Bach’s solo cello suites can be heard in places ranging from the concert hall to TV commercials; the satisfying sound of strumming rolled chords during the Prelude of the first suite is a familiar memory. On ASH, celebrated cellist Ashley Bathgate mines her personal connection to these famed suites by commissioning her friends, the six-member composer collective Sleeping Giant, to create a set of new works that use Bach as a jumping-off point.
The album opens with Andrew Norman’s “For Ashley,” inspired by the Prelude of Bach’s Fourth Suite. It’s a fast-paced, bright piece built up from syncopated repetition. Crunchy and airy textures are juxtaposed and eventually shift into a series of harmonics, peppering the soundscape with a slew of different timbres. Bathgate’s rapid-fire performance is thrilling, telling a story through her skillful transitions between themes.
Christopher Cerrone’s On Being Wrong is colored by dramatic questioning, and paired next to Timo Andres’ light Small Wonder there is a balance. Solo music in the vein of Bach isn’t just a church’s somber hymn or a virtuosic show, and ASH reminds us that this music has the ability to probe a wide variety of emotions and styles. On Being Wrong uses a simple melodic line, juxtaposing harmonics with harsh, textural repetitions, to form a brooding atmosphere that never really concludes. In contrast, Small Wonder takes the form of a modern gigue. It’s upbeat, combining bouncy ricochet with humorous descending chromatic scales and energetic slurs, creating an aura of frenzied curiosity.
Bathgate expertly shifts between the different pieces, bringing her audience into each disparate atmosphere along with her. On Jacob Cooper’s powerful Ley Line, she digs into her strings to play pulsating chords, making the angsty mood of the piece palpable. Ley Line is an extension of a moment from Bach’s fifth suite, reveling in an expanded intensity. It explores slowly changing harmonies, moving through a series of different colors, each with the same emotional depth.
In a complete change, Ted Hearne’s DaVZ23BzMHo features electronics. To be specific, it features samples from a 90s-era commercial, and its title refers to an embed code. Bathgate’s playing is subdued and simplistic and the electronics ring like the sound that signals a television character is entering dreamworld. It vibrates with a repeating, hypnotic pattern, oozing a saccharine sappiness as the cello plays quirkily alongside.
The album closes with Robert Honstein’s Orison, a slow-moving, barren soundscape made of reverberating held notes. “Orison” is an ancient word for prayer, and Honstein takes a pensive approach. The structure is completely disintegrated, and the pitches sound like they’re floating. The music exists with a feeling of timelessness, eternity. Ultimately, it ends on a question, sound drifting away into oblivion.
Bach’s music is intimate, particularly in its ability to conjure a variety of emotions with its complex counterpoint and harmonic intricacy. ASH, too, explores a wide range of emotions — uncertainty, curiosity, anxiety, amusement, introspection — and myriad musical styles. But instead of being bogged down in the legacy of Bach, Sleeping Giant and Ashley Bathgate create a wide variety of new sound worlds while grasping the most salient elements of his compositions.