The pianist Sarah Cahill came to my apartment on Thursday to talk about "A Sweeter Music," her amazingly ambitious project of the last year where she has commissioned 18 composers to write piano music on the subject of peace. The composers are an interesting mixture of the obscure and the celebrated: Meredith Monk, Frederic Rzewski, Terry Riley, Yoko Ono, Bernice Johnson Reagon, Pauline Oliveros, Peter Garland, Kyle Gann, Paul Dresher, Carl Stone, Ingram Marshall, Jerome Kitzke, Phil Kline, Mamoru Fujieda, Larry Polansky, Michael Byron, The Residents, and Preben Antonsen.
So far, Sarah has received 11 of the 18 scores and they range in style from angry and confrontational to the complete opposite, such as Terry Riley's "Be Kind to One Another" rag which the composer characterizes as "pro-peace" rather than "anti-war." Cahill has already fallen in love with the music.
One question is if a piece of music can even be thought of as political, especially without text.
A number of the composers are incorporating language into their pieces, as Frederic Rzewski did in his 2005 round, shown above...
...and even sign language within Larry Polansky's 17-part "Numbers for solo piano (and invited speakers)."
The brilliant young composer Preben Antonsen, a student of John Adams, has written a piece that starts off in exquisite beauty and ends in great violence, which Cahill has asked him to consider changing depending on who gets elected president this fall.
The four-figure commissions are being subsidized in a few cases by individual affluent patrons, but most of it is coming out of Cahill's own pocket "with the assistance of some stocks left to me at age 9 by my Nixon-supporting grandfather which seems like a good use for them."
It wasn't until we were at lunch that we both realized the date was 9/11. Sarah's husband, the video artist/director John Sanborn, had been offered a good job at the Comedy Central network, so they moved to Manhattan in 2001. Here's her account of that annus horribilis:
"We lived on 21st Street between Broadway and Park. My daughter was in preschool on 14th St (she was three). Right after September 11th, I would take her to school in her stroller, past Union Square, plastered with flyers of missing people, along 14th Street, which was the boundary: no one was allowed to cross that line unless they lived below 14th Street. So we would see the rescue workers coming off duty, and the fire engines and military vehicles, and the makeshift shrines, and I kept trying to protect her from the thick smoke and the news about body parts and terrorists and the endless footage of the planes going into the buildings. She and her preschool friends played games where they would rescue people from burning buildings. I got e-mails from some friends saying "Well, it's about time! The United States has been so brutal towards the Middle East, no wonder we've been attacked!" but mostly people were just shocked. I'll never forget looking down Broadway towards where the World Trade Center used to be, and the smoke pouring from the blankness.
Comedy Central was having a difficult time after that, and soon they closed the division that John was heading. We came back here to Berkeley, and he made a film called MMI, which is about our 2001: the death of his father, the deaths of our two dogs (both died in New York), the World Trade Center attacks, our move across the country first east and then west. It ends with the nine-foot Baldwin being hoisted out the window of our "loft."
"A Sweeter Music" takes its title from Dr. Martin Luther King’s Nobel Lecture: "We must see that peace represents a sweeter music, a cosmic melody that is far superior to the discords of war." Sarah wrote to me about her initial impetus:
"It was Rzewski's arrangement of "Down by the Riverside" which first gave me the idea of "A Sweeter Music." After reading news about the latest deaths in Iraq, I would sit down and play his music as a kind of catharsis. And I kept thinking that there needed to be more pieces like this, which are composed in response to a particular war (in this case the Vietnam war, during which "Down by the Riverside" was often sung in protest marches), but can still provide solace and inspiration thirty years later and beyond. And I know a number of composers who, like me, feel so frustrated and helpless in the face of a senseless war, a completely insane and unprovoked and costly war, and need to express their response in some form. So I really left it to the composers whether their work would be "anti-war" or "pro-peace."
This historic musical omnibus is still gestating, but you can hear portions of it starting this fall for free at Mills College on November 24 (click here and go to the bottom of the link for more info). There will be another set of excerpts performed through Cal Performances at UC Berkeley on January 25th, and at Merkin Hall in New York City in March. It should be an extraordinary experience. (To get to Sarah's website with further links, click here.)