I sat in on an hourlong master class recently with mandolin virtuoso Chris Thile because my 15-year-old musician son had a school conflict and couldn’t make it. (Someone had to do it!) About five minutes into Thile’s funny, intimate and totally revved up pre-concert talk about what gets him jazzed about music — what makes him really want to bro down with the work, as he put it — I realized I should take notes not just for my son but for all my creative pals.
Here are some Thile-isms, fresh from the mouth of a current MacArthur Genius. Thanks to the Music Lab at Jefferson Center’s Dylan Locke, who let me sit in on the talk and who elevates everything he touches — by making sure the musicians passing through Roanoke pause to pass some of what they know on to our kids.
Sincerity has to be foremost in any creation. Which explains the meteoric rise of Adele: She may have a stunning voice, but her music is technically and artistically meh. What Adele provides in spades is what people crave most these days, Thile said — the fact that she’s “a shining beacon of sincerity.”
In an age where friends gather only to spend half the time talking/texting to people who aren’t in the room, the Adele phenomenon is a symptom of the “huge gaping hole in our society of human connection,” he said. Asked to name musical examples of the intersection of sincerity and virtuosity, Thile raved about The Beatles and Radiohead.
And then, in an astonishing display of singing, mandolin-playing and mile-a-minute talking, he was kind enough to break down what works about one Radiohead tune here in a nine-minute riff. (Thanks to Tom Landon for recording/editing/uploading it to youtube for me.)
Writing takeaway: Readers crave connection. Find the stories that are equal parts head and heart.
Study the work of others, always asking: Why does this piece work? Or why exactly do I hate this piece? Sometimes you don’t like something because it challenges you, and that honest self-reflection can lead to challenging new insights about your own process. Articulating why you love/hate a piece of music will help develop the sound of you.
Writing takeaway: When something wows you, read it again and again until you really know it. Go the extra step of articulating why that combination of words/sentences/observations/rhythm works for you. As the journalist Pete Hammill once said: Study the work the way a magician susses out a new trick. Figure out: How did he saw that man in half?
Develop your own voice, even if it means initially just imitating the people you admire, said Thile, who later played every note of Bach’s “Sonata No. 2 in A Minor” without a piece of sheet music. (He’s been studying Bach half his life, according to my colleague Tad Dickens, who wrote a fabulous review of his concert that night.) “You’re the only person in the world who likes the combination of things you that you like,” Thile told the students.
Imitate the works you love but with the goal of striving for something that’s brand new. “If you pay attention, you can figure out where you might take the music, where you can change the moment and go your own way with it. It’ll get so you’ll hear this thing, and you wish that something else was there instead — then, go write that thing.”
Writing takeaway: Originality can transpire from copying the masters, obsessing over the work and debating it with your friends. Develop a passion for it, in other words, because it’s important, and you love it, and you can’t imagine doing anything else. Try to be brave enough to give the masters a nod while at the same time taking the work in your own direction.
What works for Thile may not necessary work for others, though. How had Thile, at just 32, managed to develop such confidence in his process, I wondered? I didn’t get the opportunity to ask, but fortunately Thile was in town the same time another creative genius was all over the news. Canadian short story writer Alice Munro seemed genuinely shocked when an NPR reporter called to ask her what it felt like to win the Nobel Prize in Literature.
Often compared to Chekhov, Munro maps the complexities of rural women in Canada, exploring how they cope with the quotidian of “food and mess and houses.” The story sent me to a Paris Review interview, in which Munro explained that she studied Southern women writers like Eudora Welty and Carson McCullers because they gave her the idea that it was OK to write about women who lead marginalized, small-town lives.
Damn what’s fashionable, write about what you know, all the while protecting your own creative space. “When you live in a small town you hear more things, about all sorts of people,” Munro told her interviewers. “In a city you mainly hear stories about your own sort of people.” Munro ended up creating a territory uniquely her own, and she stuck by it in her own quiet, persistent way.
Unlike Thile, Munro spent more of her career steering clear of the New York literati and does not bro down often with her writer brethren. She told one interviewer that it would have intimidated and, ultimately, distracted her. Instead, she found her own quiet path down a country road, far from Thile’s hipster Brooklyn scene.
Writing takeaway: Both geniuses found their unique pathway into the pantheon of artistic genius. They never try to write, sound or act like anyone other than who they actually are.