Picture yourself walking along a beach, listening to the soft crashing of the waves and collecting shells on the ocean shore. Each shell a beautifully delicate, one-of-a-kind work of art—each shell with its own story and its own unique song.
That’s the inspiration behind Cantaloupe Music’s latest release, Stories for Ocean Shells, which tells a wordless tale of two friends and musical collaborators living oceans apart: Australian composer Kate Moore and New York-based cellist Ashley Bathgate.
The two first met in 2009 when Moore came to New York to rehearse one of her pieces with Bang on a Can, of which Bathgate is a member.
“I knew from that moment that we would work with each other again,” Moore said. “Sharing similar experiences, aesthetic interests, and being at a similar place in our lives meant that we could immediately see where the other was coming from. We were both rebels from a background playing the cello, and we both wanted to break out, with the aim to create something new that we could call our own, tapping into that vast energy around us.”
Moore has written a number of solo cello works which Bathgate has premiered over the past seven years—and Stories for Ocean Shells is a culmination of their close musical collaboration thus far.
The album begins with an invitation. “Whoever you are come forth” is an introspective prelude of sorts—a slow and gradual immersion into the intimacy and strength of a solo, unaccompanied instrument. The piece was written as a wordless interpretation of Walt Whitman’s poem “Song of the Open Road,” about the long and winding journey of a lonely traveler. Bathgate paints a tender image of the lone traveler through her rich tone, bittersweet lyricism, and warm phrasing.
It’s followed by the album’s title track, which Moore wrote as a present for a little girl from Thailand who had shown her gorgeous silks with elaborate handwoven patterns. The young girl’s name translates to “ocean shells.”
“The cyclical patterns were intricate and beautifully ornate,” Moore said, “Reminiscent of those traced on the surface of a seashell, spiraling in ever-expanding and contracting formations.”
It became the inspiration behind “Stories for Ocean Shells,” a piece comprised of intricately layered cello motives which circle and expand around one another in beautiful waves of sound. If this piece is a silk cloth, then Bathgate is the silk weaver, crafting each wave by hand with beautiful color and detail.
Another cloth-inspired piece follows—this one “Velvet.” Musically, the piece combines the relentless repetition and exaggerated pulse of minimalism with the drama and dynamic color of Romantic era. Bathgate sounds equally at home in the soft elegance of the velvet’s surface as she is in the rich, dark shadows of its folds.
The darkness is palpable in the album’s next track, “Dolorosa.” Moore wrote the piece after the words of the Stabat Mater, 13th-century Catholic hymn to Mary which portrays her suffering during Jesus’s death. Deeply spiritual, the piece features Bathgate’s whispering vocals drifting above long-breathed cello phrases, textured with subtle interjections from Lawson White on pedal steel guitar and vibraphone.
But if “Dolorosa,” is about loss, then “Homage to My Boots” is about liberation. The piece was inspired by Moore’s old Doc Martens’—a symbol of freedom and joyous possibility she purchased for herself when she first left home. Bathgate steps into Moore’s shoes for this piece, dancing through both the exhilaration and the vulnerability of young independence.
The album closes with “Broken Rosary,” a tribute to Moore’s grandmother who died the same year that Moore was born. Her grandmother left her an old rosary, which Moore accidentally broke as a child. She pieces it back together in this emotional work, the beads ever so softly audible behind the intimate cello melody and soft electronic ambiance.
And so Stories for Ocean Shells ends as softly as it begins: a single, lone traveler—though never truly alone.
“When I was a little girl my grandmother gave me a huge conch shell that she found on the beach,” Bathgate said. “She told me that if I held it up to my ear, I would hear the ocean she visited. That idea stayed with me; that you could share an experience without necessarily being in the same place at the same time.”
Stories for Ocean Shells is proof of that possibility; it is a beautiful and heartfelt reminder that friendship will always conquer distance—and so will music.
“At any given moment, at any given location, somewhere in the universe, two people like us are picking up shells on a beach, listening into them for answers, for ideas, for a connection, for peace, for hope,” Bathgate said. “They’re listening, like we are, with wild imaginations and dreams of what’s to come. The possibilities are endless.”