by Peter Tracy
The Bach Cello Suites are unavoidable: cellists from around the world grow up playing them, audiences revere them, and they keep finding their way into movies, TV shows, and pop culture. Even for cellists like new music superstar and Bang on A Can All-Star Ashley Bathgate, the Bach suites remain a staple of the repertoire, and after over 200 years they continue to inspire not just performers, but composers as well.
In fact, Bathgate recently commissioned the composers of the New York-based collective Sleeping Giant to write a Bach-inspired six movement suite for her newest album ASH, continuing the long-standing tradition of bringing Bach’s influence into the present day.
Bathgate gave Sleeping Giant composers Timo Andres, Christopher Cerrone, Jacob Cooper, Ted Hearne, Robert Honstein, and Andrew Norman rather simple instructions: take any inspiration you find from Bach’s music and write one movement each to form a collaborative suite. With movements from some of today’s most innovative and stylistically diverse composers, these simple instructions have resulted in a bold and imaginative new work.
The album begins with a contribution from Andrew Norman titled “For Ashley”: a fast-paced, upbeat introduction inspired by the repetitive arpeggiation of the Fourth Suite Prelude. Repeated staccato patterns morph and transform to include rhythmic variation, chords, and harmonics, resulting in a piece that is always in motion. Christopher Cerrone’s “On Being Wrong” takes us in a totally different direction: reverb and pre-recorded cello merge together with Bathgate’s live performance to create a layered and resonant piece including both driving rhythms and meditative, open harmonic passages.
Described by the composer as a “madcap gigue,” Timo Andres’ “Small Wonder” continues the suite with some more chaotic energy. Small, eclectic musical cells build on each other, Baroque dance rhythms continually surfacing along with cheeky quotes from Bach’s gigues. The fourth piece in the suite, Jacob Cooper’s “Ley Line,” takes similarly direct inspiration: a moment from the end of the Fifth Suite Prelude featuring an open string drone is stretched out and reimagined to be over ten minutes long. Bathgate’s playing becomes frantic and raspy as the harmonies grow more and more dissonant over the drone, making for a continuous sense of tension that rises and falls throughout.
Perhaps the most unique moment on the album comes in the form of Ted Hearne’s “DaVZ23BzMHo,” whose title references a Youtube video the piece samples. Hearne manipulates music from a 90s-era commercial into a wash of reverb and atmosphere, placing Bathgate’s resonant chords and harmonics on top. The hazy and slowed down music seems to have a mind of its own, stopping and starting to leave Bathgate alone in meditative silence or sliding unpredictably in and out of tune. The cello vies for attention over the chaotic backdrop, playing increasingly dissonant harmonies until the two come together again and Bathgate is left droning off into silence.
Robert Honstein’s “Orison” takes things in an even more atmospheric direction. Inspired by the resonance of the cello in huge cathedral spaces, Honstein’s piece is built around reverb, with each successive note playing a duet of sorts with the continued ringing of the previous ones. “Orison” is a Middle English word for prayer, and if Hearne’s piece was tenuously meditative, Honstein’s is calm and reflective: single tones and chords ring out in regular succession, leaving plenty of space in between to end the suite with the equivalent of a contemplative Sarabande.
While ASH is something of a showcase for Sleeping Giant, it’s Bathgate’s vibrant energy as a performer that unites the album and amplifies the composers’ voices. From Norman’s sharp rhythms to Hearne’s slow-motion dreamscapes and Honstein’s reverb-soaked sense of calm, Bathgate showcases an ability to adapt to any stylistic challenge and bring her own voice to the mix.
On ASH, the composers of Sleeping Giant draw wildly different inspiration from Bach’s music and filter these inspirations through their own distinctive styles, which is a testament to the diversity and lasting impact of Bach’s music. While each piece grew out of Bach’s Cello Suites, the pieces that make up this collaboration present a wide range of musical ideas and techniques that continue to explore, much as Bach did, the possibilities of the cello as a solo instrument.