08 October 2011

Chris Thile on Musical Transcriptions

I had the odd good luck about a week ago (reminder: this is a slow blog) to have a conversation with Chris Thile -- the extraordinary mandolinist and composer -- about musical transcriptions.  In January 2010, I had had the even greater good fortune to hear Thile play -- on the Mandolin -- Bach's Partita No. 2 in D minor.  It was a revelatory experience; indeed, I'd say that listening to that performance was one of a small handful of the most compelling musical experiences I have had over my lifetime.

Thile's comment about transcriptions last week was that he found that a succesful transcription of a musical work exposed the "music" of a source piece more clearly or fully than did different "performances" of the piece on the instrument the piece had been written for. 

What for me was helpful in Thile's comment was the idea that our sense of the "music" of a piece was heightened when the comparison we had was between versions on two instruments, rather than versions on a single instrument.  That captured quite precisely what had happened for me when I heard Thile's live performance of the Partita and then immediately went home and played a recording of it on the violin. (I also recall feeling frustrated that -- because I had no recording of Thile playing the piece on the Mandolin  -- I could not continue to alternate listening to the piece on the two instruments).

But just why might the comparison across instruments that transcription affords be so helpful?  I wish I had thought to ask Thile this when I had the chance to speak with him.  Is it that the second instrument gives us a less familiar version and the unfamiliar-ness heightens our listening and attention?  Or is it a matter of the greater difference between two instruments, compared to the difference between two performances on one instrument?  Is it the increased musical difference that heightens our listening and attention?

However this quite works, I am fascinated by transcriptions--and by transpositions too; and it was a genuine treat to hear Thile talk about his transcription of the Partita as a follow-up to having heard him perform the piece.  

The Slow Blog Movement encourages further listening. In this case:

Any and all of Thile's CDs, whether with Nickle Creek, Punch Brothers, or those he has done on his own or with one other artist.

And for readers of Shake Well Before Using in the New York city area, take advantage of the  opportunity to hear Thile perform his mandolin concerto with Orpheus on March 24, 2012; fmi, click here.  Perhaps he'll do the Partita as an encore, as he did when he performed the concerto with the LA Chamber Orchestra.



  1. A friend was listening to my iPod and said "You have a lot of covers." I do. I've sometimes said that I really like covers, but what I realized after reading this is that hearing a second version of a song I like makes me like both of them more, appreciate the nuances more, I guess. Several years ago, I made a CD of paired versions of songs (like "Son of a Preacher Man"- Dusty Springlfield, and then Aretha Franklin). Now I know why. ;-)

  2. Duke Performances in Durham, NC recently presented Chris Thile. Here are two other interesting article about him--from our blog, "The Thread":

    "The Many Muses of Chris Thile": http://thethread.dukeperformances.duke.edu/2011/11/the-many-muses-of-chris-thile/

    "Live Review: Chris Thile's Original S-I-N": http://thethread.dukeperformances.duke.edu/2011/11/live-review-chris-thiles-original-s-i-n/