Sunday, January 17, 2010
The Sweetest Sounds
Is the piano mightier than the sword?
That's what Sarah Cahill is trying to find out. For the last year, the Berkeley-based pianist has been taking her ambitious concert, "A Sweeter Music," around the country, playing in big cities (New York, Houston and Chicago) and small (Grand Forks, North Dakota).
All the pieces, which Cahill personally commissioned from the composers, are meditations on the folly of war. The concert's title is taken from Martin Luther King's Nobel Peace Prize lecture, when he said, "We must see that peace represents a sweeter music, a cosmic melody, that is far superior to the discords of war."
The composers range from 18-year-old Preben Antonsen to 77-year-old Yoko Ono. Some of their compositions, such as Antonsen's cacophonous "Dar al-Harb" (which he wrote as a tribute to his cousin, who was deeply affected by his experience as an interrogator in Iraq), are anti-war.
Others, such as Terry Riley's gentle "We Must Be Kind To One Another Rag," which he wrote as a lullaby for his grandchildren, are pro-peace.
Cahill was able to summon such a formidable array of talent because she's so popular with her peers. Though one music critic called her "the reigning diva of avant-garde pianism," the truth is that she's decidedly un-diva-like.
"You're going to have a hard time finding anyone who doesn't adore her," says 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."
Cahill got the idea for "A Sweeter Music" from Frederick Rzewski's arrangement of the old spiritual, "Down By The Riverside."
"After reading about the latest deaths in Iraq, I would play it as a kind of catharsis," she says. "The lyrics 'Gonna lay down my sword and shield/Down by the riverside/Ain't gonna study war no more' were very meaningful for me."
But sometimes her mission must feel like a Sisyphusian task. When she began her tour a year ago, we were fighting in two wars. Now we're fighting in four, with the addition of Pakistan and Yemen.
"I do think of my father," she says. "When I started commissioning people, he said, 'It's a good idea, but it’ll be a moot point because the Democrats are going to take over the White House, and they'll end the wars, and that'll be it. You won't have any reason to play those pieces any more.'"
So does she get discouraged?
"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 Sweeter Music" is coming back to the Bay Area on Jan. 30 at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. It's a benefit for the American Friends Service Committee.
"It's an honor to be playing this concert for the American Friends Service Committee, such a courageous and visionary organization which since World War I has been showing us that there are powerful alternatives to war: nonviolence, compassion, social justice, understanding," says Cahill. "And they really put it into practice."
More information and tickets can be obtained at http://www.afsc.org/pacificmtn/ht/display/EventDetails/i/84399/pid/82363
The following day, Cahill will be joined by violinist Midori, composer John Adams and others in two panel discussions about the current state of classical music, also at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. To find out more, visit www.performances.org.