A Mandolin’s Divorce: Regarding Chris Thile @ Le Poussain Rouge

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.

8 responses to “A Mandolin’s Divorce: Regarding Chris Thile @ Le Poussain Rouge

  1. Chris Thile = mandophiliac?

    Haha, I guess I’ve personally just been so drawn into his voice that I could listen to it all day. And his mandolin playing, as an instrumental performer, I could listen to him playing all day whether or not he is serenading and or demanding highly of “her.” lol. It is greatly intriguing to hear what his technical facilities on the instrument can be, and with any dedicated listener focusing on all the music of one musician, after a while you can pick up on what you think he hears. You can almost begin to guess where he’s going to go, except that you’re (I’m) always surprised.

    Nice blog!

  2. Firstly, I commend your analogy of the Mandolinist Chris Thile and what he does both in instrument and voice. I say this only in the best intent possible, because critiques are but this; insight of an opinion with decisive reasoning shoring up the ambiguity of the ungraspable for others.

    I differ on only one count of your opinion on Him as an individual. I’ve met him twice and while I doubt he would recall a face to name at this point; the point remains that I believe you have forgotten a singular very important componant of someone who plays like him. It is literally not just a mandolin he is playing with or his voice, it’s his heart and spirit aka humanism.

    When you meet Chris you find out how open he is to people and genuinly surprised; I think, each time, that they show up. He plays to not let us down and himself, he’s driven. This is a young man who has begged for a mandolin since a child saving up allowance. It was a part of him before he knew how to play, now that he can, he is just repaying back his Dad perhaps for the allowance and his greatfulness. It has become a bike, well ridden, a family pet, who never abandons his side, his best friend during troubled mind, nay, that mandolin in my opinion is the jar that holds his “Genius”. The notes we hear are just muted versions of what is going on inside…imagine within. He’s far from done, Working on his vocals would only silence what he has yet in mind.

    • Thanks for this lovely comment. I think you’re right to include spirit and heart in the equation here (if there should be such a thing). After writing this I’ve since thought that the second half–the voice part–is a little short-sighted. Thile, or any artist, should move in whatever direction they feel called to. That’s what art is. It feels a little strange to recommend that he go in a certain direction. Still, I stand by what I wrote here…the process of re-vision is ongoing.

      Also, I love your definition of critique: “insight of an opinion with decisive reasoning shoring up the ambiguity of the ungraspable for others.” Does that phrasing have a history? Where did you built it from?

  3. Not only Thile, but a lot of recorded musicians in history have their own tragedies to remember. Some ended up really tragic and destructive trying to reach for the sun as the limit, they thought. Nevertheless, the fact is still lying on the inspiration these people can write in our lives, particularly in our life with music.

  4. you are an idiot

  5. I think you (the author) presume way too much. Trouble brewing, and the idea of a piece of wood initiating a divorce is absurd. I must agree in part, I feel compelled to see Chris Thile as soon and as much as possible because I fear a star that burns that bright may not burn for long. I pray I am wrong. Let Chris have a long life to work on his voice if you think he should. Perhaps his voice will evolve all on it’s own with a little more maturity. GOD BLESS YOU CHRIS THILE you make a lot of people smile and have done so much to promote real music.

  6. I loved it! Beautifully written. I totally understand. Sometimes his playing is stressful to the listener. I feel the same way about Michael Cleveland at times. Love him and his masterful fiddling, but sometimes too “nerve wracking” for me.

  7. My two cents worth: The disconcerting feeling we – the music listener – feels listening to the current incarnation of Thile comes from our inability to experience the music inside his head the same way he can. I frequently see parallels between the careers of Chris and his friend, the great violin virtuoso Mark O’Connor. Both came to national acclaim before puberty. Both made unbelievable music over the next ten years – with multiple virtuoso partners in multiple genres, continuing their ascension of musical Olympus. Then – in their late twenties – both entered periods making music that I could no longer connect with, musically or emotionally. From my non-genius listening perspective it sounded like string-based naval-contemplation. Both are/were absolutely still capable of music that still resonated with the collective conscience of their listeners, but something compelled them to push a musical envelope that none could discern save the genius in their own heads. The good news: O’Connor emerged from his “introspective genius” period with a musical maturity that propelled him even higher. From “boy-wonder texas fiddler” to, by pretty much any standard, one of the performing, composing, teaching icons of American Music. His musical partnerships – which were amazing enough with Grisman and Grapelli and Benny Thomason as a teenager – matured to partnerships with Yo-Yo Ma and Wynton Marsalis. (It is worth noting that it was in this “mature” period that O’Connor recorded his 30 Year Retrospective CD – with “boy wonder” Thile and Guitar Master Bryan Sutton.) My prediction: The 40 year old Thile will not seem as much a mandolin-torturer and will make music that will keep his name on “A list” concert venues as long as he cares to continue blessing us with his genius.

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