Chris Thile to draw comparisons, connections between faith, spirituality

Chris Thile is no stranger to the Amphitheater stage, but today, Chautauquans will see him in a way they haven’t before.

Thile, a MacArthur Foundation “Genius” grant recipient and Grammy Award-winning mandolinist, singer and songwriter, who just performed with his band Punch Brothers Monday night on the same stage, will give his lecture at 10:45 a.m. Tuesday, Aug. 23 in the Amp. His lecture is part of Week Nine of the Chautauqua Lecture Series, “A Vibrant Tapestry: Exploring Creativity, Culture and Faith with Smithsonian Folklife Festival.”

“For me, it’s an opportunity to have a conversation,” Thile said. “I’m going to be playing some music and pontificating about music’s relationship to spiritual discourse.”

The songs he will play, all from his album Laysongs, include “Laysong,” which is about yearning for communion in a secular age; “Ecclesiastes 2:24,” which prompts discussion of  instrumental music as an enabler of spiritual reflection; “Salt (in the Wounds) of the Earth, Parts 1, 2, and 3,” which explores the potential manipulability of the religious impulse; and “Won’t You Come and Sing For Me,” about the power of sincere — and sincerely open — communion. Lyrics, when applicable, to these songs will be available at for audience members.

Thile said music is one of life’s greatest conversation starters, and likes to quote Mary Oliver: “While the man who has only questions, to comfort himself, makes music.” 

For him, it’s also a wonderful question to the religious impulses in his own life.

“Regardless of how that impulse manifests, I think it’s kind of baked into us,” Thile said. “I love thinking about it and making music about it and talking about it with other people.”

He wants his audience to leave with understanding the importance of staying in a dialogue with people who have different views or beliefs, because he said people have “lost the taste” for differences in discourse.

“In our human interaction, social media is a very popular culprit,” Thile said. “But it’s really only a tool that we’re using to construct this thing that we’ve wanted for a long time. One of our instincts is to surround ourselves with like-minded individuals and I think it’s a counterproductive instinct.”

Thile said it’s vital to be in conversation with people who you don’t necessarily agree with.

“The tough work is staying at the table with people that we might vehemently disagree with and that sort of friction is what generates positive change,” Thile said. “We’re sort of freewheeling on the bike and wondering why we’re not going anywhere.”

Music has been a part of Thile’s life from a very early age. He said he feels the same connection with music as he does with his parents, and said “it truly feels like breathing.”

As an adult, he gained the perspective of being able to sit down and analyze the reasons he loves music. 

“I’m just compelled by (music). I think that’s the real reason I’m just inexpressibly compelled to interact with music,” Thile said. “It’s a great art form. I think one of the reasons it’s so great though … is how non-dictictatorial it is as an art form.”

Thile said that music and its myriad of meanings encourages the diverse emotional and practical processes of creating music, as well as both the definitive, concrete meanings and non-definitive, abstract ones that come from music.

“It’s there because some human beings, or collection of human beings, exercising their ingenuity (and) desire to hear something that wasn’t there before,” Thile said. “I think from a very early age, that was everything.”

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The author Kaitlyn Finchler

Kaitlyn Finchler is a journalism and public relations graduate from Kent State University as of May. This will be her second summer at Chautauqua where she will cover literary arts, serving previously as the Interfaith Lecture Series preview reporter. In her free time, you can find her reading, cooking or flipping between “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Gossip Girl.” She’s most excited to see how many times she can slip the word “plethora” into her stories before Sara makes her stop again.