“I picked the cello, ’cause I felt like it!”
This being my first-ever “in person” interview, I guess it would be kismet that it’s with Ashley Bathgate, a young cellist with an upbringing from a sweetheart of the rodeo, an education from both Yale (Yes, that Yale! She graduated, btw) and Bard College, a student of cello virtuoso Aldo Parisot, and having been ushered into the world of new music with Bang On a Can, where she gets to play with great musicians and legends like Terry Riley and most recently Philip Glass, Ashley has come upon some unprecedented artistic freedom that some classical players perhaps only dream about. I was invited to come speak with her at her New York apartment, and the conversation with her was more rewarding than I ever expected, but this being a live interview, sadly, I couldn’t use the whole thing. Some of the things that made the back burner were her thoughts about having sung in a composition (Julia Wolfe’s Believing performed with the Bang On a Can All-Stars) and how it impacts her musicianship; Her collaborative work with Sonic Youth’s Lee Ranaldo and Wilco’s Glenn Kotche (Both are also composers that worked with BOAC) and her quote “Drummers kind of blow my mind!”, and her thoughts on working with outside genre artists or groups, sadly none of which have asked her to (I know a bunch of bands/artists that would probably love to have her play on their songs, me included). This version of the interview is sort of the “Theatrical cut” as opposed to the director’s one, and we do have her thoughts on music, on BOAC and the commissioning project TwoSense, and some wonderful words in general from this very spirited lady that makes me absolutely thankful her dad started talking to me about her at the Starbucks at WFC during the marathon in June! Thanks so much, Mr. Bathgate!
CM: You began studying cello at the age of 12. Was there a reason for what some people would say was a late start?
AB: Yeah, actually it was kind of random–I had always been interested in music. My mom was in the rodeo and rode horses, and I would travel with my parents everywhere. From the time I was an infant, I was exposed to a lot of country music, a lot of pop music, rock and roll–They took me to the Grand Ole Opry. I met Conway Twitty, Minnie Pearl–I was 3 and don’t remember any of it, but I have the photos, so…
CM: [laughing] You should put those on Facebook!
AB: [laughing] Well, actually there’s this one photo of me which is…it’s pretty adorable of me singing and playing guitar when I’m like 3 with curlers in my hair…
I guess I was always listening to music. I was always intrigued with performers and performance in particular, and then I grew up singing in school choirs and church choirs. It was part of me from the beginning, but I never thought to play an instrument, and I wasn’t actually exposed to classical music until I was maybe 9 or 10, and I do remember sort of seeing a quartet playing, and saying “What’s that instrument?”, and I loved it because it was big. I just said “Well that’s the biggest one!”
CM: You probably thought the violin was the baby cello! [laughing]
AB: Right, exactly! And so, I just picked it up because the school, in 4th and 5th grade, started offering instruments, and I picked the cello, ’cause I felt like it, and I started playing it, but I was like a normal kid, I wanted to go outside and play every day after school, I didn’t want to practice, I didn’t want to do any of this stuff, but I did, and actually after a year, I was going to quit. I told everyone “That was fun, but now I’m going to play the clarinet”, and everyone was like “NO! NO NO NO NO NO!! PLEASE DON’T QUIT! PLEASE DON’T STOP!” because I guess I was maybe showing some sort of promise towards the instrument, so, I said “All right If you feel that strongly about it!” [laughing]
CM: Wow! They really saved the day!
AB: Well yeah, I guess when I became serious about playing cello, and, sort of realizing in a roundabout way that this was what I wanted to do with my life, this was when I joined the Empire State Youth Orchestra in Albany, NY. That was sort of just an early introduction to what a conservatory is like. You finally find this group of people where everybody’s like you, everybody is practicing 3 hours a day and they’re classical music geeks.
CM: More like-mindedness that probably spurred you on.
AB: Yeah! And we had this fabulous conductor, his name was Francisco Noya, he was a really inspiring musician, teacher and character, all-around. They have a concerto competition that I entered, and I won it. (EDITOR’S NOTE: BTW, she didn’t say she won twice; At the time we talked, I had forgotten to ask Ashley which concerto this was she performed, but after some post-interview research, it is believed to have been the Saint-Saens Concerto #2 the 1st time in ’99 and the Schumann Concerto in ’01) And I had this wonderful opportunity to play a solo with an orchestra at the beautiful Troy Savings Bank Music Hall, and then I was hooked! I was like “Whoa! You mean I can do this by myself? You mean I can play like this in a hall like this in front of hundreds and hundreds of people? I’m sold!”
