Mandolin virtuoso and composer Chris Thile, a multiple–Grammy Award winner and a MacArthur Fellow, has long been known as an audacious improviser and a tireless collaborator whose work has incorporated bluegrass, folk, rock, jazz, and classical elements. Besides his brilliant bandmates in Punch Brothers, his fellow travelers have also included pianist Brad Mehldau, cellist Yo-Yo Ma, guitarist Michael Daves, and double bassist/composer Edgar Meyer, among others. But this time Thile has taken on perhaps his greatest musical challenge all by himself with Bach: Sonatas and Partitas, Vol. 1, which comprises three works written for solo violin: Sonata No. 1 in G minor, BWV 1001; Partita No. 1 in B minor, BWV 1002; and Sonata No. 2 in A minor, BWV 1003. While Thile has often included pieces by Bach in his live repertoire, alongside his own work and his interpretations of work by artists ranging from Bill Monroe to Radiohead, this disc, produced by his friend and mentor Meyer, fulfills a long-held dream to create studio recordings of these pieces rendered on mandolin. Thile says the recording sessions were an opportunity “to interact with the greatest musician who ever lived.”

 

“Bach was my first meaningful experience with—for lack of a better word—classical music,” Thile explains. “It was the second recording of Glenn Gould playing the Goldberg Variations. Gould plays with the kind of rhythmic integrity that I had previously only associated with non-classical music: music with a groove, with a pocket, that made you move. Gould was playing that music like my heroes play fiddle tunes. It humanized the whole thing for me and the heavens opened up and Bach came down.”

 

He continues, “This record to me is not about this iconic violin music played on the mandolin—like, ‘Oh boy, what fun, he’s playing a weird instrument!’ 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.”

 

The prodigious Thile was a member of groundbreaking trio Nickel Creek at the age of eight; by the time he was 12, he already had a solo recording contract with Sugar Hill. It was four years later when he serendipitously discovered Bach, thanks to birthday gifts from his maternal grandmother and step-grandmother, each of whom independently gave him Bach recordings: an album of the Brandenburg Concertos and Gould’s Goldberg Variations. (“I guess that means my grandfather had a type,” quips Thile.) The records set his adventurous young mind reeling: “I just started devouring all the Bach I could get my hands on—the Brandenburgs, the violin music.”  He didn’t have any bold scheme to transpose these violin pieces to mandolin at first; he was simply using the instrument he knew best. “I played the mandolin and I wanted to play Bach. I set about learning it by ear because that’s how I did things. It was slow going. I would be learning the Brandenburg Concertos by ear, playing whatever part was the loudest.”

 

That approach, of course, did not last for long, and Thile began to teach himself to read music; “I was a 16-year-old, back there in my room, going ‘Every Good Boy Does Fine, All Cows Eat Grass’, like most musical kids do at 4 or 5. The first thing I got all the way through was the E Major Prelude, which lends itself remarkably well to the mandolin, and I’ve been like a kid in a candy store ever since. I actually don’t think I’ve traveled without an edition of the Sonatas and Partitas since then. It’s one of the true joys of my life that they exist.”

 

Regarding how the composer might feel about his music being played on mandolin, Thile says, “Bach was pretty casual about shuffling his music from instrument to instrument. He made organ and lute transcriptions of the violin’s G minor fugue, turned one of the violin concertos into a keyboard concerto, etc. Even though this music is, to a certain extent, an exploration of violin technique, it’s also perhaps the most complete and satisfying realization of polyphony on a largely monophonic instrument ever, which

 

almost has to have been Bach’s primary objective for it, as well as for the solo cello and flute music. One of the reasons that playing the violin music on the mandolin makes sense is that it’s a slightly more polyphonic instrument than the violin, more chordal. Playing three- or four-part chords is less of a gladiator-like endeavor, which allows you to approach things a lot differently in terms of phrasing and dynamics.”

 

Thile admits, “I envy people who’ve had this music their whole lives the way I’ve had fiddle tunes my whole life, which is probably one of the reasons I’ve waited so long to do this. I doubt I’ll ever feel totally confident about my perspective on the music and my approach to achieving my goals for it, but I think it was just time to go for it. Being able to lean on Edgar as a mentor since I was 18 or 19 has been incredibly valuable and getting to talk Bach with musicians who have lived with his music far longer than I have like Yo-Yo and Jeffrey Kahane [who conducted Thile’s mandolin concerto Ad astra per alas porci with the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra and Colorado Symphony] has been amazing. Being involved in the young classical music community in New York has been really valuable, too. With so many brains to pick, I finally came to the conclusion that there’s really never a perfect time to record Bach. It can mean so many different things to you at different points in your life. Gould recorded the Goldberg Variations twice. Henryk Szeryng recorded the six sonatas and partitas for solo violin twice. I wonder if no one is ever completely prepared—and if maybe realizing that is part of being prepared enough.”

 

Last January Meyer and Thile convened in Western Massachusetts, at the Berkshires studio where they had worked with violinist Stuart Duncan and Yo-Yo Ma on the Grammy Award-winning The Goat Rodeo Sessions. They had considered using a concert hall setting for the recording but ultimately preferred the ambience of a smaller studio: “I like the way the room sounded and the way the mandolin sounded there. The mandolin is an imperfect instrument—there are things about it that will frustrate me for the rest of my life—but one of its strengths is that it’s a really intimate instrument, very delicate, very vulnerable, very honest. And it’s very precise, painfully precise, with that plastic pick hitting the metal string. It’s not a big lush emotional sound like the violin; it’s a heart to heart with a close friend in your living room. And I think that’s where the mandolin shines; it’s truly a chamber instrument. When I listen to the recording now, I feel like I’m in that kind of space with the instrument; we’re in the living room together, maybe with some brandy. Bach was a brandy man.”

 

Thile and Meyer worked for six days, apportioning two days for each piece. (Thile intends to record the remaining three Bach compositions of this six-work set with Meyer in the near future.) They encountered a few technical surprises along the way—”The low string is often excited by what’s happening above it and it starts ringing at the damnedest times,” confesses Thile—but, for the most part, “it was a heavenly experience to get to play music like that all day long for six days. I can’t express how much fun it was. I don’t think I’ve ever played so much in my life. Hell of a lot of mandolin playing, even for me! You just dive down deep into these pieces and live there for a while and never, ever get tired of it. We recorded way more than we needed, I think in part because it was so hard to leave each piece; getting to the point where it was time to move on was always kind of bittersweet.”

 

Quick-witted performer that he is, Thile’s skill has long been about creating something in—and for—the here and now. In a sense that is what he has also accomplished with this recording of works Johann Sebastian Bach composed nearly 300 years ago. As Thile says finally, “The real story is that this music is crackling with life, with relevant information. It’s no museum piece. Perhaps hearing it on the ‘wrong’ instrument can help take it out of its historical context and put it in a contemporary place.”