Monday, August 05, 2013

Sarah Cahill Plays Cowell and Southam

Old First Concerts presented another marvelous concert last Friday at the beautiful old church on the corner of Van Ness and Sacramento Streets.

The Berkeley based pianist Sarah Cahill above, who specializes in the work of contemporary composers, always offers thoughtful, mind and ear expanding programs during her solo piano recitals, and last Friday's concert was particularly outstanding. Though Cahill's performance skills are formidable, her real gift is not so much pianistic virtuosity as her abiility to channel a composer's voice with conviction, intelligence, and a special sensitivity.

For instance, I have heard a number of people play Henry Cowell's piano music live, but none of them come close to Cahill's magical conjuring of the composer's style, from forearm tone clusters to delicate melodies to complex rhythmic signatures. She offered two pieces by Cowell on Friday, Rhythmicana and High Color, both written in 1938 during the midst of the composer's four-year incarceration at San Quentin prison on morals charges. In 1936, Cowell naively confessed to Redwood City police that he had given a 17-year-old man a blow job, the Hearst press in San Francisco went crazy, and the composer was sentenced to jail for 15 years in San Quentin. He served four years in the notorious penitentiary before friends, family, musical colleagues and the election of a newly liberal California governor conspired to have him paroled into the service of composer Percy Grainger in White Plains, New York in 1940.

Cahill recently had a vision that she should play a concert at San Quentin of Henry Cowell's music that he had written while incarcerated. According to a long, academic biography of Cowell by Joel Sachs that was published by Oxford University Press last year, Cowell endured his jail time almost like a saint, and after a year of hard labor on a jute mill making cloth, he was transferred to the Department of Education, where he organized concerts, taught music theory classes to the prisoners, studied Spanish and Japanese, learned new instruments, transcribed music for the prison band, wrote a theoretical (and still unpublished) book on the importance of melody, and essentially became one of the most beloved inmates in the prison. As one of his jailers wrote after his release, "The Music Department in San Quentin is not a Music Department without Henry Cowell. It was his and without him it just isn't. There will never be another to take your place."

Henry Cowell is an enormously appealing figure, the quintessential California autodidact, an original wildflower-gathering nature boy, son of radical anarchist philosophers who settled in the Bay Area early in the 20th century, and his stature is only beginning to come into focus. Unfortunately, the Sachs biography, though filled with invaluable research, is awful. There is a sort of genius in transforming a life as extraordinarily interesting as Cowell's into something this dull, with every receipt from the New Music Quarterly documented while misunderstanding the life and times completely.

Mark Morris's recent Ojai Festival curatorship was essentially a Cowell festival, careful to include works by Henry's brilliant, gay, West Coast students John Cage and Lou Harrison. Morris was overheard at the festival talking to a local critic who was offering him some anecdote, and Morris's response was "I read the fucking boring Sachs biography too." For a swifter and more illuminating dip into the composer's life and works, I'd suggest you click here for the well-done "official" Henry Cowell musical catalogue website.

The concert also included living composers, starting with Naturali Periclitati by John Kennedy above, who was in attendance. It's a 2007, three-movement piece about Nature in Peril, and though that sounded amorphous at first, by the chilly, delicate end, the piece fully fulfilled its program, especially in Cahill's performance.

After Cowell's Rhythmicana, we heard the world premiere of Shinji Eshima's (above) Delta 88. The piece sounded like something of a stunt from the program notes, with all 88 keys of the piano being used only once in its duration. When it started with a flourish of notes, one's first response was, "Don't use them all at once!" But it immediately calmed down, and was a minute-long piece Shinji wrote during the death of a friend that captured presence and absence with perfect subtlety. Again, Cahill's performance made a major contribution.

The second half of the program started with Samuel Carl Adams's 2010 Piano Step, which was complex and interesting but dull in the context of the rest of the program. The real revelation was the music of the recently deceased Ann Southam, a lesbian feminist Canadian composer. Richard Friedman above, who hosts Music from Other Minds on KALW radio, introduced the two pieces from Southam's Glass Houses and Rivers, by describing how he is sent literally everything composed by Canadians thanks to the CBC, and how he dutifully listens to everything while doing household chores. "Most of it's not very good, but one afternoon I was thunderstruck! It was the music of Ann Southam and I needed to know who she was."

There's a lovely 2009 profile of Ann Southam in a Toronto Globe and Mail feature by Robert Everett-Green. He quotes her love of electronic tape music, which she started composing in the 1960s:
"I loved the mucking-around quality of it," she said of her time in the University of Toronto's electronic-music studio. "It was a combination of making things happen and letting things happen. There was no point trying to tune anything. Things would just kind of drift off. It was like a wilderness of sounds. And now that whole wonderful playground has been paved over," she said, referring to the much more sophisticated equipment available today.
She discovered minimalism in the 1970s through San Francisco composer Terry Riley, and then made it completely her own, all the while collaborating with Toronto modern dance groups. "Being gay and growing up gay in the fifties was not amusing," she said. "Life was pretty much a social nightmare. The perfect solution was to be an artist. I could be as moody and anti-social as I liked. And of course everything in the dance world was higglety-pigglety anyway." Richard Friedman was right, by the way. The music is astonishing. Click here for a YouTube performance of Glass Houses No. 5 performed by Christina Petrowska Quilico for a taste.

The final piece was Henry Cowell's Irish inflected High Color in a magnificent performance. It will be interesting to know how it is received at the prison, where Cahill is giving her Cowell at San Quentin concert on September 20th.


Nancy Ewart said...

You are the best music critic in the Bay Area - too bad none of the major dailies have the brains to hire you. Great review; not the kind of music that I like but you made it come alive. I didn't know anything bout Cowell. Than you for introducing me to a fascinating guy.

Civic Center said...

Dear Nancy: Thank you. Cowell's music is wonderful, and not particularly difficult for a listener. What's strange and shameful is the amount of music he composed, over 1,000 pieces during his lifetime, most of which is rarely played and in some cases still hasn't been published. If we could just hear one of his compositions live for every dreary Copland performance, the music world would be a much better place.

Nancy Ewart said...

I agree about Copeland; Appalachian Spring is way past its shelf life.

Unknown said...

Aug 5,The piece sounded like something of a stunt from the program notes, with all 88 keys of the piano being used only once in its duration. When it ...