Sunday, December 28, 2008
Is the piano mightier than the sword? That's what pianist Sarah Cahill aims to find out when she premieres her new musical project, "A Sweeter Music," Jan. 25 at Cal Performances' Hertz Hall.
Cahill asked 18 eminent new music composers - including Terry Riley, Yoko Ono, Frederic Rzewski, Larry Polansky, Jerome Kitzke, Pauline Oliveros and The Residents - to compose works about peace, and they all rushed to accept.
"Any time Sarah asks me to write a piece, I say yes," said Polansky. "I don't care what it's about, I'm just flattered and honored that she asked me."
"She's just fearless and will try anything," added Kitzke, whose score calls for Cahill to speak, sing and rap the keyboard lid with her knuckles. "She's a great musician."
"This is the third or fourth piece I've written for Sarah, and she's always able to handle anything I throw at her, which is quite a variety, " said Oliveros. "This time, I've written a 12-bar blues with the audience joining in, singing, 'We want peace on Earth.' I think it's going to really rock."
"A Sweeter Music" will get its world premiere Jan. 25 at Cal Performances' Hertz Hall, augmented by a three-screen video projection by Cahill's husband, award-winning video artist/director John Sanborn.
The concert will be preceded by a panel discussion featuring Cahill and some of the composers on Jan. 23 at Wheeler Auditorium. Then Cahill will take "A Sweeter Music" on tour - first across the country and then to Europe and Asia.
The title is a quote from Martin Luther King's Nobel Prize lecture: "We must see that peace represents a sweeter music, a cosmic melody, that is far superior to the discords of war."
"It was Frederic Rzewski's arrangement of 'Down by the Riverside' that first gave me the idea," she said. "After reading news about the latest deaths in Iraq, I would sit down and play his music as a kind of catharsis.
"I kept thinking that there needed to be more pieces like this, that can provide solace and inspiration. I know a number of composers who, like me, feel so frustrated and helpless in the face of a senseless war and need to express their response in some form."
Some of the pieces are overtly anti-war, such as "Dar al-Harb," composed by 17-year-old wunderkind Preben Antonsen as a tribute to his cousin, who served in Iraq.
"He was an interrogator, which means he did all the things the government says we don't do, and he was damaged by that. The piece starts out very simple and very calm and gradually gets more and more violent, and by the end it's just an enormous flaming mass of fury with no order at all. Like the war."
Others are more pro-peace, such as Riley's gentle "Be Kind To One Another Rag," which he plays to his grandchildren at bedtime.
"When Sarah called and asked me to write an anti-war piece, I said, 'No, but I'll write some music for peace,'" said Riley, who was arrested on the first day of the Iraq war for sitting down in the middle of the street. He was sentenced to community service, which he performed by writing an anti-war song.
The premiere of "A Sweeter Music" is the latest installment in Cahill's long association with Cal Performances, which goes back more than two decades.
"She was the first person I met when I came to Berkeley," said Cal Performances Director Robert Cole. "I had just flown here to accept this job. After I signed the contract I stopped into a restaurant on Shattuck Avenue for a bite to eat, and there was this young woman playing Chopin - and beautifully, too. I thought, 'What a high class town this is!' And she's been one of my favorite collaborators ever since."
Described by the San Francisco Chronicle as "a reigning diva of avant-garde pianism," Cahill is popular with her peers because her behavior is anything but diva-like.
"You're going to have a hard time finding anyone who doesn't adore her," said Bonnie Hughes, executive director of the Berkeley Arts Festival. "She's incredibly generous, always thinking of things for other musicians to do. I mean, look at this project."
In addition to her concert career, Cahill promotes new music on her weekly two-hour radio show, "Then and Now," on KALW-FM in San Francisco, writes music criticism for local newspapers and music publications, and produces concerts such as the annual "Garden of Memory," which showcases up to 40 different musical performances at the Chapel of the Chimes Mausoleum in Oakland.
She and her brother, archaeologist/art historian Nicholas Cahill, an Indiana Jones look-alike who is directing the excavation of the palace of King Croesus at Sardis in western Turkey, grew up in an academic and artistic family in Berkeley.
Their father, James Cahill, Professor Emeritus of Art at Cal, is a leading expert on Chinese art. Their mother, Dorothy Dunlap Cahill, is a well-respected art connoisseur, according to UC Berkeley art department chair Pat Berger.
Cahill grew up listening to her father's collection of rare historical recordings of Bartok, Stravinsky and Prokofiev, and at 7 started studying with Sharon Mann, a nationally recognized expert in Bach's keyboard music
"She was the youngest student I've ever had, by far, but she was an adult in disguise," said Mann. "Her Schubert was the first thing I noticed. Children usually want something more direct, less subtle, but she was able to access music that was suggestive and nuanced. It was breathtaking to be around her."
One of her favorite pastimes was playing four-handed duets with her father, a talented amateur pianist in his own right.
"I took the hard parts and she took the easy parts until she got better than me," he said. "Then we reversed roles."
He realized just how good she was when she was 12.
"I heard her play a Brahms intermezzo, and I thought, 'My God! My daughter is telling me things about Brahms I never knew before!'"
In addition to a love of music, her father bequeathed her another legacy - one of the world's greatest collections of early, pre-Alfred E. Neuman Mad magazines, which she keeps in a safe deposit box.
Skipping her senior year at Berkeley High, she went directly to the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, where John Adams composed "China Gates" for her.
He was the first of many composers who have dedicated works to her, including Riley, Rzewski, Oliveros, Kyle Gann, Andrea Morricone and Evan Ziporyn.
Among her biggest fans are other pianists.
"She's an amazing technician," said Jerry Kuderna, a leading interpreter of Milton Babbitt and Elliott Carter. "She has the technique to play anything she wants, but she is so devoted to building this repertoire of pieces that only she can play. And that's her special gift."
Cahill says the decision to specialize in new music was a no-brainer.
"When you play classical music, the audience's attention is on how you're playing the piece. But with new music, the emphasis is on the composition itself. I like it that way. There are so many pianists playing the same Beethoven sonata, but I get to introduce a new piece by Terry Riley."
So can music really stop the war?
"I like to remember what Frederic Rzewski said: 'Music probably cannot change the world. But it's a good idea to act as though it could.'"
(A slightly different version of this story appears in the Jan/Feb 2009 issue of California Magazine. A video of Cahill playing 'Down by the Riverside' can be viewed online at http://calperfs.berkeley.edu/presents/media/2006/edge_fest/Rzewski_Cahill_High.mov)