You’ve made a name for yourself as an interpreter of new music – what first attracted you to this area? Was it always something you were interested in? 

Actually, not really. I was always immersed in the classical canon as a student, with the mindset being that this was the rep a cellist was supposed to play and that I would become a concerto soloist or an orchestra member or play in a chamber group someday. I always played some new music, but was not exposed to enough of it to really get inspired until I heard the music that Bang on a Can was playing. Suddenly my perception of what new music could be changed. The idea that I could be amplified, use effects and processing, play grooves, improvise … and rock out … that got my juices flowing and the flood gates opened. Not to mention I was surrounded by some of the most inspiring and amazing musicians in the field, within the Bang on a Can All-Stars, and working with some of the greatest living composers of today. How could I not fall in love?

Playing new music allowed me to put my own imprint on it, as opposed to interpreting repertoire that already had such a precedence or “way” that it should be played and heard. I became part of the collaborative process in a way I was not before and I started commissioning music to be written with me in mind. This to me is exciting and incredibly freeing, artistically. I feel those of us who play contemporary music are part of a wonderful experiment. Not only are we part of the current conversation about music, we also get to incite conversation among our peers and audiences, shock them, open their minds to new ideas. We get to be part of developing a legacy, playing a role in determining what music may or may not stand the test of time. I love that.

Ashley Bathgate celloCellist Ashley Bathgate

What has been the most rewarding thing about playing with the Bang on a Can All-Stars? 

Maybe not just one thing. I get to travel the world, meet awesome people, musicians and artists, I play music I enjoy playing. It doesn’t really feel like a job to me most of the time. But the most rewarding thing is working with these people on a regular basis. I look up to them and I learn from them every time we play together. They are my teachers as much as they are my colleagues. I am by far a better musician for having known them and they came into my life when I was quite young, so for that I am also thankful. Joining Bang on a Can was literally the single most pivotal moment in my life to date, a moment I am eternally grateful for.

What have been the challenges? 

The biggest challenge (for any freelance musician I think) is time management. How to have a personal life while traveling so much and being away from your home and family. How to do all the projects you want to do and still have ‘me time’. How to stay creative and focused when you are running from place to place non-stop. Sometimes the road life can get a little tiring. It’s been eight years since I began touring and it’s only gotten busier each year, so now at 32, I will admit to being a little less agile. Plane rides and jet lag affect me more than they used to, the transition back to home life can be tough to do over and over. But hey, if you spoke to me after being home for more than a month, I’d tell you I am itching to get back out there and back on that wheel… so it’s always some combination of both. Plus I’ve got a little dog who now comes with me most places, so she’s made road life a little sweeter and she keeps me grounded. But not this time in Australia, because I am not Johnny Depp, or dating Johnny Depp – it’s truly devastating on so many levels.

Your concert in Sydney for Backstage will feature a number of works by Australian composer Kate Moore. How did you first come into contact with her? 

I met Kate through the All-Stars, my first year on the job. She was a People’s Commissioning Fund winner and she wrote us a piece called Ridgeway. I immediately took to her music and to her as a person. Our personalities clicked and our lives seemed to bump up against each other in many serendipitous ways. For example, we found we have our last name in common. Her step-father’s last name is also Bathgate. No relation… but weird right, for two people who live oceans and worlds apart?

We’ve met regularly since the All-Stars perform in Amsterdam quite often. She’s in New York now and again and even in my hometown Saratoga this year at the Yaddo residency. She also plays the cello, so even before I commissioned her to write for me, she had tons of cello rep. We both love the instrument and she writes so powerfully and thoughtfully for it, we thought, why stop at one piece? How about a concerto? How about a record of solo cello music? And the rest is history.

What was it that you responded to in her music? 

She has qualities in her spirit and in her music writing that remind me of myself. There’s so much intensity and density, storminess, sometimes sadness, hopefulness, awareness, and she can write the most beautifully lyric lines. She makes the cello into a super hero and she allows me to shine in the ways I really can as a player. I can get into her music and stand behind it, bring something to it. I think that’s what we found working together. We’re a good team and it’s rare to find that kind of connection.

How different was it collaborating on the solo cello works of the album Stories for Ocean Shells compared with the cello concerto? 

