An Interview with Fretwork

The following interview was originally commissioned for Goldberg, but the demise of that publication meant that it never appeared. There was other interest, but it would have then only been published in curtailed form. The following is the original interview published here complete for the first time.

The first concert of the viol consort Fretwork at London's Wigmore Hall in 1986 announced the arrival of a remarkable new ensemble. Since then in concerts around the world and through the medium of recording, Fretwork has gone on to consolidate its place as one of the world's leading consorts, setting new standards for its performances of a wide range of repertoire, at the core of which remains the great 16th- and 17th-century English tradition. Fretwork's appearance in two concerts at the International Handel Festival in Göttingen in 2008 offered an opportunity to talk with the members of the group, which still includes three founder members, Wendy Gillespie (who has since left the consort), Richard Boothby and Richard Campbell. Also present was Susanna Pell, a long-standing member of Fretwork, and a more recent addition to the ranks, the Japanese gambist Asako Morikawa. The lively exchange that followed opened with a general question put to each player, a question that took as its basis the busy lives in music outside their work with Fretwork, several also playing other early string instruments with a variety of ensembles. In addition Wendy Gillespie, Richard Boothby and Richard Campbell are all distinguished teachers, Gillespie holding a professorship at Indiana University in her native USA, while Campbell is professor of viola da gamba at the Royal Academy of Music in London.

You’re all involved in a wide range of musical activity apart from playing in a viol consort or consorts, so I’d like to ask each of you to explain what especially attracted you to the idea of playing in a viol consort.

Wendy Gillespie: I’ve been interested in music composed for the viol for many years, probably since I was about ten. At that time I didn’t know why I liked it, but I now know that it’s because of the polyphony. I enjoy music for many equal voices conversing together and having gone through the violin and string quartet era of my life decided that’s not what violas do; they are not an equal voice in a string quartet and for me it is the polyphony that is most important. Therefore it’s the music of the 16th and 17th centuries that really speaks to me and the viol is the instrument for which a lot of that music was composed, so I decided to play it.

Richard Boothby: Yes, it was the music that also drew me to the viol in the first place. I think that’s changed slightly, because for me the instrument itself has become an important element. But, as Wendy says, the chance to play polyphony in equal parts is a great attraction and the viol is a superb instrument for that purpose, no one part dominating the others.

Susanna Pell:
Exactly the same thing. I was quite young, about the same age as Wendy, when I was first exposed to the repertoire and really loved it. I played the violin very badly, struggled with it and hated it, but adored the sound of viols. So I used to put a mute on my violin to try to make it sound like a viol. And then someone thrust a viol in my hands and that was it. It wasn’t necessarily that I was bursting to play viol consort music, but rather being keen just to play the viol. Then the first experience of playing viols in consort completely hooked me. It is an immensely satisfying experience.

Asako Morikawa:
I think in this case I might try to explain why a Japanese person should be interested in playing this music. Thirty years ago Frans Brüggen came to Japan for the first time and as my father was a great music lover he went to a concert of his and absolutely adored it. And so he started to have a recorder consort at home. At that time I was already playing the violin, and somehow my father discovered this bowed string instrument called the viol and managed to find one to give to me. So I then had to play with the recorder consort, which I sometimes enjoyed and sometimes didn’t. Then I went to music school to continue my violin studies, but there was also an early music department where I fell in love with the music I heard being played, eventually changing the direction of my studies and graduated as a viol player.

Richard Campbell:
Undoubtedly to make a fortune! It was the money and the glamour of international travel that drew me. No, the serious answer is really the same as everybody else. I think we all started playing this music on violins or cellos; as a teenager I was cellist. But the other thing that perhaps was an influence on me was having sung in church choirs and college choirs, where a lot of that sort of polyphonic music is done. Whenever you look at almost any treatise of the baroque or Renaissance, you come across the idea that the particular instrument that arouses the most interest is the one that best imitates the human voice and there is something about playing a line in a viol consort that is similar to singing a line in a choir. That’s at least part of the attraction.

At the time Fretwork was founded in 1985, anything other than occasional viol consorts were a comparative rarity. I read somewhere that the first concert was preceded by a lengthy period of study and rehearsal. It must have been quite a challenging and exhilarating time. Did you imagine that nearly a quarter of a century later you’d be sitting here talking about Fretwork?

