To: The MacArthur Fellows Program
From: David Royko
Regarding: CHRIS THILE MacArthur Fellowship Nomination
Date: Oct 31, 2007
In the fall of 1994, I received an advance copy of the debut album on Sugar Hill (a label I strongly respected) by some kid named Chris Thile. I was grabbing lunch at my desk, and put on the headphones to hear this new whiz kid. I wasn’t expecting more than to be pleasantly dazzled by a technically impressive, straight-ahead bluegrass picking prodigy of thirteen. Within 20 seconds I was sitting bolt upright, goosebumpy and with tears in my eyes. The tone was unique, light as a feather, but with notes so even and sharp that it was like spun iron. The effortless speed made the phenomenal technique instantly apparent, and the line leading into the first theme had an unexpected rhythmic jiggle that announced his instrumental voice as distinctive, surprising, and assured.
By the end of the disc I knew that he was the next giant on the mandolin, even if you wanted to whittle the modern mandolin lineage as Bill Monroe, Sam Bush and, now Chris Thile (a silly reduction prior to Thile, but arguable).
Ever since then, I have followed him as closely as possible, given geographic limitations. His success with Nickel Creek has been great to watch, and his side projects have kept him engaged in creative ways not afforded by the more song-oriented Nickel Creek.
The end (at least for now) of Nickel Creek in November ‘07 sets up his next full-time incarnation as leader of the Punch Brothers, which would be a perfect time for Thile to receive a MacArthur Fellowship. Made up of the traditional bluegrass “string quintet” of mandolin, banjo, fiddle, guitar, and bass, Thile’s number one priority with this group is to realize his concept of merging bluegrass with the ethos of classical chamber music. His new contract with Nonesuch Records reflects this expanded vision beyond the roots-oriented Sugar Hill Records. The ensemble’s first recording (Chris Thile’s How To Grow A Woman from the Ground, on Sugar Hill) was deliberately more accessible than what is expected from the follow-up, which will be more challenging and focused on Thile’s Chamber Bluegrass ideas.
Much of what Thile’s already done gives a strong hint of these ideas, especially his live duet work with Mike Marshall, Edgar Meyer, Bela Fleck, Mark O’Connor, and David Grier (all but Marshall not committed to commercial recordings).
As to the specific questions you ask:
1. What is the creativity and inventiveness embodied in the Nominee's work?
Thile has a unique voice on mandolin. He’s one of the rare musicians, of any type, with an instantly-identifiable sound and approach to improvising. His technique is beyond that of his peers or anyone else who has ever played the instrument, and he uses it to advance music, not at the expense of music (in other words, he is not focused on technique but instead on how he can use it for expressive purposes). His technique and extraordinary, driving creativity and mile-wide ambition have allowed him to transcend the instrument, applying it to music and musical settings new to the mandolin. He has been a fine composer since he was a kid, and in that he continues to grow. And, most subjectively, there is a rare sense of joy in his playing that can be intoxicating.
2. What potential for future impact do you see in this work?
The potential is immense. In fact, this potential has been one of the most exciting aspects of watching Thile since he was 13 years old. There seems to be no limit to what he can do. He is the new paradigm for the mandolin and its future.
“It would be most helpful if you could comment, as well, on the following:”
1. What distinguishes the Nominee from others in the field?
The fluidity and technical level of his playing melded to a mind of dazzling creativity. Thile’s interests are broad, and this is reflected in what he creates.
2. In what ways might the Fellowship leverage or help realize the Nominee's potential?
The timing would be perfect. Nickel Creek has been successful commercially but that is about to end, and Thile is aiming for new musical goals. It’s unlikely that the Punch Brothers will have the commercial success of Nickel Creek, and the freedom (and attention) afforded by the award would, I’d expect, allow Thile to realize his musical goals without having to worry about box office receipts and record sales to subsidize the band’s more advanced music. Developmentally, he’s at an age where he has consolidated the immense musical successes he’s already had with his still-youthful openness to possibilities.
“In addition, it would be especially helpful if you could provide us with the names of two or three people who might also write evaluations of this Nominee.”
Don Stiernberg: Jazz mandolinist.
Bela Fleck: Banjoist, leader of the Flecktones.
Mike Marshall: Mandolinist.
I have appended, below, some of the pieces I have written about Thile over the past 13 years. I stand by everything I’ve ever written about him, as he’s not only fulfilled but, so far, gone beyond his earlier potential.
Please feel free to contact me for any further information or opinions.
[Appended pieces not included here.]