Kabalevsky: Cello Concerto in G minor, op. 49 (excerpt; w/Woodstock Chamber Orchestra, Nov 2003)
I think for a lot of people the big question is “Do you lose something if you start at a later age?”, and you can’t really answer that question. I may never know. Yes, there’s a part of me that believes that had I started when I was 6 and practiced my scales over and over and over again I might be a more fluent technician, but that’s what makes everyone individual in the end, it’s like, the experiences they have before, during and after, whether it’s actually playing the cello, or singing, or whatever, I think it all works out in a wash.
CM: During your studies, was there a building appreciation for certain kinds of classical music, or were you always open to any style?
AB: From an early age, I was exposed to music. They were all floating around the house. My dad used to play Aqualung by Jethro Tull, Nana Muskouri–we’d have classical music–Everything was like, piping in. I was always being brought to concerts. Saratoga, where I’m from, had the Saratoga Performing Arts Center, where the Philly Orchestra comes to play, the NYC Ballet, etc. All of these different kinds of music–Aretha Franklin–I was open to all of it. But at the same time, then, when I started playing the cello, that was sort of a different thing, because you’re taking lessons, you’re beginning it for the first time, and naturally your teachers and the people around you are saying the cello is a classical music instrument, so you’re gonna play Bach and Brahms and Beethoven, and all of these traditional composers, and so I accepted that. I said “Oh cool, that’s what the cello does”. I became very interested and involved in that, and it wasn’t really until college that I was sort of aware of the fact that it had other possibilities and that were other kinds of music that I could be involved in, but I wasn’t. I was too immersed in the repertoire that I was trying to learn, which was a bunch of dead white guys! [both laughing]
So, when I went to Bard, I was around a lot of jazz musicians, and there were a lot of kids forming their own bands–then I started listening to a bunch of Steely Dan–I’m like a huge Steely Dan fan, actually (EDITOR’S NOTE: Me too! 😉). There was a jazz course, so I took a jazz course, and I said “Oh, I can do this! I can improvise!”. So then I go to Yale, and there is a stronger new music contingent there. They had New Music New Haven series. At Bard, there wasn’t so much aside from Leon Botstein and the ASO–They do a tremendous amount of contemporary music. There wasn’t so much going on, so, in New Haven, it started as more of a requirement, and something that I became involved in first involuntarily, then voluntarily because I started to like it more and more.
I remember I did this piece for my senior year at Yale, and then I did a debut in New York at Weill Hall; I played this piece by Donald Martino, which was written for my teacher Aldo Parisot, it was called Parisonatina al’Dodecafonia
It’s very serialist, percussive…there’s like large sections of improvisation, and you just kind of get to go nuts for 12 minutes! I spent 6 months learning and memorizing that particular piece, and studying it with the person for whom it was written, so that was a pretty special time, and that was perhaps when I sort of began to actually love contemporary music.
Donald Martino: Parisonatina al’Dodecafonia (excerpt; Yale Artist Diploma recital, Weill Recital Hall, NY 1/26/08)
That, and also getting to work with not only student composers who were my colleagues at Yale like Timo Andres, Ted Hearne, Missy Mazzoli…They were all there and we’re all at the beginning of our careers…It was great to work with them, and then you have faculty, like Ezra Lauderman…I took some composition classes with him, and Martin Bresnick…I developed an appreciation there for new music, but then, I never thought I was gonna do it, though. I always thought, “Oh, I’ll do a little bit of this, but my heart is with the dead white guys”! [both laughing again]
And that’s when Bang On a Can happened.
Continuing my development of love for new music. So I’m ending my time at Yale, and I had no idea what I was going to do with my life. I was completely terrified, and of course, when you’re terrified, and you have no idea what you’re gonna do, what do you do? You move to New York City!
CM: Yes, where all the musicians are!