R. B. : No, certainly not. I think at the time it seemed like an exciting, but risky venture. Not risky in an artistic sense, but it seemed fairly unlikely to succeed because the public perception of viol consorts and consort music at that time was very amateur. This was the preserve of amateurs and the repertoire was not music to play in front of the public, but music to be enjoyed by the players. In forming Fretwork it was that perception we were trying to change. I’m sure it came about because we were a group of like-minded viol players who happened to be on the scene at the same time. This made it possible; once you’ve got four or five players, you can then play the best music. The goal of bringing this music to the public was a very worthy one and worth fighting for. It did take us a long time to work out how we were going to play together and we then did an exploratory concert in Richmond, of which incidentally I happened to find a recording the other day…

R. C.
: Some of it is quite good.

R. B.
: Parts are depressingly good! I wish it were rather worse. And then we gave the Wigmore Hall concert and the rest is history.

W. G.
: Having said all of that, I think it fair to say that we would not exist were it not for our predecessor amateur consorts, some of whom were “professional” amateurs, in other words amateur in the very best sense of the word – loving what they do. And in fact the music we play was written for amateurs. There’s no denying that. It was not composed for people who made their living playing the viol. 

R. C.
: John Jenkins was an outstanding viol player.

W. G.
: But John Jenkins was not writing for professional viol players. He wrote music for people who paid him to compose for him.

R. C.
: Orlando Gibbons was probably writing for the court and William Lawes was too…

W. G.
: Yes, writing for Charles [King Charles I], the amateur viol player.

R. C.
: I think its painting too straightforward a picture to say that all viol music was composed for amateurs.

W. G.
: But the owners of the great houses who had their chests of viols were amateurs, although some of them were very, very good players, as the music tells us. But the word amateur doesn’t play well.

Unfortunately we’ve turned 'amateur' into a pejorative word, which it certainly wasn’t until at least the end of the 18th century.

R. C. :  I believe we have to make a distinction as to who the music was written for in the first instance. People like David Pinto [the noted English scholar] have been burrowing away showing there were professional string players at court and a lot of this music was written for performance at court. At the same time the reason that we have it to play today is because it was disseminated among the amateurs of the big houses. But I think it would be wrong to give the impression that the music was originally intended for a predominantly amateur market.

W. G.
:  Well, even as we speak there is a young doctoral student who is doing for the first time sociological research into the viol and its music, and who and how and where. And he’s finding tons of stuff that has not been noticed previously, so I’m really looking forward to what he has to say.  

The unique English viol consort repertoire we’ve been discussing remains at the heart of Fretwork’s activities, despite more recent moves into new territory. Although superficially restricted, the medium lasted some 150 years, an extraordinary length of time ranging from Tye to Purcell. Without getting too bogged down in such a broad topic, is it possible to summarize the reasons for this longevity?

W. G.
: I have a secret theory that it’s the climate. It comes from having lived in the UK for many years and never having to have a repair made on any viol that I owned. The climate really suits the instruments. I go off to humid places and they fall apart. I go off to dry places and they fall apart. So that’s my secret suspicion!

Well, that’s certainly a highly original answer!

R. C.
: These instruments were greatly prized at the time. It’s a delicately constructed instrument and looks as if famous makers like John Rose and Henry Jaye developed the instrument into almost a classical, archetypal form. It’s not quite as set as the violin family, which of course is much more robust. The construction is much lighter, there’s more bending of the wood, carving is much thinner and as, Wendy says, in modern centrally heated conditions and dry continental winters they do tend to fall apart.

R. B.
: There were certainly viols throughout the Reformation, which does help explain the long tradition. But also I think the amateur factor we were discussing earlier is a very big factor in keeping the instrument alive. The innately conservative nature of the aristocracy meant they tended to preserve things as they were rather than run to a newly fashionable instrument like the violin. They did that as well, but during the 17th century you do get the strong impression that the tradition was preserved by the big country houses, finding entertainment in the music they collected, playing together or indeed on their own. I think that’s something other countries did not have, neither did they have the tradition, which by the start of the 17th century was already weighty.

During the 17th century could we also say that perhaps the Civil War was a factor in that people were often restricted to home entertainment?

