Interview with Chris Thile: Bach Sonatas and Partitas, on Mandolin

August 14, 2013, 7:34 PM · You can say a lot about violin music with the mandolin -- at least Chris Thile can.

For Chris, there's really no such thing as genre; there's just music. And that's why, as a young bluegrass mandolinist, Chris fell in love with J.S. Bach's Solo Sonatas and Partitas for Violin and HAD to learn to play them. In fact, in our conversation below, he told me that learned to read music, just for the purpose of studying Bach.

Chris Thile

By now he has them well under his fingers, and last week he released his new recording, Bach: Sonatas and Partitas, Part 1, which includes the Sonata No. 1 in G minor; Partita No. 1 in B minor; and Sonata No. 2 in A minor. And yes, he plans to record the rest of them.

I've been a fan of Chris since his Nickel Creek days, and now he plays in bands such as Punch Brothers and Yo-Yo Ma's Goat Rodeo project. (BTW, Ma is a pretty good mentor for unaccompanied Bach as well, as is bassist Edgar Meyer, who actually produced Thile's Bach recording).

Over the phone, I spoke with Chris about discovering Bach, about how the mandolin affects the music, and about a few geeky specifics regarding these works that are at the heart of the violin repertoire -- and clearly in his heart as well!

Laurie: I've really been enjoying this album, for obvious reasons: I absolutely love these pieces!

Chris: I'm glad! You know, I wouldn't take that for granted (he laughs). Y'all have such an advantage, in certain respects, on some of the music! But then, on the other hand, the mandolin -- we share advantages.

Laurie: I was actually thinking about that, especially when I was listening to the fugues. I thought, I'm kind of jealous!

Chris: Mandolin might actually have the edge on the three- and four-part chords.

Laurie: Exactly!

Chris: On the actual contrapuntal stuff, mandolin has maybe as significant an edge as violin does during the lyrical playing. I also would say that violin has the advantage on the perpetual motion playing. The bow almost keeps itself going on some of the really fast, long stuff in a way that the pick just doesn't. The pick, it's just like every stroke, you start feeling like, I keep having to drive this hammer, drive the nail into the board.

But I love talking to violinists about these pieces, because of that very thing: I feel like what's hard for mandolin is easy for violin, and what's hard for violin is easy for mandolin. And of course, it's just as hard for all of us! I can say that maybe the moto perpetuo stuff is easier for y'all, but at the same time, playing fast is just hard. Something like the B minor presto, the Courante double part, that's just a hard piece! And the G minor presto, it's hard. We share a lot of challenges.

Laurie: What was the first one of these pieces that you ever played, and what drove you to want to learn it?

Chris: It was the E major Prelude. The mandolin's advantage on that piece is pretty significant because of the string crossings. Having done it a little bit on the violin, that is some serious work for you guys to get through those -- (he sings the triple-stop bariolage section from the first page). Whereas those strings crossings are just a small flick of the wrist on the mandolin, it's so natural. Then you get those open strings and they can ring, and it's just really pretty. When I was about 16, I felt like that was the perfect thing to tackle on the mandolin. I basically taught myself to read music for that purpose.

Laurie: You did! Wow!

Chris: A buddy of mine, Mike Marshall, played (the Bach Prelude) on the mandolin. I heard that and I went, 'Oh, man, I've gotta get in on that action!'

I started trying to learn it by ear from his version and then I realized, he was taking some pretty extreme liberties on certain parts of it! (He laughs) This was before I knew Mike, actually, so I couldn't just ask him about it. So I got the score, and I got Arthur Grumiaux's recording, which is excellent luck because I'd say Grumiaux's recording is the most mandolin-like of the recordings I've heard. He had such a light touch with these pieces, which is something I love to hear. I kind of oscillate between (Henryk) Szeryng and Grumiaux when I listen to violin recordings of the pieces. I feel like Szeryng's recording is so grounded, and then Grumiaux's recording is so nimble. I love going back and forth between those two guys.

And then just listening to, well, recently, Glenn Gould recordings of the B flat Partita -- my God. And particularly the Courante. The Allemande is every bit as stunning, and the slow movements are gorgeous as well. But the groove that he gets going on that Courante is some of the most infectious playing I've ever heard. Check out the B flat Partita and Gould's recording of that, I just think it's unbelievably beautiful. And the writing, too, it's just timeless. It's every bit as contemporary as it is Baroque, in my opinion.

Laurie: Back to the E major Partita, and I have to confess that it has played a part in my really terrible attempts at the mandolin. Since I know that piece very well on the violin, I thought, well I'll play it on the mandolin. But it was impossible for me! I thought it was reeeeeally hard on the mandolin!

Chris: Well again, there's nothing easy about any of these pieces. And for the Prelude really to shine on the mandolin, you have to have a pretty slamming right-hand technique.

Laurie: You do!

Chris: And it can be very tiring, that's another one where the moto perpetuo factors in -- just the fact you can't slur anything on the mandolin.

Laurie: And speaking of no slurring, I was also thinking about the trills. On mandolin, you have to enunciate every note, don't you?