AB: I was like, “OK, I guess I’m going to New York, I’m graduating, I have no clue, I have no job, I have no prospects. And as I was leaving, a couple of professors approached me, Jack Vees and Martin Bresnick, and both of them said “Ashley, there’s this call for cellist. This band, Bang On a Can, they’re looking for a cellist. We really think that you would be perfect for this. Send in an application, we’ll write you a recommendation letter”. So I said “Okay!”. Now, I’m embarrassed to admit this, but I didn’t know what Bang On a Can was at that time, you know. I heard of their summer festival, I’ve heard of the composers but had never seen them, heard them, or anything.
CM: Did you know about David Lang, Julia Wolfe…?
AB: Yeah, I knew that David Lang won a Pulitzer, and I had heard the other names–of course I had heard of some of the other members in the group, but I was really unfamiliar with the organization, and with a lot of what happens in New York City. Even in New Haven, it’s just sort of this far off island. So, I went and looked them up and I checked them out, and I heard my predecessors Maya Beiser and Wendy Sutter were the previous cellists in the group doing all these really cool things. I mean, they’re playing amplified, they’re playing ridiculously hard music, they’re improvising; I was there for Kyaw Kyaw Naing, the Burmese circle drummer, and after hearing him, I was like “Ah! What is this?? I’m so excited!”
So I applied, got an audition, and then, it was kind of one of those love at first sight kind of things. I walked in and I was expecting the normal audition where you sort of go with your excerpts, and there’s a bunch of people sitting at a table staring you down and kind of waiting for you to screw up. I walked in, and here’s this band, all cramped into Ayers Studio–amps and drum kits, and computers and laptops all over the place. I sit down and they’re like “Ok, so we’re going to audition you now. We’re going to play”, and that’s what we did. We just played for an hour, all this really cool music that I’ve been listening to for a couple of months now, and for me that was the best audition I’ve ever had, not because of how I played, but just how I felt! I was like “Oh, this is what music making is supposed to be like!”. Not only that, I’m getting to play with these incredible musicians, sight unseen! So, I sort of trialed with them for the next year, and it was down to me and one other finalist, and we each did a few concerts with them, each rehearsal I had with them I was more and more in love with what they were doing, what I was learning and what I was incorporating into my life. And so, by the time I actually won the audition, I knew that “Ok, this is where I want to be, this is what I want to do. I’m really invested in this music and these people”. So, it’s the best thing that ever happened to me, musically!
CM: And this year at the marathon you guys worked with Philip Glass, which must have been awesome! Please walk us through that!
AB: In the last 2 years that I’ve been playing with them, we’ve gotten to work with Terry Riley, Steve Reich, and now Philip Glass. I mean yeah, there’s a part of me that feels “Okay, I belong here”, and there’s a part of me that’s like “Oh my God! Steve Reich!” and “Oh my God! Philip Glass!” [laughing] So, we’re on this incredible rollercoaster between feeling at home in this world of new music, we’re also being starstruck from time to time, which is a pretty cool thing. So, Philip Glass walks in, we had one rehearsal with him a couple of days before the marathon, and he’s this quiet, very sweet sort of soft-spoken gentleman. Vicky Chow and I were both meeting him, and playing with him for the first time, and we’re like looking at each other going “This is cool! This is great”! He sits down at the keyboard, and we just jumped right into it. We started playing Music In Similar Motion and it’s beautiful to see such a legend and such a wonderful composer sort of play his own music, and play with us and to share that. Aside from the fact that it was musically enriching, I think we all just felt like we’re getting to be a part of something that might not be around forever.
Philip Glass: Music In Similar Motion (BOAC All-Stars; BOAC Marathon; World Financial Center, NY 6/19/11)
CM: Would you say audiences are starting to be comfortable with a mixed-bag type of program of classics and new music?
AB: That is something that’s important to me now, as a player, it’s important to me to maintain both worlds equally. I love classical music, I love what I learned from classical music, I love what I learn and do with new music, and the fun thing for me to do is mix the two–to take different qualities from each world, and they are very different worlds for a player and for an audience member, but for a player, and see what I can throw back and forth and mix between the two. Now, you’ll get a lot of people who sort of have a hard time. If they think they’re going to a concert where they’re going to hear Beethoven, that’s what they want to hear. They want to hear Beethoven and all that goes along with that. If they want to go to a Bang On a Can concert, they think “Ok, I’m gonna get Steve Reich and Michael Gordon, and that’s what I’m going to get”. So when you actually shake it up and throw some new pieces into the mix, people are like “Whoa! Whoa! What are you doing? What are you doing? You’re screwing with me! You’re screwing with me!”. But then, more often than not, I find that afterwards people like “Whoa! That was really interesting! I’m so glad you played that new piece you commissioned on a program with Bach and Janacek or Beethoven”, and a lot of people come up to me and say “It made Schumann sound young”. It made Schumann sound like a new piece of music, and vice versa.
