BLOCK4 are an acclaimed London-based recorder quartet made up of Emily Bannister, Lucy Carr, Katie Cowling, and Rosie Land. They perform music from a impressively diverse range of genres in a truly diverse range of settings, and we were delighted when they agreed to do an interview for this issue!
Can you tell us about the story behind your name?
Firstly, we decided we wanted to have a short name that was catchy and easy to remember. As we play both modern and early music we wanted something that would fit both genres. We had lots of ideas flying around, and the word blockflöte (‘recorder’ in German) came up. So we shortened it to BLOCK and as there are four of us, there came BLOCK4.
You're currently Ensemble-in-Residence at Handel & Hendrix (formerly Handel House) where you've been performing programmes including music by both Handel and Hendrix. Can you tell us a bit more about how you programme both contemporary and early works?
We think that it’s important to bridge the gap between early and contemporary music. We have to remember that when ‘early music’ was written, it was contemporary for its day and challenged audiences as new music does today. Without early music, contemporary music couldn’t exist!
As with any programme, we try to put together works that complement each other, and this often leads to using ‘transitions’ between pieces to surprise audiences and truly combine music. Importantly, we find that audiences enjoy the combination of styles, and are sometimes surprised by what they like!
Can you describe some of your collaborative processes in working with composers?
We’re fortunate to have worked with a great many up-and-coming composers. In 2015 we were involved with the 840 concert series, working with 5 composers to create brand-new works. Last year we worked with 3 composers on the Handel & Hendrix Composition Summer School for young people from the Royal National Institute for the Blind. More recently we premiered a piece by Handel & Hendrix Composer in Residence, Hunter Coblentz.
Generally, composers really enjoy the challenge of getting to grips with the recorder’s sound and the sheer number of possibilities with 4 recorder players. Compositions vary greatly especially depending on whether they use Paetzold, baroque or renaissance recorders, and we try to be as unrestricted as possible with uses of the instrument. We always workshop first, and we try to communicate who we are as players, and to inspire the composers – this might involve playing works we like, or demonstrating different techniques.
The recorder is often given a bad name by people who associate it with excruciating classroom situations. What do you think can be done to improve the quality of recorder teaching in schools and allow the recorder to attain a better reputation, and how do you see your role in this process?
Primarily, there needs to be a change in attitude towards the recorder. It needs to be treated as an equal to other instruments, not a starting instrument that you play before going on to ‘a real instrument’ – this is happening, but slowly! We think it’s important to expose children to professional recorder playing, since so many recorder teachers are actually other instrumentalists and aren’t able to demonstrate the recorder at a high standard. It’s also important to show children consorts of wooden recorders, so they can see the number of instruments available and how much the repertoire varies. We’re particularly keen to showcase contemporary music in schools, as children rarely come across this in education, and it’s something that makes the recorder so different from other instruments. We’re very active performing in schools and providing workshops, and find that people always leave with a new opinion of our instrument!
BLOCK4 have been successful in a number of significant national and international competitions. Could you tell us about some of your wins but also about what you take away from competitions in which you are not successful?
In 2014, we were stunned to win the Royal Overseas League Competition, competing against many varied ensembles. Last year we were also lucky enough to travel to the USA for the Chesapeake Chamber Competition where we were up against 4 amazing ensembles from the US. We couldn’t believe it when we won the gold medal! We never enter a competition thinking about winning - it’s more about showing that the recorder has a rightful place amongst ‘modern’ instruments. Winning proves that the recorder, to those who associate it with excruciating classroom experiences, is a real instrument and worth listening to.
Being unsuccessful in a competition can be disheartening, and that’s when teamwork and commitment are tested, much more than when we are successful. It’s important to take away what we were happy with in our performance regardless of competition results, as well as the sense of bonding that competitions always provide. Unsuccessful applications are a chance to review what we’re doing and think of improvements we could make. And sometimes it’s just not meant to be!
Can you tell us about some of your plans for the future?
This summer we have our Handel and Hendrix concert series, based on the year 1717. We’re planning 4 exciting concerts inspired by pirates, kappelmeisters, Mars and Venus, and Water Music. We have just ordered our own renaissance consort by Adriana Breukink, which we’re really excited for. In the next few years, we’re hoping to work with more composers, and eventually to record a CD. After performing in the USA last year, we’re keen to go back and do a wider tour there.
As a group that champion really diverse repertories in a range of different settings, how do you adapt to different performance contexts?
We’ve been lucky enough to take early and contemporary repertoire to really exciting venues; from Brighton Early Music Festival’s clubnight, to the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse with the London Festival of Cabaret. This means we almost never play the same programme twice! We love putting together programmes with venues in mind, and have particularly enjoyed performing at the National Gallery, the Royal Academy of Art and even Buckingham Palace, inspired by artwork in the room. It is important to know your venue beforehand so you know the space and the requirements of the audience. However it’s not up to us to decide what people will like - part of our role as performers is to deliver new experiences. Being flexible in the moment is a great skill!
All the members of BLOCK4 are past or present students at the Royal College of Music in London. Can you tell us a little about how this institution has fostered your impressive breadth of repertoire? Do you think that the conservatoire environment is accepting enough of 'non-mainstream' classical repertoire?
We’ve been lucky in having 3 fantastic teachers at the RCM: Ashley Solomon, Julien Feltrin and María Martínez Ayerza. They have all helped and inspired us to find new repertoire. Julien opened our eyes to the contemporary quartet repertoire - most of us had no idea of the range of contemporary pieces available before attending the RCM. And María’s expertise being a member of the Royal Wind Music has exposed us to many more composers and areas of historical repertoire than we thought possible. There’s always a place for ‘non-mainstream’ repertoire. The RCM has several projects and opportunities for new music, like From the Soundhouse, which has allowed us to perform some extravagant contemporary works.
We’ve been incredibly supported by the RCM Creative Careers Centre, who have helped us get some fantastic opportunities to showcase our ‘non-mainstream’ approach. For example, we have had the opportunity to perform at the Royal Albert Hall’s Elgar Room, the Victoria & Albert Museum and Fulham Palace.
Finally, could you share with us some of your musical inspirations?
There are lot of groups that have inspired us. The Amsterdam Loeki Stardust quartet were pioneering in breaking boundaries of ‘traditional recorder music’. Of course Quartet New Generation were fantastic and had lots of great music written for them, which we love to play!
The Royal Wind Music has inspired us to try more varied early music, and to be more adventurous with our use of the instruments and different ensemble settings. In 2015 we saw a performance by Black Pencil at the Open Recorder Days Amsterdam, which wasn’t like anything we’d seen before and opened our minds to even more possibilities with modern music.
BLOCK4 is a recorder quartet formed in 2012, who give dynamic performances of both early and modern music. The quartet performs repertoire spanning the medieval and renaissance periods and also has a passion for contemporary music, often performing new works that have been written for them. BLOCK4 performs in venues across London and abroad. The group won the Ensembles prize in the 2014 Royal Overseas League competition, and first prize in the Chesapeake Chamber Music Competition this year. Alongside being Handel & Hendrix House Museum’s Ensemble in Residence for 2015-16, BLOCK4 is a Concordia Foundation artist, and a new member of the Live Music Now scheme. The group was delighted to participate in the Brighton Early Music Live! scheme in 2016.