R. B.
: Well, Cromwell himself was a great lover of viols.

R. C.
: Yes, but I also suspect that unfortunately the Civil War, the Restoration in 1660 to some extent and the Great Fire of London all played a part in the eventual demise of consort playing. Not the viol itself, which of course in the case of the bass viol survived as a solo instrument, but consort playing. For example, it’s interesting to speculate on how many instruments were lost in the Great Fire.

W. G.
: I think in considering the longevity of the viol consort, we’re forgetting the part played by strong musical tradition at the universities, especially Oxford and Cambridge, where you may not have gone to the musical schools especially to study the viol, but you would have certainly have played it in the clubs associated with the universities.

It is interesting that your answers have concentrated almost entirely on the instrument itself. One thing that always strikes me is that relatively little is made of the difference between 16th- and 17th-century viols. I noted at your concert last night that whereas some of you used the same instrument in the second, 17th-century half of it, others didn’t. Just how important is it and how much difference does it make to a listener to play, say, Tye on a 16th-century instrument and Purcell on a 17th-century one?

R. C.
: The topic is a minefield!

S. P.
: We certainly have two sets of instruments: Italian for the 16th-century Italian repertoire and English viols for English music. The Italian repertoire we play actually comes from earlier than the instruments we use, because there are no surviving Italian instruments from the first part of the century. Some makers have experimented with constructing very early instruments from iconographical evidence, but the copies we use are all based on surviving instruments. The major difference is that the earlier instruments we have don’t have sound posts, although I don’t think the presence of a sound post changes the fundamental sound of the instrument. The maker and I experimented by adding a sound post to my Renaissance viol and the sole difference was that sound post boosted the volume of the bass.

This rather ties in with what I understand, which is that early instruments without sound posts have a slightly lighter sound.

S. P.
: Yes, but only in the bass; that doesn’t apply to the upper register.

R. B.
: I think what we do find is that the early Renaissance instruments articulate the more complex polyphony of the early 16th century rather better than the thicker later viols. It’s rather similar to taking 7-string French viols of the 17th century and playing English music on them. The sound you get is too big and too rich, therefore losing the clarity. Let’s take that another step further back and you get even greater clarity from the Renaissance viols. But I don’t think it’s a straightforward thing.

W. G.
: It becomes even less straightforward when you realise that our particular set of Renaissance viols sounds nothing like any other set of Renaissance viols!  There are just so many wild cards in all of this.

S. P.
: It’s also important to add that the clarity in polyphonic writing is greatly aided by the use of gut strings, which we use whenever possible for the consort repertoire. Of course, if we’re doing solo pieces in the same concert that require wound strings there has to be a certain degree of compromise.

W. G.
: As Zan [Susanna Pell’s nickname] says, stringing is hugely important to the sound; the difference between a gut string and a wound string is enormous in terms of the overtones, in terms of the “speaking” of the instrument and all kinds of other things.

One aspect of consort playing that intrigues me and I’m sure many others is the question of improvised division playing within the context of consort playing. Do you have to work out between you beforehand how any divisions are introduced, or are there little nods and winks to say “I’m going off on a bit of extemporization”?

R. B.
: Yes – I’m off on a trip and I’ll be back in 25 bars time… You’d better ask Wendy about it – she does all the divisions [as the treble or top line player].

W. G. 
: It’s a wonderful game, but of course it’s not like jazz where everybody stops and someone goes off on their own…

No, no, we were exaggerating; it is the fact that you have to play divisions from within an ensemble that makes it fascinating.

W. G. 
: Yes, it’s within a context and the question of just how much do you add to the existing music is one I’ve been asking myself for years. That’s one question. Are there any rules? There are certainly places like division charts you can go to find ornamentation. They go way back to 1532, but does an Italian one apply to English music and does an English one apply only to English music or does it apply to dance music and so on and so forth. Certain kinds of repertoire particularly suggest additions.

I imagine that binary form dance movements are a particular case – there you get the chance to add ornamentation on repeats.

W. G.
: Absolutely. But where does it say you do it the second time around, on repeats? You play the same dance nine million times and you only add divisions on repeats, the first time you only play the notes. Where does it say that? These are the things that make you say: “Wait a minute. Why are we doing it this way?”.