Chris: That was a fun odyssey for me -- the trills. The trills were always just horrendously awkward, I hated the way they sounded, I hated the way they felt. I started trying to do them more like a violinist, where it would be one pick stroke and then I would be sort of hammering on and pulling off, if that makes sense. With the mandolin, you can't just put your finger there as if it were a normal fingering, you have to kind of slam the finger down with enough force to where the contact actually essentially strikes the string in addition to fingers it. And then the reverse of that is pulling off, which is much easier to get sound, because then the flesh of the finger can basically strike the string sort of harpsichord-style, and you get a pretty serious sound. But I only ended up using that kind of technique on, I'd say, maybe five percent of the trills, maybe 10 at the most. And the rest are picked. I realized that for each trill, you have to have a plan, you can't just trill it. You actually kind of know many you're going to do; you could actually write out each trill.

Laurie: The trills were very thoughtful, and it made me sort of think about it a little more. Sometimes on violin you just kind of do it and you don't think about it much. It's actually a good idea to have a plan.

Chris: The trill is such an idiomatic expression to the violin; it's a beautiful sound, you can toss it off. So often when people who use a pick try to trill, it just becomes this big hairy deal. (He laughs) It's not a decoration, it's like the archway itself! It becomes structural, all of a sudden. And you don't want it to be that, you want it to be this beautiful little flourish. So it was no small task, to try to get those things sounding effortless. There's a lot of effort that goes into that!

Laurie: Was it something you'd ever done before?

Chris: Trill? No, not really. Not before I realized that it was something that needed to happen, because they are in the score. I never do them when they're not in the score. Bach is pretty specific about that. I'd listen to violin recordings and I'd hear people trill where there was no mark, and trill when there was. It seemed to me that with Bach, he wasn't just forgetting to put a trill sign. He would include a trill sign in places where the trill was implicit, like where you would expect one to be there would be a trill sign, and then sometimes where you would expect one to be, there wasn't. If he didn't write it in, I alway preferred the music without it.

Laurie: Did you look at those editions that have Bach's handwritten manuscript?

Chris: I looked at the manuscript, but I mostly used the Barenreiter, I love the Barenreiter. I even like how it feels, how it looks.

Laurie: Did you look at any editions with violin fingerings, and did those work? Or did you have to change quite a lot?

Chris: The Barenreiter has no fingerings in it. I looked at Szeryng's edition, long ago, and just realized that it's just very specific to the violin -- violin fingerings are violin fingerings! I found it really informative to know what you guys were doing a lot of the time, but with the mandolin there are so many options.

As great as an advantage as the bow is over the pick -- bows are better than picks, there's no two ways about that --- but one nice thing, like the consolation prize, is that the mandolin still makes sound when the pick leaves the string. So with a violin, the string still makes sound as long as the bow is over it. But with mandolin, you can pluck the note and it rings as long as your left hand stays on it, and you can be doing new things with your right hand. So for the contrapuntal writing, that can be a pretty significant advantage because you can actually spell out some of the voice leading more completely, where appropriate.

And sometimes I would have to back off. I'd come up with these elaborate fingerings to get more sustained, lush chords, particularly in the G minor fugue. Then I was playing it for Edgar (Meyer) and he said, I feel like some of the rhythmic integrity of the piece is lost, with all this super-legato, chordal playing. And I had to put my ego down for a second and say, you know, you're right. If the piece isn't being propelled forward rhythmically, then what really do you have? So we went back, hit the "undo" button on that one! Again, it's not always the right call.

Laurie: So it sounds like you consulted with some classical-leaning musicians in the course of putting this Bach together.

Chris: Oh absolutely. I love talking music with anyone I run across. I talked to Hilary (Hahn) about it years ago. But Edgar Meyer was the biggest influence on me and the Bach. It's easy for me to relate to him, (to talk about) how fast the movements need to go, with the aesthetic conventions of the genre, and basically how little care he has for the distinctions between things. He's really only interested in the quality of the music.

It's been an incredible thing to be able to talk to Yo-Yo about it over the course of a couple weeks with those boys (in the Goat Rodeo). I've also learned just as much (from other musicians that aren't classical musicians). I feel like my Bach played has been monumentally impacted by the drummer Matt Chamberlain, and by Stuart Duncan, our fiddler in the Goat Rodeo, and by my fellow Punch Brothers….

Bach should be approached as a piece of great music, and everything you do in the pursuit of great music-making, it factors in.

Laurie: Speaking of Punch Brothers, how have your fans reacted to this recording of Bach?

Chris: So far, I think people are into it. I think that people are so much less concerned about genre than we're led to believe. When you hear good music, from maybe potentially vastly different worlds, I think you notice the kinship right away. It's all just part of The Great Music Genre -- it fits into that club. Bach is in there, and to me Radiohead is there -- certainly Bach has more seniority in that club! But I like the Beatles and some of the great Irish fiddle tunes, things like that. You know, I think there are more similarities than there are differences.

