Punch Brothers Residency

From the Oberlin Review:

            They’re a bluegrass band that has covered Radiohead, was on The Hunger Games soundtrack, write involved compositions within a roots vein, listen to classical music, and the guitarist, Chris Eldridge ’04, is an Oberlin alum. All of which makes Punch Brothers a unique band, one perfectly fitted to be Oberlin’s first artists-in-residence under the American Roots Residency Fund, which was established by comedian Ed Helms ’96. They “reflect everything we want to instill in you [students],” said Acting Dean of the Conservatory Andrea Kalyn when introducing the band before a Q&A session.

            From Dec. 2-4, the Punch Brothers lurked the halls of the Conservatory in their customary folksy garb of thick wools, plaids, patterned socks, jeans, and tousled hair, their speech peppered with “y’all’s.” They began their residency with a master class on Monday in the David H. Stull Recital Hall, coaching Mozart’s String Quartet in g minor, K. 387. What does a bluegrass band have to say to a string quartet? The band actually has quite a background in classical music: Thile has recorded an album of Bach works, bassist Paul Kowert attended the prestigious Curtis Institute of Music, and their music is often as complexly structured as classical. In their master class, they emphasized ensemble communication and connecting to an audience. The class was followed by a presentation on “Developing and Executing Artistic Vision” and an informal Q&A session. The day ended with the members of the band coaching student Performance and Improvisation ensembles.

            On Tuesday in Clonick Hall, Dean Kalyn moderated a Q&A session on entrepreneurship and professional development. The band-members’ encompassing and thoughtful minds were on display as they offered advice to young musicians, while managing to mention reclusive pianist Glenn Gould, twelve-tone composer Milton Babbitt, and indie band Grizzly Bear. Banjoist Noam Pikelny cautioned that “you can’t make a career doing just one thing anymore,” while Thile suggested musicians to “fanatically adhere to the construction of your vision, what you would like to be.” They also discussed their origins (“The idea was to fall down the rabbit hole of fiddle tunes”), their philosophies on music (“The really important music that gets made is genreless”), and the importance of live performance.

            After more coachings, the band led an open jam session in the Conservatory Lounge. While people spilled into adjoining hallways, craning to see over the heads of others, Thile called out songs and keys, letting anyone with an instrument join in. And there were a lot of instruments: accordion, bass, violin, keyboard, trombone, trumpet, guitar, percussion, flute, slide whistle, and even harp. The good-natured, welcoming Punch Brothers seemed to relish creating music with so many people, Thile pointing at students to take solos and leading sing-alongs. A more genuine, warm-hearted experience couldn’t be asked for.

            The band treated observers to a glimpse inside their creative process on Wednesday, in a “Collaborative Composition Workshop,” again in Stull Hall. They explained that, when composing as a group, one member brings an unfinished, open-ended idea that is then developed as a group. Demonstrating this with a simple riff, the band played it a few times, tentatively improvising around it. Soon they began offering suggestions of places to go with the lick, then trying them out. “We throw spaghetti at the wall and see what sticks,” Thile said. Interrupting their noodling periodically to explicate their thought process, they referenced Haydn, Jimi Hendrix, and R&B, while attempting to capture what they look for in a composition. Their playing was interspersed by burst of childish excitement, a great illustration of the band’s delight music. Metaphors comparing the composition process to a riddle, hypothesis, logic, and philosophy were thrown around, but in the end they admitted, “in other words, we don’t know what works.” Yet watching them take student feedback, trot out ideas, and explore the possibilities of their lick certainly gave the impression that they more than know what they’re doing.

            Later on Wednesday was “Improv Boot Camp,” where students could bring an instrument and learn to improvise. The residency ended with a reception in the Conservatory Lounge, where the Punch Brothers displayed their laid-back friendliness as they conversed with students, genuinely interested in interacting with them.

Where else but Oberlin could you observe a phenomenally talented band’s creative process, receive advice from them, absorb their fascinating thoughts on music, and jam with them? The Punch Brothers residency is a fantastic tool and experience for young musicians, especially such creative ones as are found at Oberlin. And luckily, the Brothers return in March for a continuation of their residency and to perform in Finney Chapel. Don’t miss it.

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