ASH is for Ashley Bathgate: Bach, life, and careers in new music

The muso chats with our young writer of the year



This story is published as part of CutCommon Young Writers’ Month.


If you think Bach and new music will always be worlds apart, think again.

In her upcoming performance for Brisbane’s very own Dots+Loops Collective, American cellist Ashley Bathgate will bridge the gap between old and new, taking us on a journey to rediscover one of music’s greatest composers and listen to his work in a new light.

“It was very much a happy accident that I wound up doing contemporary music for a living,” Ashley says, and from the get-go, it’s clear that new music has become one of her absolute passions. Self-assured and confident, yet warm and relatable, it’s no surprise that Ashley has forged a highly successful career, bringing her own voice to the contemporary classical music scene.

One of her most recent projects is Bach Unwound, a collaborative re-imagining of Bach’s Cello Suites. The work, titled ASH (ASH for Ashley is only a partial coincidence, in case you were wondering), is a rebirth of Bach’s work: the creation of something new from music that has endured hundreds of years. About to receive its Australian premiere with Dots+Loops (curated by Kieran Welch), ASH comprises six movements, in which each is composed by a different member of the Sleeping Giant Composer Collective to correspond with a movement of Bach’s original suites.

“This was a project that, start to finish, took about three years,” Ashley says. “The first time we actually got together…we were in a little cabin in a studio and they would be recording things on their iPhones, asking me to try and experiment with different techniques and things they were toying around with.”

It is much more fun to work with living composers

Collaboration has always been at the core of Ashley’s work. In fact, being able to form partnerships between composer and performer was one of the main contributing factors in her shift toward a more contemporary style. “It is much more fun to work with living composers…I love that aspect of it, and you also make a lot of friends this way.”

She describes the different experiments and ideas she was asked to try for Bach Unwound – reverbs, electronics, pre-recorded backing tracks, even playing with two bows at once – and it’s clear that hers is a mind full of curiosity, never saying no to exploring a new sound or idea. “I’m making music with interesting people, and I’m getting ideas from those people,” she says. “And in collaborations…the opportunities are endless and I really think that’s unique to contemporary music.”

Ashley is no stranger to being around interesting people, having worked with composers such as Steve Reich, Emily Cooley, Michael Gordon, Julia Wolfe, and Meredith Monk, to name just a few. It’s easy to tell that she brings an understated confidence and wealth of ideas to every partnership.

“I consider myself an interpreter. I’m not writing the music, but I’m adding to it. There’s a dialogue that happens, and even the dialogue that doesn’t happen – which is just me playing the music – is informative enough that it can influence the evolution of a piece.”

This is especially true in the case of Australian composer Kate Moore, with whom Ashley has worked extensively, and their ongoing collaboration has been a special one. “This was something that just stuck for both of us,” Ashley says. “We kind of clicked and it’s thanks to modern day technology and luck that we seem to always bump into each other. I really love playing her music.”

Kate’s 2014 Cello Concerto was written for and premiered by Ashley, and the pair has gone on to release an entire album of Kate’s solo cello pieces, some of which Ashley will perform at Sydney’s BackStage Music.

“I feel like the Australian music scene is very current and is thinking about contemporary music in a bigger way, which is really nice to see,” Ashley says.

For her Brisbane audiences at Dots+Loops, however, Ashley wants ASH to create an avenue for people to think differently about Bach, but also about new music. “It’s like posing a question to them, giving them the opportunity to see the reflections, the similarities, and the differences.”

It’s music, at the end of the day

Both the original Bach pieces and the new movements will be interspersed, so the connections between them will be there for us to make. And what becomes strikingly apparent is that, no matter the day or age, music is music. Ashley says all the standard repertoire is “still very dear to me, and I don’t want to lose touch with that part of myself”. But her hope is that ASH will get audiences thinking about new music in a different way.

“Although we’re talking hundreds of years of difference, they’re really not that far apart. It’s music, at the end of the day.”

Ashley has always had a foot in the door of both worlds. Having trained in standard repertoire, and then finding her niche in contemporary music, hers is a unique story that shows the power of open-mindedness and simply saying ‘yes’. And through her career, it’s easy to see that in today’s music industry, a simple ‘yes’ can lead to so much more. Especially to young people, Ashley believes.

“Don’t say no to anything, creatively speaking. While everything is ahead of you, you have the time and luxury to say yes to things. So say yes,” she says.

“Somehow we always meet our goals, it works out in the end; and you are, more often than not, very happy that you had that experience.”


See Ashley perform as part of BackStage Music along with The Music Box Project on August 28, Darlinghurst. She will feature in the Dots+Loops Companions Festival from September 8-9, Brisbane, for which CutCommon subscribers can receive discounted tickets.


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