The Piano Gets Political at Old First Concerts

David Bratman on May 21, 2019
Sarah Cahill | Credit: Christine Alicino

Old First Concerts’ charmingly offbeat piano recital held at its namesake church in San Francisco on Friday had a topical theme: recent compositions inspired by the search for social justice. As an inspiration for music, this sounds dreary and pedagogical, but as often as not it was imaginative or even whimsical.

Sarah Cahill and Regina Myers, both well-known for presenting new and innovative music, played brief works for solo piano, for piano four-hands, for two pianos, and two pianos eight-hands, the last with the assistance of Riley Nicholson and Monica Chew.

Regina Myers

The most explicitly social justice-oriented work, the shortest (less than three minutes), and the largest in ensemble — two pianos eight-hands plus audience — was A New Indigo Peace by the late Pauline Oliveros, described as a 12-bar blues inspired by a Pete Seeger style singalong. The audience had some trouble following Cahill’s instructions as to exactly what was to be sung when, but the rumble of voices singing “We want peace on earth … Tell it to your sister, tell it to your brother …” could be made out beneath the stomping piano sound.

Also more than casually explicit was A Muted Body by Sharmi Basu. Basu’s usual compositional medium is abstract electronic music, so I wasn’t sure what to expect in her piano work. What Myers played might be called a piece for unprepared piano. John Cage had invented what he called the prepared piano, to the strings of which he carefully fastened small pieces of hardware before the concert, producing a range of soft percussive sounds when played. In this case, Myers casually placed pieces of paper and other miscellanea on the string bed every few bars. These were intended as offering “objects of support” to the piano, but the instrument was not equipped to deal with them. They merely made an increasingly honky-tonk tack piano sound as Myers played Mozartian phrases. Eventually these gave way to blocky chords interspersed with Myers reading aloud denunciations of the patriarchy.

Regina Myers, Sarah Cahill, and Theresa Wong | Credit: Old First Concerts

The rest of the program was a little more subtle than that. One of the best pieces was She Dances Naked Under Palm Trees by Theresa Wong, its title taken from “No Images,” a poem by Harlem Renaissance poet William Waring Cuney. In the poem, the phrase is conditional: the text describes a black woman who “does not know her beauty” because there’s nothing in her life to show it to her. As Wong explained in introducing it, her music challenges the woman’s marginalized fate by depicting the revelatory dance that in life she can’t do. Cahill played an extended wordless song of harmonically lush melody, huge swooping glissandos, and an irregular dancing rhythm.

Hannah Kendall’s Processional, played by Myers, begins with disconnected and irregular bursts. The meaning of the work — inspired by an artwork depicting Dr. King’s Selma March of 1965 — lies in its gradual development of coherency. Similarly, Meredith Monk’s Ellis Island, played by Cahill and Myers at two pianos, presents fragmented melodies over cascading repeating arpeggios that give a sense of the anxious waiting that immigrants underwent.

The largest work on the program, nearly 20 minutes, was all night, all day by Ruby Fulton, for eight hands. This was inspired by the protests in Baltimore, where Fulton was living at the time, after the death of Freddie Gray in police custody in 2015. These events must have shaken Fulton considerably because her response is the most bleak and dour-toned work I’ve heard by this frequently scintillating composer. Beginning with solemn heavy chords traded off in different registers, it gradually evolves to more shining chords on top of a lower register dissolution into rumble.

Ruby Fulton

All these pieces were in one way or another postmodernist, in their use of simple structures, consonant harmony, or explicit minimalist techniques. The only work on the program in modernist style was Mirror, Mirror by Elinor Armer, a tribute to her composition teacher, Darius Milhaud. It was also the funniest work on the program, depicting the competitive spirit of duo pianists. Cahill and Myers, sitting together at one keyboard, upstaged each other with trills, thumps, and excursions to the far ends of the keyboard by reaching around each other.

The concert concluded with a classic of experimental pianism, the oldest work on the program and the only one by a male composer, Frederic Rzewski’s Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues from 1980. This amazing essay in percussive pianism, depicting the deafening noises of a cotton mill, is impressive enough on one piano. This was the two-piano version, and outdid anything I’ve heard on keyboard since the San Francisco Symphony put on George Antheil’s Ballet mécanique. But there is a folksong of the same title buried inside Rzewski’s work, and playing Pete Seeger’s recording of that song just beforehand helped the hearers become aware of it in the pianos.