An Interview With Sarah Cahill

Marianne Lipanovich on June 8, 2009
Sarah Cahill is a pianist who wears a lot of hats, which may account for her high profile among local, Bay Area pianists. She hosts the radio program Then and Now on KALW on Sunday evenings, wrote music reviews for The East Bay Express until the late 1990s, and for San Francisco Classical Voice, when it began, and has commissioned a number of new works for piano. She talked to SFCV about her current projects and upcoming concerts.

Coming up on June 21 is the Garden of Memory summer solstice concert at Chapel of the Chimes. What will you be performing, and what can you say about each piece of music?

I’ll play Michael Byron's Devotion to Peace (Rose Mist, Transluscent), which is luscious and intricate (and part of my project [of specially commissioned piano compositions], A Sweeter Music), and then a short work by Dane Rudhyar, the early 20th-century mystical composer/astrologist. The Rudhyar piece is an excerpt from his Pentagram No. 4 from 1926.

I’ll also play a piece with violinist Kate Stenberg, who is in the Del Sol Quartet, and also performing at the solstice concert. We’ll play Somei Satoh’s Birds in Warped Time II.

This is an annual event that you helped to start. It’s also unusual because the audience walks through the venue to hear the different artists. How did it come about?

I’m part of a small organization called New Music Bay Area, and there are three of us: Jeff Dunn, who writes regularly for SFCV; Tyler Abbott, who handles our printed new music calendar; and me. I visited the Chapel of the Chimes about 13 years ago and had this idea about musicians all over the building, in all its alcoves and little chapels and indoor gardens and hidden nooks. That first year I just called up friends and asked them to perform. We didn’t know if it would work; if they would feel like animals at a zoo with the audience walking by to inspect them and then moving on. But it was a success, and the Chapel of the Chimes invited us back.

What else makes this different than other concerts?

It attracts people who might think they don’t like classical music, or new music, or electronic music. But they come in with open minds, and find something they wouldn’t have been exposed to. Lots of kids come. Some people dress as if they’re there to celebrate a pagan ritual. It’s a very diverse crowd. There’s a family that brings a picnic every year and spreads out their picnic blanket in one of the empty spaces.

There are videos of the event on YouTube, and I look at them and have no idea who some of the musicians are. They’re not people we invited to perform. So it has a life of its own, in a way.

It’s also a nice alternative to the convention of sitting still for a two-hour concert. I love going to concerts, but there’s something wonderful about being able to move around, spend some time with a chorus, touch an orchid which is part of an electronic music installation, explore a mysterious hallway, encounter a didjeridoo or a cello, take a break outside with some of [Italian composer] Nino Rota’s music, meet up with friends, find more music. We put a map in the program, so listeners can identify what they’re hearing along the way and find performers they like.

How did your project A Sweeter Music (see next performance) come about?

Like many people, I was shocked when we began a war with Iraq based on falsified evidence and lies. Then came the senseless deaths of thousands of Americans and Iraqis, many women and children. There seemed to be nothing we could do to make any difference.

After a few years of ongoing frustration and anger, I started asking composer friends to write antiwar pieces. I wanted to put together a big project of commissioned works, which I’ve done a few times (for the centennials of Henry Cowell, in 1997, and Ruth Crawford, in 2001). I had spent an afternoon, a few years ago, with Terry Riley and Frederic Rzewski, two of our greatest living composers, at Terry’s house in the Richmond hills.

It was actually a pretty bleak afternoon. Here were two composers who were tremendously idealistic in the 1960s, and have written political music all their lives, and gone out on the streets as activists for what they believe in. And they seemed so disillusioned with America while Bush was in power. So they were the first two composers I thought of. I invited composers who were friends because I consider this a very personal project, in a way. The only two I didn’t know previously were Yoko Ono and Bernice Johnson Reagon.

Do you enjoy commissioning pieces, not knowing what you’ll end up with?

I love commissioning multiple works because there’s a lot of risk involved. You’re paying several thousand dollars per piece and there’s no guarantee. A few of the pieces are disappointing. Several of them are fantastic, and other pianists are already asking for them. This project cost about $100,000 altogether, and I’m very grateful to the individuals and foundations which supported it. I used some money my grandfather gave me when I was nine years old. It was completely worth it.