R. B.
: This spills over to the question of ornamentation in general, not just divisions. If you look at any keyboard work from the time of Byrd or Gibbons it is peppered with ornamentation. When we were making the Gibbons disc we started trying to do that, but it quickly became irritating. The fact is we simply don’t know how consort music was played – there is almost no information at all. Which seems odd, because it is such a big repertoire, yet nobody said anything about it. We don’t know if ornamentation was used in the same way as it was with keyboard music and it is not just the case of ornamentation being used in harpsichord music to sustain notes, because it is equally there in organ music. So it was as much a style as anything else and it could be that consort music of the late 16th and early 17th centuries should be as ornamented as the keyboard music.

W. G.
: Having said that, ornamentation is described as gracing music: playing loud and soft, slurring notes. There are very few slurs in consort music and very few indications of dynamics. It’s like all early music – the earlier you get, the less information you get. So I guess we tend to experiment with all the things we’ve mentioned, but not so many people, including us, have really grappled with the many problems surrounding ornamentation.

S. P.
: Going back to the question of amateur performance, when you’re playing for fun it doesn’t matter what you do, but it’s a very different matter preparing for a performance in front of an audience, and of course even more so when you’re making a recording.

R. C.
: There’s a whole grey area that we have no idea about. We just propose ideas. As Wendy was saying about slurring, the tradition has been to play all consort music with separate notes, without questions. Now we’re beginning to say to ourselves that slurring seems like an obvious thing to do with a string instrument. Why don’t we try playing two, three or even four notes under one bow stroke?

That leads on to the question of whether or not you’re aware of an evolution in Fretwork’s style over the years. You’ve just touched on something that could mark such a change or future change. 

R. B.
: Well, we’re into all the kinds of things we’ve been discussing, but personally I wouldn’t be aware of any differences.

W. G. :
I would say that questions of tuning and temperament still remain at an evolutionary stage, but for the sound of the ensemble has changed enormously over the past 20 years or so. I attribute that in large part to contemporary music.

I’d like to come back to that in a moment if I may, but staying with the sound and style of ensembles, there are three of you [Wendy Gillespie, Susanna Pell and Asako Morikawa] who do or have also played with Phantasm, a viol consort that has a very different and distinctive approach. Indeed, you are a founder member, Wendy. Given that you’re often playing the same music, how do you move between such very contrasted styles. Do you ever find yourself doing a double take and think, “Heavens, I’m playing with Fretwork now, not Phantasm?”.

W. G.
: I suppose after 15 years of playing with both, it’s a little easier to shift gears these days. At first it was extremely demanding, but also over the years, because both ensembles are small, little things have crossed over from one to the other. But, yes, they are very different in approach in everything. I like to think it keeps me young!

R. C.
: Going back to the years before Fretwork both Wendy and I were also members of the Dowland Consort, which was then predominantly a viol consort, although like Phantasm it had a director [Jakob Lindberg] and I found it very different playing in the two groups.

I always get the impression that Fretwork is an entirely democratic group…

R. C. Dangerously so!

… Does anyone claim leadership?

R. C. : If they did they’d be jumped on immediately!

A. M.
: The major difference is that as you say Fretwork is a democratic ensemble, whereas Phantasm has a director [Lawrence Dreyfus]. For me playing with Phantasm is a completely different way of making music, but I found it quite easy to adjust. You don’t react in the same way, so that what comes out is very different. I must add, though, that I find the way in which Wendy makes the change very impressive.

I get the strong feeling that there are those present who can’t wait to move onto the subject of Fretwork’s involvement with contemporary music…

R. B. :
You’d better speak to Wendy about that!

I had the distinct impression that it is you who are the driving force behind this side of Fretwork.

R. B.
Yes, I was being facetious.

There must be many people who would find the idea of ensemble based on an archaic instrument like the viol
not only playing contemporary music, but also commissioning new works somewhat anachronistic. Can you define the importance of new music to Fretwork?

R. B. : I hope I’m not exaggerating the importance if I say that had Fretwork not played new music, I don’t think it would now be in existence. Contemporary music has given us a sort of vitality, both to the group and the reception of the group that would otherwise be lacking. For example, in the past 20 years we’ve recorded all the best consort music. The contemporary music angle gives us never ending possibilities for new repertoire. That doesn’t mean we’ve exhausted the standard repertoire and we’ve really only recently started to explore early 16th-century music in Italy and Germany, but in terms of the public perception of the group contemporary music locks into a whole new audience that is not only intrigued by the idea of new music for old instruments, but is also interested in what these composers are trying to communicate.

