Hanneke Cassel and Mike Block visit Lawrence

In recent years, fiddle music and tradition has gained a surprising following at Lawrence. More students than ever have been joining Fiddlers of Lawrence University (FLU), a student organization that gathers every Wednesday to discuss and learn new tunes from around the world. Conservatory and college musicians are happy to find this outlet for their desire to learn new styles and pieces.

This week, FLU invited renowned fiddler Hanneke Cassel and multi-style cellist Mike Block to campus to give a series of open workshops and a concert. The concert, held Oct. 8 in Harper Hall, attracted students and professors from all areas of study as well as Appleton residents.

Cassel has found success performing at international fiddle competitions and camps for most of her life. She has a special interest in Scandinavian and Celtic fiddle traditions and strives to inspire students to learn and perform fiddle music. Block, billing himself as a multi-style cellist, plays alongside Yo-Yo Ma in the Silk Road Ensemble. He has pioneered the usage of fiddle technique on cello and is also interested in composing new music.

Part of fiddle tradition is passing tunes through the generations to make sure nothing is lost to time. In days preceding the concert, Cassel and Block held separate workshops for Lawrence string students, where they taught new techniques and songs to eager students. Many who attended those classes had never played without sheet music before.

The duo’s concert at Lawrence began with a set of jigs from Cape Breton Island, a famous haven for fiddlers. Cassel played a looping main melody while Block experimented with varying accompaniments. Many were surprised to see that Block was standing; however, he is known for inventing the Block Strap, a device that holds the cello in place and wraps around the player’s back, which allows cellists to move and dance while playing.

Next, Cassel and Block played a modern Finnish piece called “No Arpeggios,” which involved cute pizzicato and lyrical violin lines. Block incorporated pop-like rhythms into nearly every piece in a way that did not interfere with the traditional style too much. It seemed like he was interested in modernizing the music, making it more familiar-sounding for the audience.

Cassel was also given the opportunity to accompany while Block took the lead. She used a technique called chopping to create percussive sounds by dropping the bow on the strings. The two musicians worked hard to maintain eye and ear contact with each other to ensure that they never felt out-of-sync with each other.

Block performed several original compositions. Standouts included his mashup of traditional Indian music and “Where the Soul Never Dies” by Hank Williams and his own pop song “It’s Time to Dance,” before which he taught the audience how to sing certain backup lines.

Cassel and Block demonstrated comfort and flexibility on stage. None of their program was written down; they chose pieces on the fly, sometimes blending one into the next. From years traveling to perform and learn together, they have built a sense of certainty and confidence as a duet.

Cassel and Block closed the concert with a piece called “Leila’s Birthday,” a raucous celebration in Irish traditional style. Four members of FLU, who had arranged the duo’s visit to Lawrence, joined them on stage. It was a fun musical thank-you to the guests.

I have never seen a crowd smiling as brightly as this one was during the entire concert. People clapped, nodded, sang along and raised their eyebrows to tunes from many different cultures and times. Thanks to FLU for coordinating Cassel and Block’s visit and encouraging people to explore new music.