By Greg Cahill | From the July-August 2023 issue of Strings Magazine
The Boston Globe has described fiddler Hanneke Cassel’s playing as “exuberant and rhythmic, somehow wild and innocent, delivered with captivating melodic clarity and an irresistible playfulness.” You can hear that joy on “Evacuation Day,” from her new album Infinite Brightness.
This Port Orford, Oregon, native—a two-time Junior Scottish Fiddling Champion between 1992 and 1994—has fused Scottish fiddle with the styles of Cape Breton Island, the Isle of Skye, and America’s Appalachia region. Cassel resides in Somerville, Massachusetts, with her husband, cellist Mike Block, and their daughter. She holds a degree in violin performance from Berklee College of Music, but Cassel honed her craft at Alasdair Fraser’s Valley of the Moon Scottish Fiddling School in Northern California. She now instructs regularly at Fraser’s music camps, as well as at the Mike Block String Camp, Harald Haugaard’s International Fiddle School, West Denmark Fiddle School, and the Live Oak Fiddle Camp. She is an avid supporter of Up with Music, a community strings program based in Lawrence, Massachusetts, which provides musical training for underprivileged and at-risk youth.
She plays a 1999 fiddle made by Bob Childs of Arlington, Massachusetts, with D’Addario Vivo strings, and uses a Thomas Dignan bow.
Strings asked Cassel about the recording of Infinite Brightness, her band, and how fiddle camps helped to shape her as an artist.
You came up through the tight-knit community that formed around fiddle camps like the Valley of the Moon. What was that experience like?
I went to Valley of the Moon for the first time when I was 16 and was just beginning to realize I wanted to play music as a lifetime thing, as a profession. Valley of the Moon was really instrumental in giving me confidence musically but also socially and emotionally at that moment in life. I didn’t love high school, and the experience of being with other teenagers who all fiddled and stayed up jamming and had to practice, like me, and everything was so life changing. To this day, I still teach at a ton of camps, and they are the most special weeks of my year.
How did this project come together?
I had been thinking about a new album in 2020 and had some gigs booked with cellist Tristan Clarridge and guitarist Keith Murphy to start working through new original tunes. All of that got canceled or postponed. During the pandemic, I ended up writing even more tunes and started playing gigs with fiddler Jenna Moynihan, who lived close by—a silver lining of the pandemic was finding opportunities to play with people who lived in my own community and town. As things started loosening up, it felt like the right time to make this new album, and I got excited about the idea of playing with both Jenna and Tristan, along with Keith, who co-produced the album, and another neighbor during the pandemic, guitarist Yann Falquet.
To what does “infinite brightness” refer?
Infinite brightness is a phrase from a book by [German-Dutch cleric of the late-medieval period] Thomas à Kempis that is used to describe the state after dying—afterlife.
How do you see the role of the fiddler in modern society?
Fiddlers and musicians have always been around to help create and facilitate joyful moments—and to help express sadness and hardship. Nothing is different about that in modern society. The fiddle community has helped me through many big life changes and events.
How did the pandemic impact the planning or execution of the album?
The originally planned album got postponed, and by the time I made it, more life experiences—including some very hard losses—occurred, and those things all changed the content and vibe of the album. New musical partnerships—those with Jenna and Yann—were formed during the pandemic. I also had a chance to learn a little more about Guilford Sound, the [Vermont] studio where I recorded, and that addition to the project, along with engineer Dave Sinko, really added something special.
There are a lot of tight fiddle passages on the album. Tell me about the camaraderie between you, Jenna, and Tristan.
I am friends with both of them from slightly different fiddle communities, and it was really fun to work and hang with them together. They are both phenomenal musicians, and I appreciate that they both have Celtic and Americana influences in their playing and experiences.
What was the songwriting and song selection process like?
I had several tunes I had written over the past few years as commissions to raise money for a children’s organization called Many Hopes. These tunes were mostly celebratory pieces: wedding, anniversary, birthday presents. As I was putting together the album, it felt important to include some of these tunes along with several tunes I had written that were laments for close friends of mine who died. Coming out of the pandemic, it felt like we had all lost so much—loss of physical life and also loss of community, gathering, and so on. I think these tunes were written about all of those things.
I get the impression from this joyful music that you are on a mission not just to entertain but to uplift people’s spirits. Is that correct?
Hmmm… I think it’s usually a mission to uplift my spirits, but I do really love people having a good time. So much of Scottish music is about that, about people partying and dancing and laughing. That’s why I love it.