We commissioned a piece by Stephen Fiegenbaum that was our first commission for TwoSense [Suspended Animation] and put it up against the Janacek, and it made…They exchanged qualities, and people stopped viewing it as “old and new music”, they just view it as music, and that’s the whole point. It’s not an innovative thing to, like, mix up your concerts with old and new music, but I think it’s essential. You can only go right. What I’m realizing, when I go back to work on a Dvorak Concerto or anything like that, I look at it differently now. I look at it not as a piece that should be played a certain way, or has this long tradition of performances. I look at it as a piece that I’ve never seen before or a piece of new music, and I try to imagine, actually, that if this composer were alive, what would they be saying? What would they mean by what they wrote on the page? A lot of times it’s like, you get these scores, and it’s like The Holy Bible, it’s like [shouting] “BUT HE WROTE ‘SFORZANDO’ AND HE WROTE THIS, AND THOU SHALT HONOR!”, and like, what I learned by playing new composers, often times they don’t always know what they write is like not exactly what they meant to communicate or maybe they did, but they want it to sound like this, and so, it means there’s much more room for interpretation and expression.
AB: When I performed a piece by Martin Bresnick around the time I was leaving Yale, I had sent him a tape of my performance, and he liked it! He said, “Hey, do you want to record this piece with my wife Lisa Moore?” and I said “Pianist Lisa Moore? Are you kidding me? I would love to work with with her! I heard her play, I heard her recordings! So I did, but I was so excited because of what I had heard about her and her playing. So we worked on this piece and we recorded it, and during that time there was a great chemistry, in terms of playing, so Lisa had said “Ok, so, why don’t we do a concert?” And I was like “OK”. “Well, why don’t we commission some pieces?” This is where TwoSense came about because–She’s the founding pianist of Bang On a Can, and she’s commissioned dozens of works, and, I’m new to this, but equally as excited about it.
There are all of these pieces for weird ensemble orchestras, or different instrumental combinations, but for a very traditional ensemble like cello and piano, there’s not an overwhelming repertoire available, in sort of the “downtown contemporary music scene”.
I was excited about this. I was like “Sure! Let’s do it!”. I was approached by Stephen Feigenbaum, and he said “You know, I heard you guys were playing. I love your playing! I really would love to write you a piece and write a piece for cello and piano.” I’m like “Great!”. Well, then, that was just a snowball, and it was like “Ok, well let’s ask some composers that we know”. So we asked Missy Mazzoli, and we’ve asked David, Michael and Julia, Judd Greenstein, Ted Hearne, and Kate Moore–Kate had written us a piece already called Velvet. Daniel Wohl just finished a piece for us.
All of a sudden it was like “Okay, we are asking all of these amazing composers and they’re saying “Yes!” It was kind of a beautiful thing. It was like”Well, we don’t have money!”. We can’t pay all these composers out of our pockets! And we don’t have money to put on concerts, and all we have is our drive, and creative innative, so it was like “All right, let’s go!”, and these composers were of the same mind, they were kind of like “Yeah, let’s do this! We wanna write for you, we wanna make this happen!”, and TwoSense was born. We have a project and we have a mission, which is to expand this repertoire, and to also give composers of today a platform where their music can be showcased and made known to the world, so, not only have we commissioned a lot of younger, up and coming composers, but also…Martin Bresnick is writing a piece for us now, as well as Jack Perla and Paul Dresher on the West Coast are also writing pieces for us. It’s just coming from all sides and it’s glorious!
CM: Andy Akiho’s 21 is really incredible! What he does is great with the steel drum, and YOU, you got the cello, and you also got…It sounds like you’re working with a loop station, which a lot of people in pop music are using now when they play out acoustic, and you are also clapping, and you’re also using the kick drum!
