ATTENTION! A narrative song cycle for extroverted mandolinist and orchestra (West Coast premiere, LA Phil commission)
About this Piece
I adore orchestras. Whether scaled up for grandeur, or down for intimacy, nothing makes me prouder to be human than hearing a stage full of highly skilled orchestral musicians practicing their craft together. It’s magic, and it’s something I’ve been desperate to participate in since the early aughts, when a hero of mine, Edgar Meyer, walked me through the score of a violin concerto he wrote for another hero of mine, Hilary Hahn. In the late aughts I wrote a mandolin concerto, but after performing it quite a bit for a year or so with some truly lovely orchestras, I realized that it was basically the musical equivalent of fan fiction (like I’m tempted to rename it “Bartok meets Adés for coffee at Edgar’s”). SO, I went back to admiring orchestral music from afar, even as I continued to monitor my inner ear for something that might justify another attempt.
A year or two ago, a tantalizing text from my pal, Eric Jacobsen (“Thile, whatever you wanna do with orchestra, we can make it happen!”) prompted more pro-active monitoring and I started hearing bits of what would eventually become “ATTENTION!” I was confused at first, ‘cause these little aural visions included not just mandolin and orchestra, but singing AND talking as well. Whoa, ok…FUN. Further dreaming led to the conviction that there should be an actual STORY, not just loosely related vignettes (which has pretty much been my MO on long form pieces with vocals up to this point). But WHAT story? I’ve always loved writing songs based on short stories, so I started there, widened the search to essays, then read a bunch of plays, but every time I got excited about something, a nagging little voice (probably remembering my last orchestral piece) would say “Yeah, but why would YOU be the one to musicalize this story?” Ugh. Fair. Ok, fine then: what is a story I like to tell about something that happened to me that my friends seem to like hearing? Ah HA! THIS ONE, hands down, no contest. If you’ve ever had a couple rounds with me at a good cocktail bar, chances are I’ve trotted it out, and the thought of turning it into a piece of orchestral music got my inner ear cranking like never before. It’s a ridiculous story, but it’s 100% true, and the more I’ve worked on the telling of it, the more aware I’ve become of what a profound impact the whole experience had on me as a person who loves to make things and show them to other people.
You can find the lyrics at christhile.com/attention, but I recommend only using it when my diction isn’t up to snuff (I’m working on it, swear to God!). Now, if you’ll just give me your attention… —Chris Thile
Virginia Arts Festival/Virginia Symphony Orchestra – Lead Commissioners
Los Angeles Philharmonic
Boston Symphony Orchestra
National Symphony Orchestra at The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts