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Verses: Chris Thile and James Ehnes talk about Bach, frets and silent 'h's

Robert Rowat

Violinist James Ehnes turned 40 earlier this year, and to mark the milestone he's doing a cross-Canada concert tour with pianist Andrew Armstrong. To help kick things off, we invited Ehnes to be our guest editor for a day. Below, Ehnes interviews mandolinist Chris Thile about Bach and more.

In a Venn diagram of musical interests, you might not expect much overlap between the circle of violinist James Ehnes and that of mandolinist Chris Thile. Ehnes is a classical musician, playing recitals and concertos with orchestras the world over; Thile is best known as a member of the bluegrass quintet Punch Brothers and prog country trio Nickel Creek.

But, in fact, their interests do intersect: Thile harbours a deep admiration for classical music, has released an album of works by Bach on the Nonesuch label and gone on record as an Ehnes fan, reacting on Twitter to Ehnes's Bartok:


Thile and Ehnes will perform together in July at the Seattle Chamber Music Festival, where they'll give the world premiere of a new work by Jeremy Turner.

What better reasons than their upcoming collaboration and Ehnes's guest editorship to bring both musicians together for a conversation? Verses is a series in which we pair musicians together for an informal talk to gain more insight into their lives, music and personalities. Ehnes and Thile spoke on April 24. Here's an edited version of that discussion.

James Ehnes: People are always asking me how to pronounce my name and I always tell them that it is Ehnes, like tennis or menace. How do you explain to people how to pronounce your name?

Chris Thile: It’s a little tricky. The hardest part is that the “Th” of Thile gets covered up by the “s” of Chris. So I tell them "Chris [deliberate space] Thile" [pronounced Thee-lee]. You have to pause for a little while and show people, sonically, that the “h” is doing some work. It’s not one of those dodgy silent "h"s like you have in your name, my friend.

Ehnes: My favourite issue with the “h” [in my name] getting confused was when a substitute teacher was doing roll call and asked where James “Heinous” was.

Thile: [Laughs.] There have even been friends who have said [my name] wrong for a long time. I remember, for instance, the great banjo player, Bela Fleck. He heard my name as Tee-lee and would introduce me onstage as Tee-lee, and I had been so in awe of him for so long that I never did correct him. I couldn’t bring myself to say “It’s actually Thee-lee, Mr. Bela Fleck, whom I’ve idolized since I was eight years old.”

Ehnes: Then, of course, the longer you let it go, the more awkward it becomes.

Now, we’re going to talk about Bach, since you’re one of the greatest Bach interpreters I have ever heard.

Thile: Speaking of silent “h”s.

Ehnes: Yes, exactly. [Laughs] How did Bach’s music first enter your life?

Thile: I certainly knew of him. Even a little bluegrass mandolinist in Southern California is aware of the man. But my Grandma Sal and Grandma Celia, they both played [Bach for me.] I believe Grandma Sal played me [Glenn] Gould’s second recording of the Goldberg Variations, and then my Grandma Celia sent me a Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra recording of the Brandenburg Concertos.

It kind of happened simultaneously. Oh, and I also think my Great Auntie Rosie sent me the Bach Double [Violin Concerto.] Previous to that Bach onslaught, I had thought that — for lack of a better word — classical music was sort of detached from the body. Like, it sort of existed in the mind, and was cultured but not visceral at all. That was my sense, as a little bluegrass mandolinist kid who played fiddle tunes and learned everything by ear. I thought of classical music as being surrounded by powdered wigs.

So then I hear Gould and that second recording [of the Goldberg Variations] where he was particularly interested in the rhythmic relationships, and he lights into that first variation, and he’s pounding it, like, raging at the machine (only it’s solo piano), and his rhythmic concept of the thing is infectious and every bit as physical as any music I had encountered up to that point. It was as if once my body was engaged, my ears opened up to the whole of classical music, not just Bach.

So I went straight from that into the Brandenburg Concertos, I particularly initially loved ... the third movement of No. 5 [sings theme] and I tried to learn it by ear and then realized that I was just playing whatever part was the loudest. And then I got to the extended harpsichord shredding and realized, “Man, am I going to have to get in there and learn how to read music?” I was about 15 or 16 at this time. And so, I taught myself how to read music.

Ehnes: What are the particular challenges of playing Bach's violin music on the mandolin?

Thile: When y’all are catching your breath, that’s when I’m losing mine. The three- and four-part chords, the big, long fugues or even maybe things like the fourth movement of the B minor Partita [sings], they're a walk in the park on the mandolin. Whereas something like [sings first movement of Sonata No. 3], I’m going to want to take that a little bit faster. The slow, lyrical music: that’s really the death-defying feats of mandolin-ing, as opposed to three- and four-part chords or things that are fast. The mandolin is a small, lithe, agile, very precise instrument, so it loves those kinds of jobs. And it’s a natural chording instrument, as opposed to the violin, which is more naturally lyrical. The slow, lyrical stuff is a real beast on the mandolin, but it’s joyful to try! And you try to coax a different sense of sustain. Or, at best, really go for an intensely intimate rendering of a movement like that, kind of like, “I’m not sure I can say this out loud, so come closer.”

Ehnes: The instrument on which this music is played in a way dictates what this music means. But because it’s Bach and because it’s great, it’s equally valid and effective. Is that fair to say?

Thile: I think that is fair to say. I think that we’ve grown so accustomed to, for instance, the way that Bach sounds on the piano as opposed to the harpsichord or the clavier of whatever sort. We forget that that jump has been made over and over again. And I think it’s fair to argue that the piano is every bit as different from the harpsichord, as the mandolin is different from the violin.

Ehnes: That’s an awesome point. I totally agree.

Thile: The piano is a truly spectacular instrument, [although] most people would not argue that it is a better instrument than the harpsichord, not that we need to keep track of that. Whereas I would never argue that the mandolin is as good an instrument as the violin. I think the violin is a better instrument than the mandolin. For me, the violin and the piano are the greatest instruments. But that doesn’t mean that the other instruments are less capable of expressing themselves. I do love what the violin and piano are capable of.

Ehnes: Do you feel a bit like a loser because you never graduated to a “big boy” instrument like the violin? [Laughs.]

Thile: Yes! [Laughs] I still have training wheels on. I still have frets, you know? Eventually, when I get brave enough, I’ll take the frets off and I’ll get a bow.

Ehnes: When you decide to take the frets off, you can lend them to me. There have been so many times I wish I had them. Seriously, though, one last question: If you were to pick one piece of Bach that you think everyone should know, what would it be?

Thile: That is so hard. To me, [it's] the second movement of the Bach Double Violin Concerto. The slow movement. It’s awe-inspiring in every respect. It shows Bach’s command of his material; it’s also so deeply felt. That piece just moves me to tears every time I hear it.

Ehnes: I think that would be my choice, too.

Thile: We should play it together!

Ehnes: Exactly.