Laurie: I have kind of a geeky question for you now: In the B minor Partita, for each of the four dance movements, Bach wrote a "Double." But people rarely play the dance and its double at the same speed. It seemed like you literally did it, is that correct? Did you intentionally try to keep it to the same tempo, and how did you choose that tempo, did you base it on the dance, or on its double?

Chris: It's very gratifying you asked, because a lot of time went into that scheme! We worked so hard on this.

The B minor presents so many challenges. You don't want it to sound like it goes on forever, but at the same time, I'm kind of a major proponent of taking the repeats, because they're there. I just feel like, man, if Bach wrote it, who am I to say it shouldn't have the second repeat? I also used my own experience as a listener to inform that decision. For example, so much of the time Gould doesn't take the second repeat in Bach, and I always wish I could hear that music again. Particularly in the Bb Courante, I really feel like, I'm not done listening to this piece.

But with the B minor Partita, I think my recording is 25 minutes -- those repeats make a long piece, well, really long. And I want it to feel like four movements (not eight), because I think that's the nature of the piece.

Take for example, the Allemande -- where does that want to be? What tempo? There's a huge, huge difference between the tempo people take the Allemande and its double, and that's obviously because the double is just relentless 16th notes, the whole way. If you take it at a tempo that's comfortable for the Allemande, it's lo-ho-hong. So I pushed the Allemande itself as far as it could go, I wanted to see, what is the limit? I played it really fast -- at which point it almost sounded like a joke. Then I backed it off fairly significantly and got it to where I felt like it was still singing and dancing. Allemande is so much easier to do slow; and it's very involved, so it does start sounding like a circus if it goes too fast. I got it to where I thought it was comfortable: it was moving, you could dance to it. Then I started working on the double.

In this Partita, I feel like there's no way that people can hear that the structure is the same, when you take the tempos so drastically differently between the Allemande and the Double. Here's a double, based on the Allemande, and I want people to be able to hear that. The structure is the same, the form is exactly the same. I tried taking the Double at a measured tempo that's the same as the Allemande, but that got monotonous to my ear. So what I did was -- I don't know if you noticed, but (the Allemande double) is the freest, rhythmically speaking, of any of the performances on the record. It's really free, and I used that freedom. I just wanted people to tell, oh yeah this pulse is the same, so that hopefully you still can still sort of sway to the meter, to the rhythmic groove. Then I kind of edged the thing up as it went on, so that it had a little of the urgency that will get you to the finish. And as that edged up, I thought, ooh, I like this. I have to give Edgar a lot of credit for helping me think through some of these things.

Then, in the same Partita, basically what needed to happen next was the contrast between the Allemande Double and the Courante, which is also continuous eighth notes. And so that's where the tempo for the Courante came from: I didn't want to take the Allemande any slower, but the Courante could be faster. I found that it continued to be compelling, when I tried it faster. That created a fairly significant technical dilemma in the double Presto -- but not a musical dilemma. So I felt like well, you know what, I'm just going to slog it through! Get it to where I can play the Double Presto at this tempo because it doesn't sound show-offy to me -- it's exhilarating. It doesn't turn the thing into an encore piece.

Laurie: But it is fast, man! I was impressed!

Chris: Oh well, (he laughs) I wanted first and foremost for it to be compelling, musically. I think it's important for that piece to read as four movements, not eight.

Laurie: Yeah -- it's just hard to do! In fact, I haven't heard it done, maybe ever.

Chris: I didn't want it to be rigidly (in the same tempo) -- although, I love the sound of when Gould decides to be sort of militant about a tempo, I love that. And I definitely did that sometimes. Again, I want it to be danceable, for people to be able to move. I say militant, but Gould is never militant, actually. He can have a pretty strict rhythmic concept of a movement, but he provides contrast, always. He'll always give you moments of repose. I think it would be easy for someone to listen to Gould and think, wow, that's metronomic, when what Gould has really done is dance. You have to be careful about that. A lot of folk music is kind of metronomic, but it's like the metronome of the body or something.

Laurie: Your heartbeat, or your feet stepping.

Chris: It was fun to try and work these things out. That was my solution, I'm sure there are others.

Laurie: Are you going to do Volume II, with the remaining three Sonatas and Partitas?

Chris: Mmmm-hmmm! Absolutely! Give me another two or three years. I have a lot of outstanding recordings and I certainly want to be able to give it my full attention.

* * *

The Bach fugues for solo violin are a revelation, played on mandolin. Here is Chris's live performance a few days ago of Sonata No. 1 in G minor - II. Fugue:

And here are links to the other movements:

Sonata No. 1 in G minor - I. Adagio

Sonata No. 1 in G minor - III. Siciliana

Sonata No. 1 in G minor - IV. Presto

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August 15, 2013 at 01:00 AM · Yay, thanks for sharing these, and great article!

August 15, 2013 at 10:45 PM · Thanks Emily! I found it so fun to listen to these pieces on mandolin and compare how different they sound, both because of the artist and because of the instrument.

August 17, 2013 at 10:16 AM · Laurie, your interview is most precious to me as I have just launched my own exquisite odyssey of learning and memorizing on viola the Bach solo cello suites. Thank you.

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