by Maggie Stapleton
The music of J.S. Bach is often described as timeless, and throughout the twentieth century, composers such as Benjamin Britten, George Crumb, and Iannis Xenakis built upon the form established by Bach, expanding the instrument’s technical and sonic capabilities while paying homage to his legacy.
Cellist Ashley Bathgate created a project that gives his music context and relevance in the twenty-first century in collaboration with the Brooklyn-based composer collective Sleeping Giant – Timo Andres, Chris Cerrone, Jacob Cooper, Ted Hearne, Robert Honstein, and Andrew Norman. Each composer wrote one movement of the new suite, basing it loosely on a corresponding movement of their choice from the original Bach suites, but free to use the music as an inspiration for expressing and expanding his personal compositional voice. The new work (given the eponymous title “ASH”) incorporates extended performance techniques, live electronics, and external media resulting in a radical deconstruction and re-imagination of the original music.
We’re pleased to present the world premiere recording of “ASH” inspired by (and interspersed with excerpts from) the Unaccompanied Cello Suites of J.S. Bach, recorded on January 12, 2016 at (le) Poisson Rouge as part of Metropolis Ensemble’s Resident Artist Series. Q&A with Ashley follows.
Maggie Stapleton: What inspired you to embark upon this project?
Ashley Bathgate: This project began with my desire to rediscover Bach’s Cello Suites. The last time I worked on them was during my days as a student. This was long before I became so heavily immersed in new music. I’ve grown in so many ways since then ,and it just felt like the right time to come back to this repertoire. I wanted to also find a way to link my love of contemporary music to this “re-discovery” process. There is plenty of new music for solo cello out there but not a lot that incorporates amplification/electronics and not a lot on the same scale as Bach’s Six Suites. I wanted something epic, and I wanted it to find some tether to a body of work that has been so loved and respected over the years, these compositional masterpieces that allowed the cello to step out as a solo voice beyond its traditional role as a continuo or basso accompaniment. I wanted the past to meet the present in order to show contrast but also to highlight the evolution of music and of this instrument in particular.
MS: Did you have Sleeping Giant in mind as collaborators from the beginning? Have you worked with them (together or individually) before?
AB: Absolutely. The composers of Sleeping Giant and I have a long history together dating back to our time at the Yale University School of Music. They are dear friends. They also happen to be some of the leading composers out there right now. When I thought up this idea, they were the first people who came to mind. I have played a great deal of their music in the past and even commissioned some of them individually. I appreciate how different each of them are in their compositional styles and also how well they work together as this collective to produce lengthier, collaborative compositions. They were the dream team for this project.
MS: Were you involved in the composition process, too? (The “gargantuan email chains and in Google Hangout sessions lasting hours” (NY Times))
AB: (laughs) For better or worse, yes! I think they spared me a lot of back and forth where the actual music writing was concerned, but we were in close contact from start to finish with this project, almost 3 years! Not only skype, email and phone calls but also meeting in person before and after the music had been written. This is the thing I love most about commissioning new music: it’s a privilege to be able to work with living composers (even better when they are your friends) and to be part of their creative process. As a result, the piece feels tailor made for me in many ways and the overall experience is a much richer one, having been a part of its development in that way.
MS:Who came up with the name of the piece, “ASH”? What’s the full story there?
AB: The Sleeping Giants came up with that one. I sign all of my emails “Ash” because I am too lazy to write my entire name out. It’s become a nick name of sorts as a result. But the Giants also felt that this title suggests the image of ashes, as in the ashes of Bach’s music. In various ways they all worked with fragments and transformations of Bach, thus making something new from the “ashes” of Bach’s music and legacy.
MS: We are thrilled to share the audio from this performance with our audience. Do you have other plans to keep the life of this piece going beyond the premiere? More performances? Video productions?
AB: For sure. This is only the beginning. I am touring it a bunch this spring and next season. I’ll be giving the West Coast premiere at Santa Ana Sites on March 12th. I anticipate it will evolve a bit between now and then. There’s a lot of feedback flying around at the moment. The composers have already started making some small changes and I am also tweaking various aspects of the show from the order to the electronic components and how they are executed. It’s exciting actually, now that we have an idea what it all looks and sounds like, to see where we can take it from here. Next step will be a commercial recording and no doubt there will be some music video action on the near horizon!
