to be orchestra leader Howard Fisher), A1/2/4 Snakehead
Second row seated L-R: F2, H1, H1, F4, A Snakehead, F2
Third row L-R: F5 Loar, Style 0 guitar, #75316 F5 Loar (Virgil Bisagno), Snakehead A, F2, F2, Model MB-3 Mandolin Banjo, K2 Mandocello, TB-4 Tenor Banjo with aftermarket resonator
Fourth row L-R: Gibson L2/3/4, 1920s style O guitar
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