I watched this documentary about the Punch Brothers on Netflix Instant. Been a long-time fine of mandolin virtuoso Chris Thile, back to his Nickel Creek days.

I was struck by a comment from one of his bandmates, all of whom are excellent string musicians in their own right. He wants them to be perceived as a band -- not as a Chris Thile side project -- which means that they're not just playing "staggering" Chris Thile compositions (in one of the player's words) but all creating something as a unit.

Watching this film, I got the impression that Thile -- who his bandmates recognize as a musical genius -- both wants to be pulled down to earth by collaborating with excellent musicians, and is in a world of his own, in which he writes beautiful, complex arrangements that even his bandmates couldn't compose. The Punch Brothers would not exist without him, yet he desperately wants a sense of brotherhood, not just to be a singularly brilliant mandolinist who is "backed up" by instrumentalists at the top of their game.

His bandmates regularly talked about how grateful they were to be part of Punch Brothers and that they wanted to make the most of it, because they didn't know how long it would last. After all, Chris could move on to some other project that fancied him. I sensed some "security fear" -- it's difficult to make a living as a musician even if you're great at your craft -- and also a feeling that this moment -- in which five guys are at the bleeding edge of contemporary string music -- could end at any time.

The film is structured around the Punch Brothers' performance of all four movements of The Blind Leaving the Blind, which is exciting but not terribly accessible music (if you're a fan of simple bluegrass song structures). I would recommend this film if you're a fan of challenging string music and/or Chris Thile, or if you want to understand the dynamics of a growing band.


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By Jeffrey Kishner, Thursday, July 11, 2013 at 9:16 AM.