Sleeping Giant is a collective of six young American composers (clockwise: Timo Andres, Andrew Norman, Jacob Cooper, Christopher Cerrone, Robert Honstein, and Ted Hearne). These “talented guys” (The New Yorker), who are “rapidly gaining notice for their daring innovations, stylistic range and acute attention to instrumental nuance” (WQXR) have composed a diverse body of music that prizes vitality and diversity over a rigid aesthetic. Their works have appeared in concert halls and clubs throughout the US and Europe, from Carnegie Hall and Kennedy Center to Wigmore Hall and the Concertgebouw in performances by the Berlin Philharmonic Foundation, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, the Minnesota Orchestra, the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, New York City Opera, the Jack Quartet, and the New York Youth Symphony.
Current projects include a new evening-length work for eighth blackbird, a two-year Music Alive residency with the Albany Symphony, and a collaborative work for cellist Ashley Bathgate. They have presented sold-out concerts at New York’s (Le) Poisson Rouge, Brooklyn’s Littlefield, and at John Zorn’s The Stone. In 2011, they collaborated on Histories, a Stravinsky-inspired work for Ensemble ACJW and the Deviant Septet commissioned by Carnegie Hall.
American cellist Ashley Bathgate has been described as an “eloquent new music interpreter”(New York Times) and “a glorious cellist”(The Washington Post) who combines “bittersweet lyricism along with ferocious chops”(New York Magazine). Her “impish ferocity”, “rich tone” and “imaginative phrasing” (New York Times) have made her one of the most sought after performers of her time. The desire to create a dynamic energy exchange with her audience and build upon the ensuing chemistry is a pillar of Bathgate’s philosophy as a performer. Her affinity to dynamism drives Bathgate to venture into previously uncharted areas of ground-breaking sounds and techniques, breaking the mold of a cello’s traditionally perceived voice. Collaborators and fans alike describe her vitality as nothing short of remarkable and magical for all who are involved. Bathgate is a member of the award winning, internationally acclaimed sextet, Bang on a Can All-Stars, and is also a founding member of TwoSense, a duo with pianist Lisa Moore, and Bonjour, a low-strung, percussive quintet with fellow new music mavens Florent Ghys, James Moore, Eleonore Oppenheim and Owen Weaver.
Equally at home in both the concert hall and the rock club, Bathgate focuses on presenting concerts that draw from a wide range of musical genres. Her dedication to performing traditional music is equally matched by her passion to promote new music by today’s composers. That dedication has led her to work with an esteemed list of composers and musicians such as John Adams, Louis Andriessen, Nik Bärtsch, Iva Bittova Martin Bresnick, Don Byron, Jace Clayton, Bryce Dessner (The National), Arnold Dreyblatt, DJ Spooky, Ben Frost, Philip Glass, Michael Gordon, Annie Gosfield, Ann Hamilton, Glenn Kotche (Wilco), David Lang, Lori Lieberman, Meredith Monk, Richard Reed Parry (Arcade Fire), Questlove and The Legendary Roots Crew, Lee Ranaldo (Sonic Youth), Steve Reich, Terry Riley, Trio Mediaeval, Julia Wolfe, Shara Worden (My Brightest Diamond) and Nick Zammuto (The Books).
Bathgate studied at Bard College with Luis Garcia-Renart (B.M.) before continuing her education at Yale University with renowned cellist Aldo Parisot (M.M. & A.D). Originally from Saratoga Springs, NY, Bathgate began her cello studies with the late Rudolf Doblin, principal cellist and assistant music director of the Buffalo Philharmonic in the 1950’s. After his passing, she resumed her tutelage with Ann Alton at Skidmore College. A member of the Empire State Youth Orchestra at the time, Bathgate was also the unprecedented two-time winner of the Lois Lyman Concerto Competition, performing the Saint-Saens and Schumann Cello Concertos with the orchestra at Troy Savings Bank Music Hall. While at Bard College, she was invited to perform both the d’Albert and Barber Cello Concertos with the American Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Leon Botstein and then went on to win Yale University’s Concerto Competition in 2008, performing with the Yale Philharmonia in New Haven’s legendary Woolsey Hall. Bathgate resides in New York City.