Chris Thile: Punching through Categories

Portland homeboy and Punch Brother heavyweight musician embraces classical, folk, bluegrass and other music -- as long as it's great

“Until I was 15 or 16, I couldn’t have cared less about classical music,” Chris Thile admits. “I grew up playing fiddle tunes where the whole point is getting people’s bodies to move, and I thought classical music was completely divorced from the body.” Although he had family members who played classical music, Thile had already won the national mandolin championship at age 12. “I thought I was doing more hip music,” he recalls. “You guys do that powdered-wig music.”

Chris Thile. Photo: Brian Stowell.

Chris Thile. Photo: Brian Stowell.

Then his grandmother played him legendary pianist Glenn Gould’s second recording of JS Bach’s Goldberg Variations. “He kicks into that first variation and it just took my head off,” Thile remembers. “He was playing with as much groove as I’ve heard anyone play with. All of my biases against classical music just went away. I thought I didn’t love classical music. How wrong I was.  At first, I thought I wasn’t interested in hip hop, either. I was wrong about that too. I took that attitude with me through the whole music world.”

That early discovery of Gould informed Thile’s relentless quest to range beyond conventional musical categories. He spent the next few years playing progressive bluegrass with his Grammy winning trio, Nickel Creek, and then the acoustic quintet Punch Brothers, whose four albums and concerts feature hard-to-categorize but easy to admire country-folk-rock-influenced music whose structures are often less predictable and more complex — though no less enjoyable — than its sources.

Punch Brothers. Photo: Brian Stowell.

Punch Brothers. Photo: Brian Stowell.

Now 36, the California-born Thile, who plays a dozen instruments and sings, seems equally comfortable playing rock and Bach. He’s made an album of JS Bach’s music transcribed for solo mandolin, and will soon release a trio album of Bach’s music featuring bass boss Edgar Meyer (with whom he’s also recorded a pair of duo albums) and cello champ Yo Yo Ma (with whom he’s already collected yet more Grammies). And he’s composed a dazzling Mandolin Concerto that he performed with orchestras — including his new hometown Oregon Symphony last year.

Thile and his wife bought a house last year near Portland’s Washington Park, where they’re raising one-year-old Calvin, who enthusiastically helped Thile answer interview questions. (“Being a dad has helped me live a more contrapuntal life,” the 2012 MacArthur “genius” grantee cracked while extracting his toddler from under a table.) Punch Brothers’ new EP even covers a song by Portland’s Elliott Smith. Though Thile succeeds Garrison Keillor as host of ‘A Prairie Home Companion’ this fall, he says the family has no plans to move to Lake Wobegon.

At the Bach Festival, Punch Brothers will likely play mostly original tunes from their recent T-Bone Burnett-produced recordings, The Phosphorescent Blues and Wireless, along with covers of classical and other composers. The band seemed equally at home before older classical music audiences at Portland’s Chamber Music Northwest a few years back, as serenading mostly 20-30 somethings last year at Portland’s Roseland Theater in a sold-out show that included music by Debussy and Scriabin.

On July 5, Thile will give Bach Festival audiences more accustomed to hearing Beethoven and Bach than bluegrass the chance to learn the lesson he learned as a teenager from J.S. Bach via Glenn Gould. “We’re five guys who are looking everywhere for great music and are observing that great music tends to exhibit certain qualities,” Thile explains. “To me, a great symphony has more in common with great fiddle tune than with a bad symphony. To me, there’s no inherent difference” between “classical” and non classical music, Thile insists. “Whether it’s Debussy and Bartok or the Beatles and Radiohead, the greatest instances on both sides of that coin tend to balance the learned and intuitive, and to hold up to the scrutiny of either approach.”

This story originally appeared in Eugene Weekly.
Punch Brothers perform with Gabriel Kahane July 5 at the Hult Center’s Silva Hall, Eugene. Information and tickets online.

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Want to learn more about contemporary Oregon classical music? Check out Oregon ComposersWatch.

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