There’s no question Chris Thile is a superman: his talents transcend those of any human. But as we know from the history of musical genius from Mozart to Cobain, transcendence has its costs. So as a Thile fan I want to put aside compliments–many as they may be–and say what I really think about the show he played recently at Le Poussain Rouge.
Thile’s mandolin playing overflowed his mandolin. The mandolin almost couldn’t contain his own playing of her. (I’m genderizing the pronoun when referring to the mandolin, referring to “it” as “her.” You’ll see why.)
Thile’s a mandolin player. Probably the best. But his fanatical playing made the mandolin complain. She sounded like she was starting to feel uncomfortable, beginning to think she couldn’t do what he wanted to do with her. It felt almost schizophrenic. It’s obvious Thile loves the instrument. But he seemed also to hate the mandolin in his almost outrageous expectations of her. He seemed to hate her because of what he wanted to do with her as a mandolin player. It seemed like he wanted to break her limits. His playing sounded violent. But again, I don’t think Thile hates the mandolin. That’s absurd. He must love her so much that he pushes her beyond what she’s comfortable doing. So it might be tragic love, or lust, but I can’t be sure.
Whether it was love or lust or hate or all of them, the mandolin sounded at times like she’d almost had enough of him. I’m thinking of the instrumental parts of Thile’s set, particularly a stretch of Bach that he played after covering Of Montreal’s “Gronlandic Edit.” It sounded like the mandolin wanted badly to keep up with Thile, actually enjoyed his force and wanted to go where he wanted to go with her, but started second-guessing herself. Like she knew what Thile wanted to do with her and wanted to do it with him, wanted him to have it, and gave it to him, but became exhausted in so doing. It sounded, at the limits, like she was dropping him hints: I’m getting tired, honey. I can’t keep doing this, baby. I want you, I love you, but this–I’m just not that way. She fretted and grieved–never protesting, but distinctly cautioning him: this might be too much for us.
So it wasn’t quite tragic. If the mandolin had given up on him–if the intensity of his love for her forced her away from him–then it would’ve been tragic. But she didn’t give up on him. This is just a little thing I saw at the edges of the performance. In the margins of the songs. In the weird space he created around himself on the stage, as if the spotlight demarcated his world from that of the human–his passion from reasonable intimacy.
Like I said before, he’s exceptional. But something about the performance made me think, “Take it easy.”
Having heard a little about Thile’s personal life I might caution him–apprehensively of course, I don’t know him at all–that continuing on this path may give the mandolin no other option than divorce. She won’t want to leave him. She loves him. But she might have no other choice.
What I’ve said here is probably false, overly abstract, and stupidly psychoanalytic. But I can’t ignore the sensation that Thile’s concert was disconcerting. So I’ll stick to my point and conclude.
Like the Phoenix character in X-Men whose body lives in space and time but whose superpower destroys all bodies in space and time, Thile’s great power over the mandolin–his love for her–threatens to eventually destroy their relationship. This marriage is far from over–Thile is a master and his instrument more than willing to follow him–but I heard tragedy brewing in their music.