The British viol consort Fretwork have, through several cycles of changing membership, remained one of the world's top ensembles in their field. They stand apart from other consorts of viols in their exploration of unusual repertories, playing for example music of Bach on viols and commissioning a good deal of contemporary music.
Fretwork were founded in London in 1985 by a sextet of viol players: Richard Boothby, Julia Hodgson, William Hunt, Wendy Gillespie, Richard Campbell, and Elizabeth Liddle. By 2019, only Boothby remained of the original group, by then trimmed to five players, but their sound and philosophy have been consistent. Fretwork immediately made an impression, and were invited to perform at London's Wigmore Hall in 1986. At first, both in concert and on recordings, the group played the core viol repertory of the English Renaissance; their first album, 1987's In Nomine, featured works by Byrd, Tallis, Purcell, and Lawes in the quintessentially English genre of the In Nomine. That album was issued by the small Amon Ra label, but in 1989 they joined the roster of Britain's Virgin label and have since recorded mostly for that imprint and for Harmonia Mundi. Almost from the beginning the group attracted attention beyond Britain; they toured the Soviet Union before its breakup, Japan, and the U.S., and they have been a common sight at European summer festivals.
In addition to viol consort music, Fretwork have recorded consort songs with various early music singers, including a noted group of William Byrd songs with Emma Kirkby. Around the late 1990s, Fretwork began to expand their repertory beyond the Renaissance. They have a particular specialty of music by Bach arranged for viol consort — not only music for strings but also keyboard works and the open score The Art of Fugue, BVW 1080. And the group have commissioned numerous works by contemporary composers, including Tan Dun, Gavin Bryars, and the rock star Elvis Costello. Fretwork's music has been used in the films Coffee and Cigarettes (2003) and Broken Flowers (2005), both directed by Jim Jarmusch. The group have often toured in the U.S. with music from their album Birds on Fire: Jewish Music for Viols, featuring music by Italian Jewish Baroque composers. By the late 2010s, the members of Fretwork were Boothby, Joanna Levine, Asako Morikawa, Sam Stadlen, and Emily Ashton. Fretwork have often published their arrangements of the music they have played, under the company name Fretwork Editions. The group signed with the Signum Classics label in 2017, and in 2019 they released the vocal album If with countertenor Iestyn Davis, performing music by Michael Nyman and Henry Purcell.