Multiple Grammy winner Chris Thile returns to perform live at Jorgensen Center to a virtual audience on Jorgensen Digital Stage on April 17 at 8 p.m.
Thile, a MacArthur Fellow, is a founding member of Nickel Creek and Punch Brothers, and former host of “Live From Here” on National Public Radio. A mandolin virtuoso, he is also a composer and vocalist who has recorded “The Goat Rodeo Sessions” with Yo Yo Ma, Stewart Duncan and Edgar Meyer. In 2013 he recorded “Bach Sonata and Paritas Vol. 1,” which Paste magazine said demonstrated that “the distance between baroque and bluegrass is shorter than we have previously have thought.”
The livestream production will feature a post-performance Q&A moderated by Chion Wolf, host of WNPR’s “Audacious.”
Thile spoke with UConn Today. The conversation has been edited for clarity.
Much has changed for you since the pandemic caused the cancellation of “Live From Here” and your other in-person performances.
A silver lining for me is getting to focus on the solo program. I made a solo record late last summer and that’ll come out in early June. This [performance] is kind of a preview of how that set is going to feel. It’s meant to be played and sung alone. If art imitates life, there have been a whole lot of solitary lives over the past year for everyone, and so there’s something appropriate about a solo performance. It’s not just because it’s one of the easiest ways to perform safely, but it also just makes a lot of sense right now.
You seemed to enjoy performing each week with different guest musicians in different genres on the radio show.
I love the collaborative process, but I would encourage people to remember that no music is made in a vacuum. You’re collaborating with the width and breadth of the music that has found its way to your ears at all moments. I get to take the lessons that I’ve learned in more overtly collaborative projects into the solo project. That’s covering a lot of ground, stylistically speaking. With music, as in life, often the way we look is only part of the story. When you think about how people form their opinions of genre, it’s often based on how the music looks rather than how it sounds or why it does what it does. Very often when we think of different types of music, we’re kind of thinking about the instruments on which it’s made. I would argue that it is still where the heart of the music beats. When you start digging under the aesthetics of the thing you start realizing the same kinds of things that make great music are great regardless of what aesthetic it’s existing within.
Where is your music heading with the new recording?
It’s just me and a mandolin and my various musical obsessions, sort of a gospel record for agnostics. There’s a lot of counterpoint and the harmony is probably steeped in the British Isles folk music of my youth. That, of course, gets appropriated by what was brought to the Appalachians and gets out to Southern California where I was born and partially raised, in a very mercurial state, that has just as much to do with the popular music of today, as it does with the British Isles folk music from which it came. But then I’ve gotten so interested in the way someone like Debussy handles harmony and the way that [John] Coltrane uses, as I think he put it, sheets of sound which hang over simple chord progressions. Everything that I love seeps in there: the directness of Gillian Welch’s songwriting, the sort of surrealistic paranoia of Thom Yorke’s songwriting [Radiohead]. You are what you eat, and I have a big appetite. I just don’t think about music in terms of genre, ever. I play mandolin so I think it often sounds like that to people. I feel it would be like putting people’s speaking voices into genres based on the timbre of their speaking, saying you’re this kind of person as opposed to what they’re actually saying.
One of the features you brought on the radio was writing and performing a new song each week. How much different was that from your usual writing process that did not involve a deadline?
I’m writing all the time, but it was really exciting to have a deadline that urgent. So many deadlines in my life have been very flexible or sort of arbitrary. It would be nice to have a record out by this month, but if we don’t have a record out it’s okay, we’ll move it back. On the radio show it was at 6 p.m. Eastern Time on Saturdays I had to have something to show for my week and the song was just part of it; it was just fun to be able to present music that no one had ever heard before on a weekly basis. Now that the show has been COVID canceled, it’s an opportunity to stare at the blank canvas again. That creates a new urgency and I thrive on that fear of the void. I heard the composer Ned Rorem talk about composition this way. He said, I just write the music that I want to hear that I’m not hearing. I do think it’s that to a certain extent.
One of your other major projects is the master class series called Music Is Life Is Music. How did that start?
The pandemic has pushed us musicians to the internet. You can give livestreamed concerts but only so many of them; of course you’re missing a lot of what makes it so great. There have been times the ability to create a sense of intimacy that you can’t necessarily get in a large concert hall of people. I thought about what might I be able to contribute that’s not a livestream concert. The most beneficial instruction that I have ever received and can continue to receive has always been from musicians that I was able to kind of wind up, let go and be around while they pontificate about music and living a musical life. They’re not even necessarily conscious that they’re teaching me about music. I’ve been lucky enough to be able to do that with a lot of musicians whose music means a lot to me. I thought if there are people out there who enjoy my music, are trying to make music themselves, or just trying to deepen their appreciation of music, maybe they would be interested in an approximation of that kind of pontification.
What should people know about you that they don’t ask about?
What I do is inspired by non-musical things. I find a great deal of inspiration in a particularly beautiful bottle of wine from a wine maker who understands what the relationship between human beings and the Earth can be what it wants to be. I find so much inspiration in that kind of behavior, or Roger Federer’s forehand. I saw this Guggenheim exhibit of [Swedish abstract artist] Hilma af Klint shortly before the pandemic that just blew my mind. It probably led to some of the pondering that led to this record that I just made. To see her abstract mystical take on questions of the matters of the soul is a cross-discipline inspiration is that people don’t talk about as much and that I think could sometimes be more relatable. It’s one thing to get musicians talking shop, talking music and speaking about music and musical terms. But if that’s not where you come from, there’s not necessarily an easy way in if you don’t speak that very esoteric language of music creators. I derive just as much in inspiration from non-musical artists as musical artists.
For tickets and livestream information visit the Jorgensen site.