The indefinitely defunct bluegrass trio Nickel Creek released three albums before splitting up, each raising the stakes of the previous until the masterful Why Should the Fire Die? wowed in its ability to encapsulate the group’s inimitable sound. A good portion of what got critics and the general public enthralled about that record, as well as the two preceding it, was the fact that the aggregate age of the people involved added up to the expected age of a traditional bluegrass musician. At the time of the release of its self-titled debut LP, fiddle player Sara Watkins and mandolin speedster Chris Thile were but 19, with guitarist Sean Watkins beating them only by four years. It was, and in some ways still is, difficult for purists to imagine that the three behind the blistering rendition of the standard “The Fox” is the work of three people for whom high school was not far behind.
The age-to-talent ratio is indeed unexpected at first for Thile and the Watkinses. Yet with tags like “newgrass” and “progressive bluegrass”, critics manufactured an absurd discussion about whether or not the trio was bastardizing or unnecessarily manipulating the hallmarks features of bluegrass. It would be a straw man to say that some believe the genre should remain in the folds of the Appalachia, but it’s easy to sense a feeling somewhere in that vicinity from those who too liberally invoke tags like “purism” in discussion about the trio’s sonic. Sure, the average bluegrass band isn’t going to go to the Pavement catalogue when considering covers, but Nickel Creek’s youth—as well as its reference points to the present—don’t make it oppositional to the goals of bluegrass writ large. Like any other genre, bluegrass evolves; fortunately, with groups like Nickel Creek—and Thile’s new venture Punch Brothers—it’s evolving without shedding all the things that make it what it is. Bluegrass—along with traditional country music—may more commonly invoke images of old bearded men singing rootsy songs, but it has the ability to tell stories whose borders span wider than the heartland.
Any generational scruples with the stylings of Nickel Creek and its members are utterly undone, however, with what Thile has done with Bach: Sonatas and Partitas, Vol. 1. The title says it all—though, of course, anyone not privy to Johann Sebastian Bach’s oeuvre will be in need of some information about the pieces themselves: this album features Thile taking three Bach pieces written for solo violin and performing them on mandolin. There is no “hipster” revisionism or gauche fret noodling to be found here. These are practiced, meticulous, and highly orthodox performances, ones that would be impressive for someone twice Thile’s age. The prodigious instrumentation here is unsurprising; after all, this is a guy who released a solo album at 13 on what is arguably the Americana label in the United States. What is surprising is just how masterfully Thile retains his commanding, unique voice on the mandolin whilst also capturing the Baroque voice of Bach. Art music poses a challenge unlike anything Thile has faced before, one that would undo most equally ambitious composers of his ilk.
This challenge is multi-layered; even beyond the technical skill required to play these pieces on the mandolin is the basic problem that arises by choosing to perform these pieces on an instrument different from the intended one. Every instrument has its own unique timbre, and stringed instruments though they are, the mandolin and the violin arouse often disparate sentiments. The sweeping, majestic quality of a violin, whether solo or in an ensemble, is broad and panoramic. In sharp contrast, the sound of a mandolin is intimate—a feature Thile uses in exactly the right fashion in these pieces—which means as these Bach pieces switch instrumental hands, so does the very nature of the music. The Sonata in G minor is an excellent case study to this point: when played by violin, it has a dark, almost sad air, but Thile’s performance is quite romantic, still maintaining that somber, minor key brood while utilizing the inherent charm of a mandolin to keep up a subtle brightness. Thile’s selection of pieces is wise, as they all work as perfect corollaries to the dynamic abilities of his instrument. Quiet passages—especially in the Adagio movement of the G minor Sonata and the Andante of the A minor Sonata—are really quiet when a mandolin is involved. This naturally makes the passages of relative volume, such as the breathtakingly dexterous opening to the Presto of the G minor Sonata, all the more powerful.
“Let’s sum up the issue in simplest terms,” Jeremy Denk writes in his charming, informed essay included in the booklet for Bach: Sonatas and Partitas, Vol. 1. “The violin is a melody instrument, normally accompanied by a faithful continuo. But in these sonatas and partitas … the backup band has failed to show up. Who will lay down the harmonies? It’s a nightmare scenario.” Clocking in at just about an hour, Sonatas and Partitas is (somewhat) as daunting for the listener as it was for Thile to arrange and perform. Even the most ardent of mandolin or Thile enthusiasts will find that listening to this involves a level of attentiveness far from casual. But for those willing to take the dive, this LP will prove to be a wonderfully defamiliarizing experience, both for the bluegrass and the art music fan. Upon hearing the opening notes of the G minor Sonata, one’s mind goes to Thile’s past in bluegrass; his identity as a world-class mandolinist is inextricably linked with it. The music that follows, however, is just as fit for a rustic country cabin as it is any of the great concert halls. As critics continue to chart the progression of genres, especially ones that seem to be rooted in a particular time and ethos, guys like Chris Thile will always be around, throwing a wrench in their neatly defined categories. Sometimes, age really is just a number.