Video Premiere: Cellist Ashley Bathgate Reimagines a Cello Suite Inspired by Bach

By Stephanie Powell

Ashley Bathgate, cellist and former member of contemporary music ensemble Bang on a Can, like many other musicians finds a world of inspiration from Bach and his Cello Suites. Her latest solo album, ASH, out today, is comprised of a solo suite, made up of six movements, all composed by members of the composer collective Sleeping Giant.

Strings caught up with Bathgate about bridging Bach and contemporary styles, the composing process, her favorite suites, and more. Here is the video premiere of the “Orison” movement composed by Robert Honstein, who found inspiration from watching Rostropovich tackle Bach’s complete Cello Suites with a slow tempi in a reverberant cathedral.

How does your suite compare to Bach’s suites? What do they have in common?

In some ways they are so very far from anything Bach wrote. How would we compare them if we didn’t know where this project began, if there were no liner notes? And do we even want to compare them? I purposefully kept it very loose so that the composers could find their own way with it. But there is a spirit in each that ties it all together for me somehow, even if it’s not obvious at first listen.

There are echoes of Bach’s use of scordatura, of dance, of ostinato and pedal tones, there are musical quotes peppered throughout. Even the idea of silence in between notes, how one would hear a Sarabande played in a cathedral where notes reverberate for longer. How to take it one step further with technology. I was so happy that each of the Giants found their own kernel, you know, these were inspirations but they revealed a lot about their individual personalities, too. Perhaps the most interesting difference is that this was a suite in six movements, just like Bach’s, but it was composed from six minds, not just one. They had to stand apart from one another and be together, creating something cohesive, at the same time. 

What was the collaboration process like with the various composers? Did the composers interact with each other when working on their individual suites?

Yes, absolutely. I know they were in touch with each other a lot while writing it. As a collective they had worked together on other projects, so I think they had a pace and groove going in that respect. 

For me, it was actually one of the first times I got to work so closely with composers, from the beginning, on a new piece written expressly for me. I already knew them quite well. I had played music by all of them. Heard music by all of them. They are my friends, too. I think being in a room with them before any notes had even been written, recording and improvising, having drinks and talking about it more, tossing ideas back and forth via email or Skype or whatever was handy—recording backing tracks, working out the electronic elements together, a lot of experimentation. For those of us who are performers and not composers, this is as close as we come to that world, I valued the experience a lot. And now I try to have more of it whenever I can. 


There are echoes of Bach’s use of scordatura, of dance, of ostinato and pedal tones, there are musical quotes peppered throughout.

Do you have a favorite suite?

Of Bach’s, definitely the 5th. I am not sure why but it has stuck with me more than the others since I was young. It’s darker somehow, more complex, more emotional. And I spent a lot of time working on it with my teacher at the time, Luis Garcia Renart. 

Of the Giants pieces, there’s no clear favorite. And I probably wouldn’t tell you if there were. But I would say, interestingly enough, that I have favored each of them at one point or another. And some of the ones which were difficult for me to favor, have actually grown on me more over time. What influences my feelings the most is the audience—it’s so different everywhere I go and I have had so many discussions about this music with total strangers. I am always really happy when someone can show me a different perspective or something I didn’t understand before about the music I play. This never gets old. 

What is your hope with the suites/album/project?

This was a project started in order to rediscover the suites of Bach that I had left behind for a while. But I also wanted to commission something that was just as epic—a modern-day suite, which captured the sounds and technologies we are using today in music. Something that echoed my own personality, too. Most of all, my hope is that other cellists will play this music. That it can have a place in the repertoire.

Perhaps the most interesting difference is that this was a suite in six movements, just like Bach’s, but it was composed from six minds, not just one. They had to stand apart from one another and be together, creating something cohesive, at the same time. 

What does ASH stand for?

Well, it’s my nickname for one, I sign most of my emails that way. But more formally, I think it was titled this way to conjure up the image of ashes. Something new erected from the remnants of something old, the ashes of something. It implies history, ancestry, tradition. Ash and dust are of the earth, so to me it means something organic. There is death and decay, but there is always new life which emerges from that point. Born, reborn, coming and going, we’re all part of a cycle. 


How has your experience with Bang on a Can informed your curiosity with/passion for contemporary music?

Oh, I mean it started it. Once I joined Bang on a Can I felt like someone took the roof off my house and showed me the sky for the first time. I was free. I had never understood how many different kinds of new music were out there. It was this thing I didn’t know I was missing in my life. Being in that band led me to so many wonderful collaborations, and it allowed me to find a whole new world of sound on my instrument—both acoustically and electronically. Can’t really imagine what my life would have been like if I hadn’t of met them. 

Is there a specific technique or passage that was particularly challenging to play? Can you describe the technical challenges?

All the pieces have their various challenges, some technical, some technological. Definitely using two bows at the same time was something new for me, took some work. And playing with your instrument tuned differently is always a challenge, it changes the way the cello sounds altogether and even the way pitches relate to one another. I think Jacob’s piece took the longest to get comfortable with. It’s the one that requires the most endurance and pacing. I have to alter my bow grip just to get through it successfully. It took several performances before I felt like I owned it. 

The project wrapped up in 2016. How did the suites evolve over time?


That was a beautiful thing. We workshopped these pieces for months before the premiere and then continued to evolve them for the next year afterward. Lots of little changes made on both sides. Then, once we recorded them, another round of changes. Touring and recording something can really grow music in a way that practicing it cannot. You start to feel it is a part of you, you start to feel more freedom of expression, comfort, fluidity and the luxury of time in between performances for it to marinate. 

What was you recording process like? How did you prepare?

I had toured the work already a bunch so I was ready to go into the studio (which is not always the case). Like most experiences these days, you are pressed for studio time and often have to get it done over an intense few days. I always wish I had more time to spend on these records, that I could do it for months instead of just days, but that’s not really a reality for most unless you have a home setup. But, I will say that I never feel more accomplished, satisfied or happily exhausted than after a few days of recording. It’s truly the best feeling. Live performance has its own rewards, but this is like the one place where we get to make something that lasts and that is the exact representation of who we are. 

What’s next?

Well, I have another solo record ready to go, new works by Emily Cooley and Alex Weiser, alongside existing works by Fjola Evans and Steve Reich. 
A new evening length work by Michael Gordon called House Music, which we premiered at the Cello Biennale last fall and will soon be touring and recording! 

And I think where I am headed next is a little bit of composing on my own, and commissioning some of my favorite people to write me songs to sing and play. That’s my fantasy anyway. I want to use words more in my music making.