You worked with your husband, video artist John Sanborn, on this project. Had you worked together before, and how was the experience?

We tried collaborating a bit but it never quite worked out. Then when I started working on A Sweeter Music, I asked him to make a video for one piece. He really got involved and made videos for all the new pieces. I’ll make a rough recording of a new piece, and then he listens to it over and over, and figures out how he’ll respond to it. For Rzewski’s piece, he shot footage of two dancers improvising. For Jerome Kitzke’s piece, in which I recite a few of Walt Whitman’s poems about the Civil War, John used photographs by Matthew Brady, very graphic pictures from the Civil War. For a piece by Mamoru Fujieda, John shot some footage from a hot air balloon in Napa Valley. So each one is very different.

We had three screens made, and our daughter Miranda is now very adept at putting the screens together, which she did both at Cal Performances in January and at Merkin Hall in New York in March. It’s been amazing to work with John, because we’ve been intimately linked with each other’s creative work. The composers didn’t know there would be video with their pieces, but all the response has been positive so far.

You’re known for specializing in new American music and 20th-century American, experimental music. What draws you to these works?

I grew up playing classical music, studying with Sharon Mann here in Berkeley, and I did fairly well, winning competitions, playing concertos with orchestras at 12, 13, 14. But it wasn’t until I started specializing in new music that I really felt a sense of purpose. I love playing late Beethoven sonatas, and I love hearing great performances of them. But when you perform late Beethoven, the audience inevitably compares your version to Schnabel, Alfred Brendel, Richard Goode, any number of great recordings. There are plenty of pianists who play those sonatas beautifully and convincingly.

My mission is to premiere new pieces, to bring them into the world, to guide them into the repertoire. Several pieces that were written for me are already part of the literature, performed by grad students and young conservatory pianists, and I’m really proud of that. Not all new pieces will rise to that level, and that’s fine. I also want to resurrect important but neglected work from the 20th century, and have done that with recordings of Henry Cowell and Ruth Crawford, and more recently by Marc Blitzstein and Leo Ornstein.

What are some of the harder aspects of a musician’s life?

One of the hardest things about being a musician is the constant need to be proactive. You think that it’s going to get easier along the way, that great gigs are going to fall in your lap, that you’ll be recognized and taken care of. But that never happens. You can hire a manager, but that has its own pitfalls, and good managers are scarce. You can never just relax and do your practicing and wait for the invitations. There’s always an uphill struggle. Sometimes young pianists will ask me for advice about a career in new music, and I always tell them they have to think creatively: start a concert series, start your own ensemble, imagine what you want most and then get it done. No one else is going to do it for you. We’re so sheltered at conservatories and colleges, and it seems that winning a competition guarantees some success. But you always have to be managing your own future.

What instrument would you play if you didn’t play the piano?

I want to play the electric bass. Miranda and I listen to a lot of the Jackson Five, and those fantastic bass lines in I Want You Back and Stop (The Life You Save May Be Your Own) give them their foundation. It certainly makes me think differently about the bass register of the piano.

And if you weren’t a musician, what would you be doing?

I recently came across a diary entry from when I was 9, which read: “I am a poet and a pianist.” I know that sounds pretentious, but those were my two main interests, besides the usual 9-year-old wish to become a veterinarian. I wrote books of poetry when I was nine, nearly all of it rhyming. Poetry is still very important to me. I always return to Andrew Marvell, William Carlos Williams, Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman.

It’s funny, considering that I love playing new music, but I only read the classics, and not that much contemporary fiction. If I’m investing time reading a novel, I want it to be really great, and to have stood the test of time. Which is exactly the way many people feel about Beethoven versus contemporary music.

Any unfulfilled wishes?

Sometimes I wish I had gotten an advanced degree in music, especially now that I’m teaching a class on 20th-century keyboard literature at the San Francisco Conservatory, and am coming to terms with huge gaps in my education. I only went to music school at University of Michigan for a year, and then became an English major.

On the other hand, writing about music and doing radio has given me an important perspective on the music scene. Musicians can become so insular, working away in a vacuum. Sometimes, when I have guests on the radio at KALW — musicians or composers — I can tell they worry about their place in the scheme of things. Why aren’t they more famous? What can they do to become famous? There’s so much insecurity and doubt in this profession. We all want to be understood, and encouraged, and we want a sense of purpose.