AB: It’s a funny story. Andy is a very special person and he’s a very amazing composer! He’s gonna go very far! I was so happy to play his music, and he had this piece and playing with steel pans, but what was comical was when I was told “You also have to play the kick drum…”, and I was like “Oh! I’ve never done that! Okay…”, he was like “Well, you also have to do the loop!”, and I was like “Well wait! Why do I have to do the loop? Why don’t you do the loop?? You’re playing the can! Don’t you want something else to do?”. He’s like “No no no!! I’ll screw it up!! I’m too afraid I’m gonna screw it up! You gotta do it! I don’t wanna mess it up!”. I was like “All right, Andy!”.
CM: He didn’t take into consideration it could go wrong on your side too, but…
AB: I know, but I was happy to take on the challenge! I loved having a couple of kick-drum lessons with my percussion buddies who had got me working on that end. It does take a lot of practice to sort of coordinate and do these things, but that’s part of the reason why I’m so enamored with doing new music. After a while, people don’t think of you as just a cellist, you’re simply whatever they want to ask you to do, and they encourage you to try to do it, and I’m happy to experiment, and do many things that might be not “cellistic” but, you know…
CM: It definitely must take you out of the world of, “Okay, God here we go again with Beethoven…” It’s probably much more rewarding.
AB: Yeah, because you feel like you’re learned. At the end of the day, you’ve learned something that you never thought you’d learn. Keeps it fresh!
CM: Crazy time signature, too!
AB: Yeah yeah yeah! But in Andy’s mind, he just hears it! There are no time signatures. He can bounce it back and forth!
CM: It’s like there’s a time signature only to get from point A to point B.
AB: So that mortals! Mere mortals like us can read it! [laughs]
Andy Akiho: 21 (w/Andy Akiho on steel drums, Ashley on everything else; Firehouse12, New Haven, CT 10/2/10)
CM: You even studied composition at Yale. Are you considering ever maybe composing something at some point?
AB: When I was a kid, I did write music, it was kind of one of those things I did in addition to singing in the shower! I thought it was really cool to write songs because I listen to songs, and I loved Patsy Cline and Johnny Cash, and the ballad was probably my favorite before I even knew what a ballad was, so I did write when I was a kid, for fun, before I could even write music, actually, like I would just have a keyboard and I would sound it out, and I would memorize it all, and I had it! Actually, one of my compositions, when I was in the choir in church, I remember I must have been like 12, they actually performed it in front of an audience, and that was a fun thing! In college, I took a lot of different courses. I did take a composition class with Joan Tower, and I also took a class with Ezra Lauderman at Yale, and both times, I guess, they were both sort of these ‘composition for performers’, these classes, and I learned counterpoint a lot, and I think I just wanted to experience and see what it was like to be on the other side of the page. Now I actually think I would get a lot more out of it, having worked with so many living composers, and played these new pieces. At the time I just realized “Whoa! This is not like picking up another instrument where you can teach yourself how to play the guitar, you can learn how to cook, you can learn how to bake.
It’s like, for me, if I were to take on composition, that would take another lifetime. It would take every day twice. I wrote 2 pieces which were only performed out of the class, at the end of the class. It takes a tremendous amount of work, so I have a great deal of respect for composers, to start with, but especially after these classes, and I think that I could see one day writing my own music. Todd Reynolds writes a lot of his own stuff. He has the new CD Outerborough, and half of it is the music that his friends and colleagues have written for him, and half of it is his own stuff. The thing is, I hold Todd in very high admiration because he is not only an amazing violinist, but he is doing exactly what he wants to do in music. He’s at the point in his life where he has all the tools, and he’s chosen what he wants to focus on, which is that he likes to write, he knows what he wants to hear, he’s really into the whole ‘he’s a one-man band’ with his loops and able to run this to an impressive degree, in these shows. And I hope that one day I can be like that, and know what I want to do.
Right now, I’m still tasting everything on the buffet. You put a piece of Bach in front of me, and I’m gonna eat it up! You put Michael Gordon in front of me, and I’m gonna eat it up! You put an amp with a bunch of wires in front of me, and I’m gonna eat it up! Even if I have a week to go and they say “You don’t have a cello, all you have is some paper and a pen”, I would love to do that. I’d love to have the time, but what I feel like as a performer is that there just isn’t enough time in the world to do all of the music, or to do with music, all of things I want.
CM: It would probably have to be something transitional for you…
AB: I would have to have already felt satiated with my playing and with the concerts I’m doing. It’s too early to tell. It could be there, but I have too many other things right now that I want to do before I start writing my own stuff.
Ashley’s official webpage