There are a lot of similarities actually, she uses part of Velvet in the first movement of the Concerto, for one. I’d say maybe because at that point I had played a lot of her music, it was easier to sink my teeth into the concerto because I knew what she was going for and what she wanted from me. Basically, it was just a much larger endeavor than most of the 10 to 15-minute pieces we’d worked on before. This is a 50-minute, powerhouse concerto with ensemble. There are more moving parts (and musical sculptures too!) so that takes thought, consideration and organisation.

Ideally, I think we both want to tour this concerto more and develop it through live performances, eventually recording it, but it’s very difficult to make that happen these days with large ensembles, rehearsal time, expenses, traveling across the ocean, etc. Concertos aren’t as easy to book as solo recitals, much as I wish that weren’t the case. We’ve still got some headway to make there maybe, getting contemporary concertos on the circuit as much as the Dvořák and Elgar Cello Concertos, eh?

Has living in different parts of the world affected the way you work together? 

Sure. Maybe it’s less convenient – you have to be more creative in finding ways to meet up around the globe. But maybe that’s also why it works so well. You value the little face time you have together. You make it count. And technology being what it is, it’s actually not that hard to be in touch when you need to be via Skype or email or text.

You’re presenting the Kate Moore works alongside Fjola Evans, Emily Cooley, Pamela Madsen and Fay Wang – how did you go about putting this programme together? What were some of the ideas – musical or otherwise – that you wanted to explore? 

Lately I have just been feeling more empowered as a woman. I have been tuning in to modern day feminism and I am more into sharing those thoughts and philosophies with other like-minded women (and men). I realised most of the music I was playing and commissioning was by men and this seemed out of whack to me. So I put together a programme of music by some of my favorite and fiercest women composers. Now I have enough for two programmes to be honest. It’s fabulous. I am also so happy that many of these works are by women from all over the world. Kate from Australia/The Netherlands, Fay from China, Fjola from Iceland, Emily is East Coast, Pam is West Coast. It’s like having an international superhero consortium in a suitcase that I can bring everywhere with me. I’m so proud to share this music and to have them all in my life.

Musically speaking, I think these are pieces that offer variety from my performance pallet. Some are with pre-recorded tracks, others with live processing and sampling/beats, one with spoken voice (my own and also Anais Nin’s). These pieces represent what I have been working on the past four to five years implementing electronics into my solo programmes. Five years ago I couldn’t really even tell what was “IN” and what was “OUT” on an interface or mixing board, so it’s pretty exciting to now be in control of my own show, triggering my own effects and processing, developing my amplified sound and tastes therein.

After Sydney you’re in Brisbane for Dots+Loops, performing Bach Unwound. How did the idea for that project evolve?

Two things happened. I heard Philip Glass’ Songs and Poems which he wrote for cellist Wendy Sutter. To me that is some of the most beautiful music written for cello in the past 20 years. It’s like a modern suite for solo cello. Unfortunately, they are not able to be performed by other cellists right now so I had to look elsewhere. Then I was at a show where some of my colleagues and friends form my Yale days were having their music played. I knew these guys (the Sleeping Giant composer collective) from way back and had played so much of their music, I thought, “this is perfect: six composers, one collective, six movements, one suite, and one cellist”. A modern day suite for solo cello written for me, using both acoustic and electronic elements. It was tailor made for me by six people who knew me and my playing very well. On top of that, I relished the idea of tapping back into the Bach Suites and finding both new and old reflections in these works. So I have taken to performing the new suite, ASH, sometimes on it’s own, sometimes interspersed with movements from the Bach Suites, and sometimes with one suite before or after it as a full length programme. In Brisbane I will be doing just that, performing Bach’s Suite No 1 in G Major with ASH following it.

What can audiences expect to hear? 

Lots of cello. Ha. Definitely present are elements of the original suites. I asked each of the composers to take inspiration from something about these pieces that they liked. There are some direct quotations, there is an ode to the use of dance in Bach’s individual movements of each suite, there are motifs or patterns from which the composer develops their own modern take on it, using Bach as a sort of jumping off point. Some of the pieces are acoustic and use extended techniques. Scordatura (retuning the instrument) plays a role, which Bach also used in his Fifth Suite in C Minor. A few have live processing and pre-recorded tracks, and there’s even one piece that uses a 1990’s Sybaris Pool Suite commercial, warped and sampled, which I trigger and melt my own sound into. There’s something for everyone in this work and I am very excited to share it with Brisbane!

Ashley Bathgate performs with The Music Box Project at Backstage Music in Sydney on August 28 and at Dots+Loops Companions Festival in Brisbane September 8