Moving inside the classical world |

Moving inside the classical world

Stewart OksenhornThe Aspen TimesAspen, CO Colorado
Stewart Oksenhorn/Aspen Times fileMandolinist Chris Thile, pictured last year in a Snowmass Village performance with Nickel Creek, performs in a duo Wednesday with bassist Edgar Meyer.

ASPEN Chris Thile has appeared at a handful of classical music festivals, including major ones like Tanglewood, Ravinia and Interlochen. But as a mandolinist, and a member of the bluegrass-leaning group Nickel Creek, he says he was generally looked at as someone stepping into the classical realm from the outside.When the 27-year-old makes his Aspen Music Festival debut Wednesday at Harris Hall, he might not feel quite so much like an outsider. Thile is no longer a member of Nickel Creek; the trio of Thile and siblings Sean and Sara Watkins, who had been performing together before they hit their teens, called it quits last year. Thiles interest in formal, composed music has grown more pronounced over the years. During Nickel Creek concerts, he often played Bach pieces, arranged for solo mandolin; at a performance in Snowmass Village two summers ago, this feat had a jaw-dropping effect on the crowd. On banjoist Bla Flecks Perpetual Motion, which earned the 2002 Grammy Award for Best Classical Crossover Album, Thile contributed mandolin parts to works by Scarlatti and Bach. On the debut album by Punch Brothers, a bluegrassy string quintet led by Thile, he stretched his compositional skills by writing the four-part suite, The Blind Leaving the Blind. Over the next year, he anticipates progressing even further as a composer, as he works on his mandolin concerto.Composing has become a bigger and bigger part of my life, Thile said.Capping his insider status, Thile will perform tonight in a duo with Edgar Meyer, who has helped adjust the boundaries that often divide classical music from other genres. Meyer has earned a following in bluegrass, stemming especially from his years as a member of the supergroup Strength in Numbers. He is also much admired in classical circles, both as a composer and instrumentalist. Far from being an outsider, Meyer is a member of the faculty at the Aspen Music School as well as the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia.For an improvising musician looking to enter the realm of concert music, there has been no better model for Thile than his partner in tonights performance.Hes possibly the biggest influence on my musical career, Thile said of Meyer. Thile first became aware of Meyers playing on Skip, Hop & Wobble, a 1994 CD credited to the trio of dobroist Jerry Douglas, guitarist Russ Barenberg and Meyer. He had already been familiar with Douglas and Barenberg, but the contribution from Meyer was a revelation.I was struck by the bowed bass, and such an agile technique on the bowed bass. I had never encountered that in folk music before, said Thile by phone from his New York apartment. (Thiles travels in Manhattan could be seen as a mirror of his artistic tendencies. He was forced by an infestation of bedbugs from his home in the East Village, where a jazzy, improvisatory ethic prevails. He now lives on the Upper West Side, a classical music stronghold, home to Lincoln Center and Carnegie Hall. He plans on moving back downtown once the bedbug situation is under control.) But I wasnt aware of what a compositional force he was. Then I heard the Strength in Numbers album The Telluride Sessions, from 1989 and could hear his influence on that project, his impact on the compositions, the approach to composed music.What fascinated Thile most was what Meyer, also, seemed most interested in: finding a way to mix elements of formal music and improvisation in a way that was natural, retained the best elements of both.It opened up this world, the improvising musician with serious ties to formal music, said Thile. My favorite thing in the world is the well-integrated musician who can combine the precision, the detail of a formal musician, with the fire of an improvising musician. Edgars one of the greatest examples of that.Thile, who began playing in a pizza parlor in his San Diego hometown when he was 8, moved to Nashville as a 19-year-old. Among the alliances he made in his three-year stint in Music City was with Meyer, serving what he called an informal apprenticeship with the bassist. Id just pepper him with questions. I have been picking his brain often. Its a real happy relationship, said Thile.The partnership has been beneficial for Meyer as well. Im learning worlds from Chris, said Meyer, whose concert tonight follows past special events with Bla Fleck, with pianist Anne-Marie McDermott, and last year with jazz bassist Christian McBride that have become highlights of the Aspen Music Festival season. Chris is doing what youre supposed to do when youre 27 hes playing better than the old guys. Hes setting a new bar technically. Hes ambitious.The two first collaborated on Thiles 2001 album, Not All Who Wander Are Lost. Meyer then appeared on Nickel Creeks second album, This Side. Over the last few years they have toured several times as a duo, but tonights concert is the first appearance for the twosome since January of 2007. The partnership continues with a fall tour that concludes in Carnegie Halls Stern Auditorium, where they will be joined by fiddler and former Strength in Numbers member, Mark OConnor.The duo memorialize their partnership with Edgar Meyer and Chris Thile, an album of original duets, due for release on the Nonesuch label on Sept. 16. Not surprisingly, the album erases distinctions between classical and bluegrass, composed and improvised styles.The closest I could come to describing it to a classical audience it will sound like bluegrass, and to a bluegrass audience it will sound like classical, said Thile. Its obviously neither. Its just music the way we see it as a duo, and that includes a lot of styles. Its not pointedly genre-less, but we dont accept the record companys divisions between types of music.As Thile conquers new musical territories, he is leaving others behind. He is happy to walk away from Nickel Creek, despite the bands relatively huge popularity for an acoustic group. I was in Nickel Creek for 18 years, and we played a lot of shows together, said Thile. I love Sean and Sara, but I dont miss it. I got a lot of it. We did it; we really did it. I dont feel the need to do it for awhile.Thile also doesnt feel much urge to enter the pop-music universe. He dipped his foot in with Deceiver, a 2004 album that had Thile playing all the instruments 39 of them and writing songs and singing. Much of it was well outside the acoustic universe.I got that one taken care of as well, he said. Im infatuated with pop music. I love the communicative power of pop. But I figured out with that record that thats not really my place. Im pleased with a few tracks on that album, and embarrassed by several others. But even the biggest successes on that record point to a different direction

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