ALBUM REVIEW: Ashley Bathgate’s ‘ASH’

by Peter Tracy

Photo by Bill Wadman.

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.

John Lunn on Pop Music, Minimalism, and Composing for Downton Abbey

by Dacia Clay

The long-awaited Downton Abbey movie has just been released, as has its fantastic score by John Lunn. Lunn is the Emmy Award-winning composer of the soundtrack for the Downton Abbey TV show as well.

In this interview, he talks about his surprising musical roots in pop and minimalism, how you can hear those influences in the music for Downton, what it’s like to write for the show and the movie, and he even reveals (gasp!) a movie spoiler.

ALBUM REVIEW: ‘Teenages’ by Qasim Naqvi

by Peter Tracy

Photo by Smriti Keshari.

The mellow buzzing of synthesizers and electric organs has been used in popular music for decades now, but some of the first people to experiment with these instruments were classical and avant-garde composers. The mid-20th century saw a wide range of composers creating new works that mined the expressive potential of electronic instruments—a trend that is continually unfolding today.

On his new album Teenages, composer Qasim Naqvi shows us that a synthesizer can change and respond to its player just like any other more traditional instrument, creating a surprising and one-of-a-kind journey of an album in the process.

Teenages is played entirely on an analog modular synthesizer, which is a synthesizer made up of multiple synth units connected together without a playable interface like a keyboard. Essentially, the machine generates tones while the player guides it, turning knobs to change frequency, create rhythms, or add timbre filters. What makes Naqvi’s machine so special is that he built it himself over the course of two years, and the process of the instrument’s evolution is catalogued on the album. Reflecting on the process of learning his machine’s quirks, Naqvi found that it seemed to react to his impulses in surprising ways and to mature over time, which inspired the album’s title.

The first five tracks of the album were created in the year leading up to the title track. They give us a sense of the machine’s evolution, beginning with “Intermission,” an atmospheric and ambient track that starts from almost a single tone, expanding slowly to include pulsing sounds of different timbres and pitches.

“Mrs 2E” brings in some more recognizable material, with stuttering beeps and blips fluttering around the steadier rhythms of something resembling a melody and bassline. “Palace Workers” continues this progression, with a quirky but danceable percussion section keeping a steady beat. This is joined by a bouncy, repetitive synth line that starts to give a sense of harmony. By “No Tongue,” Naqvi and his machine have learned to work together to form what sounds like an ensemble of electronics featuring a bright, melodic hook, lively textured rhythms, and scattered beeps and clicks.

While “No Tongue” is animated and restless, “Artilect” takes us into deeper waters with a low, pulsing drone that makes you wonder what could be around the corner. This leads us finally into the main event, “Teenages,” an almost 20-minute track which brings together everything that came before. Multiple synth lines build steadily upward into rich harmonies to form what sounds like an electronic orchestra playing an oddly off-kilter sort of anthem. These chords are then warped and spun through different filters, with fluttering synths imitating and reacting to each other over time to create what feels like a journey through the mind of Naqvi’s machine.

For Naqvi, modular synthesizers feel almost alive in a way that he wanted to capture by treating Teenages like a live album: the title track, for instance, was recorded in a single take, with no edits or overdubs. Showcasing the sometimes-unpredictable behavior of the machine was a priority for the composer, and this makes for an album that is always evolving and transforming into something new.

In the end, it is both Naqvi turning the knobs and the machine interpreting his actions that come together to create something of a collaborative album between a man and his machine.

The Science of Sound: An Interview with Alvin Lucier

by Maggie Molloy

Alvin Lucier has spent the past six decades exploring sound—its physical properties, how it moves and morphs in space, and the ways in which we can manipulate our own auditory perception.

His music makes you listen differently. Instead of traditional notions of melody and harmony, his music plays with the very wavelengths of sound itself, placing you in the center of the acoustic phenomena and inviting you to hear the sound as it shifts and unfolds within the space.

We caught up with Lucier at the 2019 Big Ears Festival, which featured performances of his music by Joan La Barbara, the Ever Present Orchestra, and the composer himself—including his most iconic work, I Am Sitting in a Room.

In this interview, Lucier talks with us about the science of sound, the hallmarks of experimental composition, and what it takes to play his music.

Audio editing by Nikhil Sarma.


Music in this interview from Alvin Lucier’s Ever Present and I Am Sitting in a Room, both available on Mode Records.

‘Become Desert’ Concert Broadcast: June 7, 9pm PT

by Maggie Molloy

John Luther Adams is known for crafting vast sonic landscapes that echo with the textures and timbres of the natural world. Most famous among them is Become Ocean, his Pulitzer Prize and Grammy-winning orchestral work commissioned and recorded by the Seattle Symphony in 2013.

Last year, our orchestra premiered the highly-anticipated sequel, Become Desert—and you can hear it this weekend on Classical KING FM.

Tune in on Friday, June 7 at 9pm to hear Adams’ expansive desert sound world in its original concert performance by the Seattle Symphony and Chorale, conducted by Ludovic Morlot. (And as if an immersive new John Luther Adams premiere wasn’t enough on its own, the piece is paired with another musical mammoth: Beethoven’s Emperor Piano Concerto featuring pianist Jeremy Denk.)

Written specifically for Benaroya Hall, Adam’s Become Desert features members of the Seattle Symphony and Chorale divided into five different ensembles which surround the audience, immersing them in sound, space, and “the singing of the light” (a quote Adams borrows from the great Mexican poet Octavio Paz). The piece was composed at a pivotal moment in Adams’ life: after living for most of his career in Alaska, he moved to the Mexican desert.

In this interview conducted before the piece’s world premiere, John Luther Adams speaks with KING FM’s Dave Beck about moving from tundra to desert, his fascination with immense spaces, and the importance of using the right tools—in his case, the perfect number 2 pencil.



Want to hear it again?

A studio recording of Become Desert will be released on June 14 as an album available on Cantaloupe Music. The two-disc set includes a DVD featuring a surround sound mix of the recording, as well as a slideshow of desert images shot by Adams himself.

Click here for more information, and here for NPR Music’s First Listen.