Thursday, July 26, 2018

Composed for Sarah Cahill

This blog began publishing 13 years ago in 2005 and one of its first subjects was the New Music Seance, a marathon fundraising concert for the Other Minds Music Festival at San Francisco's Swedenborgian church in Presidio Heights. The main performer at the trio of concerts which stretched from noon to almost midnight was the Berkeley pianist Sarah Cahill, playing the transcendental music of everyone from Scriabin to Cowell to Rudhyar to Kyle Gann. I became an instant fan and have been covering her work ever since, studying up close one of the most interesting musical careers in the world.

She decided early in her musical performing career to leave the piano competitions to those who wanted to focus on being virtuoso soloists in the standard repertory, and to concentrate instead on contemporary music which was what she was interested in anyway. She's a rare spirit who channels composers of very different temperaments like she's their best friend and interpreter.

On Sunday afternoon, Cahill presented a concert at Old First Church of a small selection of the music which has been written for her by living composers over the last four decades. Listening to her settle into a new piece of music is akin to watching a great stage actor premiering a role and then varying the performance over the years. For example, she premiered Samuel Adams' 2014 Shade Studies, written for Cahill's commissioning project around composer Terry Riley's 80th birthday. This was the third time I've heard the delicate, half-acoustic, half-electronic piece and it has sounded different every time partly because of hall acoustics but also because Cahill grows into a piece over the years.

Samuel Adams, above, introduced his work and talked about hanging out at a party with Terry Riley "and after all the food and the drink, of course Terry goes to the piano and improvises for the next 90 minutes, playing all kinds of music from celtic to rags to raga, and I found myself underneath the piano just touching it and the feeling was amazing." Cahill also played China Gates, one of John Adams' first, charming essays in minimalism. Conjuring two modern classics from father and son composers is undoubtedly a rare category, which is possibly why she was receiving an award from a Minnesota outfit called the American Composers Forum, with John Nuechterlein announcing her new title as "2018 Champion of Music" in the photo below. Awards are both stupid and fabulous, so I have decided to create a public award: "The Goddess of Music" and Sarah Cahill has just won the First Annual 2018 edition. Her successors will have to work hard to measure up.

Her concerts over the years have been all over the map, some more successful than others, but always rewarding focused, intelligent listening from the audience, which after a number of minutes starts clearing one's hearing which then starts rewiring one's brain. Last Saturday, besides the two Adams pieces, she played the 1998/2009 Steppe Music, a distillation of Meredith Monk's 40-minute piece into five; then Ingram Marshall's 2000 Authentic Presence which was a gorgeous mixture of moods and styles that was constantly surprising and touching; Pauline Oliveros' 2001 Quintuplets Play Pen, her first notated score in ages "which is incredibly hard to play," Cahill mentioned; Annea Lockwood's 2001 RCSC written for a Ruth Crawford Seeger commissioning project by Cahill; Phil Kline's 2008 The Long Winter, which in context of the other music was violent and despairing; and finally Terry Riley's Be Kind to One Another (Rag) written for her A Sweeter Music commissioning project in reaction to the Iraq War/Occupation.

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