Chamberfest: The Fretless are plucking at their Celtic heartstrings

The Fretless are: Trent Freeman, Ben Plotnick, Eric Wright and Karrnnel Sawitsky.

Ottawa’s Chamberfest embraces all kinds of music played on stringed instruments and that includes the kind of traditional Celtic tunes that are delivered by the four members of The Fretless.

That fact that he’s playing his fiddle (and viola) in the world’s largest chamber music festival has one of the band’s founders, Trent Freeman, full of anticipation for the band’s Chamberfringe show on Sunday. They are also on the bill of a 25th Chamberfest anniversary mash-up at Dominion-Chalmers earlier in the evening.

Freeman is one of the founders of the quartet that also includes Karrnnel Sawitsky (violin/viola), Eric Wright (cello) and the newest member Ben Plotnick (violin/viola). Three violins, occasional violas and a cello … sounds like the makings of a string quartet …

“It is fun for us because the chamber world does hold itself to a high standard. We feel we do as well, we’re just not in the traditional classical music world. But the way we arrange, write and perform. We feel we have the same intent in our ensemble playing, that a classical quartet would strive for,” said Freeman.

The Fretless began in 2012 and they’ve been a rising force in Canadian fiddle music ever since.

“The intention was to grab all of our influences from Celtic music, bluegrass music, classical and jazz and synthesize them into a folk quartet. The arrangements were the fodder for all of that. It is where the ensemble work shines,” Freeman said.

“We made that the focus of our first record Waterbound and dove into that idea.” They built on that with the JUNO winning CD Bird’s Nest.

The four members of The Fretless all come from varied musical backgrounds. In Freeman’s case, it was “a bit of everything, honestly. I did a year of orchestral performance at UBC before I was basically kicked out of the program. I tried my hardest, but I joined an Irish pub band about two months into first year. It was touring every weekend and I just missed a lot of school.”

Undeterred, however, Freeman tried school again, this time enrolling in the Berklee College of Music where he studied jazz. That’s where he met Eric Wright.

Despite this varied training, Freeman said The Fretless are firmly fixed today in the world of Celtic music, something that has been solidified by that latest album Live from the Art Farm which was recorded in a barn in New York State before a small audience.

“We picked the music for the album by sorting through and looking at favourite tunes that we grew up playing. It’s a mix of songs that have made it from Ireland to Canada.” The sorting took a month, he said. A couple of weeks of intense writing and arranging sealed the deal.

Songs such as The Dawning of the Day were arranged and upgraded with an idea of producing a finished product that’s community-oriented … all to played for a good time, he said.

This musical space, Freeman said, “has become a world we all fit into quite nicely. The Celtic influence is the most common influence in our (musical) histories.

“To me our music is about a couple of things: To be continually trying something new and to be experimenting with the sound we can create with our instruments and with people we playing with. We are working towards a new sound that hasn’t been heard before. The other thing is to bring that energy of innovation onto the stage.

“Although our arrangements are quite tight and thought out, we leave a lot of room for improvisation and for stretching ourselves. Keeping that energy on stage, so that it is not just a rehearsed performance, but one where you are watching the creation of something.”

The Fretless are making serious music, but do people believe them?

“People know us now and they understand what The Fretless sound is like and they come to us for that sound. But there is the fact that we are sort of too much of a pub band for the classical world and too classical for a pub. It has taken awhile for us to carve out the sound.”

That makes this first ever appearance at Chamberfest so exciting for The Fretless, Freeman said.

“We are really excited about it. One of our members, Ben Plotnick, even has connections to Canadian classical world. His parents are in the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra. And he played viola in orchestras growing up. He also went to jazz school at Humber College.”

All the band members have other gigs: “When I’m home in Vancouver I end up playing in the local scene. Eric and I have an electronic band together. Ben is involved in an indie folk band and Karrnnel is releasing his own record.” But The Fretless “is the main project for all of us.”

Next on the horizon is a CD project that will involve some vocalists, he said.

“We like being a back up band as well so in the future we are looking at working with some guest singers.”

The Fretless at Chamberfringe
Where: La Nouvelle Scène Gilles Desjardins, 333 King Edward Ave.
When: July 29 at 10 p.m.
Tickets and information:

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.