But the new music is often linked to old music, isn’t it? As for example in the case of the Agricola pieces composed by Fabrice Fitch 
[harmonia mundi HMU 907421]

R. B.
: Yes, sometimes. Things like the Purcell commissions were ostensibly linked to Purcell, although the links were often rather tenuous.

R. C.
: I think we tend to come back more frequently to the pieces that don’t have direct quotations, like the Poul Ruders Second Set of Changes [1994].

Just how much of the new music you play do you find yourselves returning to?

W. G. : I suppose about half in the case of the Purcell commissions.

R. B. :
They were somewhat unusual in that we didn’t have much control over of it. We chose some of the composers, but the South Bank Centre [who commissioned the pieces] chose the others. But of the other commissions, we still play almost all of them and some of them have been performed many times.

Do you find that composers have to come to you for technical advice about how to write for the viol?

W. G. :  We hope so!

R. C.
: The other point to make is that we didn’t really go looking for contemporary music to start with. It all started with George Benjamin [the British composer] coming to us because he heard us playing Byrd. So our first brush with modernism was George wanting to write for us and he wrote a very challenging piece that I think we now play pretty well, better with a conductor than without. In the early days I personally found it pretty dispiriting experience trying to meet the challenge.

W. B. :
Sometimes it does take us quite a long time to get to understand and like the music. But I do think it broadens our horizons a lot, because whatever contemporary music is, it certainly isn’t a single style. From Michael Nyman to Fabrice Fitch, you couldn’t get a wider diversity; some of the music is very populist, while other works are much more recondite and more difficult to get into to.

Fretwork’s most recently issued CD, “Birds on Fire” is another intriguing example of combining old and new music. I believe it includes music by Jewish musician families at the court of Henry VIII – the Bassanos and Lupos, but also the title piece, which is by Orlando Gough. Would you like to tell us something about it?

R. B. The idea emanated from a concert promoter in New York, who came up with this suggestion of Jewish musicians at Henry VIII’s court. This was something I was only dimly aware of, so we did a bit of research and decided that while the music of Bassano was very good, we didn’t really feel he had enough for a whole evening’s programme. One suggestion that came up was that we tied it in with Orlando’s Birds on Fire, a piece he’d already written for us and which is based on a Jewish theme, a novel called Badenheim 1939 by Aaron Appelfeld. It involves a story in which the Jewish musicians in the town of Badenheim start off by playing schmaltzy Viennese dance music, but eventually allow their Jewish consciousness to emerge and two klesma tunes come out of this dance music. It’s a very powerful piece and a very moving piece, too. So it was this that really capped the programme and brought the story of the Jewish musicians coming to England in the 16th century right to the 20th century.

There’s perhaps just time for a final question. In addition to the various aspects of your work we’ve already discussed, you’ve also frequently worked with singers, as indeed you are here in Göttingen with alto Michael Chance. How much adjustment do you have to make to accommodate a vocalist? I’m thinking particularly of music like the Byrd consort songs, where the singer is so closely integrated into the contrapuntal instrumental texture as to almost become an additional member of the ensemble.

R. C. : I would say that nearly all the singers we’ve worked with have very high class minds and are especially good with texts. We first performed with Michael in Göttingen more than ten years ago and there’s nobody quite like him for selling a text to an audience, especially and English text. And that’s the thing singers have that we don’t – the text. English 16th- and 17th-century texts are so beautiful and it really makes those songs work if someone is thinking through the text.

R. B. 
: It’s interesting that in the past when we’ve worked with singers who lack that ability, it’s very noticeable when you realise a singer is not connecting with the audience in that way. But recently we’ve been very fortunate with Michael, Emma [Kirkby] and with Clare Wilkinson.

For me one of the most remarkable features of the interview is the refreshingly unusual degree of flexibility and pragmatism among the members of an ensemble long established as a providing a benchmark in its field. After long years of experience nothing is taken for granted. Everything is up for questioning. It is surely this questing spirit that will ensure that Fretwork remains one of the true ornaments of the British early music scene.

Since this interview was posted Richard Campbell died tragically in March 2011 at the age of 55. Wendy Gillespie left the ensemble not long after the interview took place.







 Set of Changes, for 4 viols 1994