The Fretless plays fiddle tunes with hybrid vigour

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To the best of her knowledge, and ours, Ivonne Hernandez’s band the Fretless is the only one of its kind, although that’s not immediately apparent from photographs. On the surface, the group seems to be just another string quartet, with the lineup of two violins, viola, and cello that has been de rigueur for classical music for more than three centuries. But this string quartet is bent on mixing things up: although three of its four members have benefited from classical training, what really unites them is their shared passion for the fiddle music of the Celtic diaspora.

In concert—as well as on their self-titled sophomore effort, which comes out this week—this plays out in tunes that reference the high lonesome sound of the American Appalachians, the baroque complexities of Irish jigs and reels, and the percussive snap of the Cape Breton tradition. Yet Hernandez and her bandmates Trent Freeman, Karrnnel Sawitsky, and Eric Wright aren’t limited to that world-view alone: their music also encompasses Radiohead covers, the Métis fiddling of the boreal forest, the “new acoustic music” of Béla Fleck and the Punch Brothers, and, yes, even some of the classical music they learned at school. Which maybe isn’t that surprising, given that one particular classical great helped turn Hernandez on to the pleasures of folk fiddling.

“Felix Mendelssohn wrote the Symphony No. 3, the ‘Scottish’ symphony, which is basically fiddle tunes,” the 31-year-old musician recalls, on the line from her Victoria home. “But he made them way harder and fancier for violin soloist with orchestra. That was one of my favourite pieces as a kid, and I think it makes the case that folk music and classical music totally go hand in hand.”

Combine this with her innate disposition toward hybridity—her father is Chilean, while her Ontario-born mother has British roots—and it’s not surprising that by the time she was in her very early teens Hernandez was both the concertmaster of the Greater Victoria Youth Symphony and a member of folk educator Daniel Lapp’s B.C. Fiddle Orchestra. But it was during a later stint at Boston’s acclaimed Berklee College that she discovered how to fuse those interests, meeting Freeman and Wright in the process.

“Trent was a roommate—actually, there were a bunch of us fiddle players all living together—and it was fun to be in the same city, getting together and having these music parties and jamming and pushing the boundaries of the styles and the tunes that we were using and composing and playing,” she says, adding that it was during those sessions that the future Fretless players discovered the element that would set them apart from other string quartets: a deep appreciation for the groove.

“Eric is a drummer as well as a cellist, and I step-dance, and Karrnnel grew up playing for dancers,” Hernandez says. “So with the combination of all those things, rhythm is very important in the music we play. When we’re coming up with arrangements, we want to keep the groove going somehow, and we want to change it up as well.…That’s the challenge that we always give ourselves. It’s like, ‘This is extremely difficult, but we really want to try to do it.’ We’re really pushing ourselves big-time, especially on this new album.”

The Fretless plays St. James Hall on Sunday (February 9).

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