Interview: Sarah Cahill

Championing the works of living composers
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Whenever you look closely at the most fertile periods in the history of the arts—such as pre-WWI Paris or post-WWII New York City—you’ll always find a person or two whose presence was an important catalyst. In the world of contemporary classical music, Sarah Cahill is one such person.

Through her inspired interpretation of works across the 20th and 21st centuries, Cahill has been instrumental in bringing to life the music of many of our greatest living composers. Her influence can be particularly felt in the increased recognition of the West Coast tradition of experimental music, through her focus on composers such as Henry Cowell, Terry Riley, John Adams, and Lou Harrison, all of whom utilized the rich, culturally diverse resources that California’s unique position on the Pacific Rim provides.

Cahill’s first notable premiere was the piece China Gates, written for her by John Adams when she was still in her teens. Since then, she has premiered works by Harrison, Riley, Leo Ornstein, Julia Wolfe, and George Lewis, among many others. Composers who have dedicated pieces to her include Frederic Rzewski, Pauline Oliveros, and Kyle Gann.

In addition to actively commissioning new compositions for piano, Cahill keeps a busy schedule of performing and recording. When I spoke with her in November, Cahill was in the final stage of preparing a 3-CD set of recordings for the Irritable Hedgehog label that includes all of Terry Riley’s piano music—from his early 12-tone pieces to his most recent works.

What are you planning to include in this new release?

It has a huge number of his solo piano pieces, including works I commissioned from him, such as “Be Kind To One Another” and the 4-hand music, which I recorded with Regina Schaffer. It also has pieces I commissioned from other composers in celebration of Terry Riley’s 80th birthday last year, such as Pauline Oliveros, Evan Ziporyn, Danny Clay, and Gyan Riley.

What goes into commissioning a work?

I’ve been doing them with thematic programs in mind. So I talk to the composers and ask them to write a piece around a particular idea—such as the Henry Cowell centenary or Terry Riley’s 80th birthday. Sometimes the composer writes something that doesn’t have that much to do with the theme, but that’s interesting to me because I can play the piece in other kinds of situations.

When I do a commissioning project, the goal is to add interesting pieces to the piano literature, but pieces that aren’t limited to just that one project. For instance, in San Diego last weekend I played a piece by Maggie Payne that I commissioned in 2001, a wonderful piece called “Holding Pattern,” which uses Ebows on the piano strings. She wrote that for Ruth Crawford’s 100th birthday, yet it goes way beyond that one occasion. So that’s nice.

The wonderful thing about commissioning is that you never know what you’ll get. It was very exciting to open my computer and find a PDF from Terry Riley—the score to “Be Kind To One Another.” I looked at it and thought “Wow, I get to play this. It’s a really great piece and it’s going to have a long, long life and be played by other pianists.” I couldn’t wait to get my hands on it, literally, at the keyboard.

Another aspect is getting to know the work. It’s wonderful having a piece for a decade or more; going back to Maggie Payne’s piece after 15 years and getting a different perspective on it. Or living with a Frederic Rzewski piece for a long enough time that you can really pay attention to all the little articulations and markings in the score. Revisit it, keep exploring it, and go deeper with it. That’s the really exciting thing for me; to live with a piece year after year and have a real profound relationship to it.

One thing I feel strongly about when commissioning is that composers should be paid for their work. It bothers me when I hear someone ask a composer to write a new piece for nothing because they don’t have the money to pay for it, or offer a fee that is low. I think it’s really disrespectful. One has to find the money, whether it’s through grant programs like New Music USA or the various foundations that give money for commissioning new works. I think it’s very important.

How do you determine the fee for a commission?

For the project A Sweeter Music, I gave everyone the same fee. Sometimes it’s better for the composer to set his or her own price. But I find that younger composers will have a hard time asking for money and having a sense of their own value. They’re not used to putting a real price on their work. So with some of these composers, I will insist on giving them more money than they ask for. I had to haggle with one composer about this, but I was haggling about giving him more money! [Laughs.]

Where do you begin unraveling an entirely new piece?

It is so important to consider who the composer is and the stylistic approach of each piece. For example, the Meredith Monk piece I commissioned for the Henry Cowell 100th birthday, “Steppe Music,” was a hard piece for me to understand. But thinking of Meredith Monk’s background in vocal music and how she works things out vocally, I had to ask myself How does that translate to the piano? Then it’s a lot easier to find a way into it.

Did you contact her directly and ask her about the piece?

I did. We talked on the phone and in person about ways to approach it. That’s a wonderful thing about working with living composers.

When I play a piece by Henry Cowell or Marc Blitzstein and have a problem, they’re no longer living so I have to figure out a solution on my own. I did get to talk with Leo Ornstein when he was 107 at his nursing home in Green Bay, Wisconsin, and ask him about a piece that he wrote in 1913. But if I look at a Marc Blitzstein manuscript and there’s a question, it’s hard not to be able to ask him about it.

Or take Schubert’s Drei Klavierstücke, where he crossed out two pages. Then the question that pianists ask is “Do you play those two pages because Schubert wrote them, or do you honor his intentions and not play them?” If this situation happened with a composer who was alive today, I can call him or her up and ask “Do you want those played or not?

“ So it’s very important to know where the composer’s coming from. Sometimes, you have to understand that the notation can’t possibly cover all of what the composer wants to express in the piece.

To do that, you need to get into their head, somehow.

That’s one of the great things about working with composer/pianists who are living. Seeing Terry Riley or Frederic Rzewski in concert provides such a great lesson in how to interpret and play their music.

So it is a combination of working with the composer as well as having a sense of their body of work; for example, Rzewski’s great masterpieces The People United Will Never Be Defeated and De Profundis. And watching him at the piano, you see all the different levels of attack, touch and articulation. How he plays with that kind of dry objectivity, and how attentive he is to every single detail.

And understanding his background—of premiering Stockhausen’s Klavierstücke X and all the work he did by the great avant-garde European composers. All of that informs the music he’s writing now. Rzewski has many different kinds of staccato in his music: There is a staccato with an accent over it, which is different than a plain staccato or a staccato with a tenuto marking over it. They all need to be completely different when you play his pieces. You have to pay attention to all of those markings.

Have there been times when you felt the need to interpret a score differently than the composer intended?

Yes, and it’s always wonderful to have that discussion with a composer and then have him or her say “Yes, you have a point there.” Sometimes it leads to changes in the scores.

With such an busy schedule learning new works, how do you keep yourself in shape, technically?

The book I really love is Mastering the Chopin Etudes and Other Essays by Abby Whiteside. It’s incredibly valuable for learning to stay relaxed at the piano and avoid injuries, to feel the power in your lower back and understanding the skeletal and muscular system, and how it all works together when you play.

These are especially important considerations when playing a new score by a composer who isn’t a pianist. If they write something that twists your hand in different ways, and you’re trying to work it out, having relaxed arms and hands will help you avoid injury. You can really hurt yourself if you’re not paying attention.

So I use the Whiteside book to remind myself to stay relaxed at the keyboard and always be aware of my body—and to move my body around. I play a lot of minimalist music, and sometimes it’s an endurance test. I have to keep my body moving, and choreograph it so that I can figure out the best way to get through the piece.

It’s all about giving a great performance while staying relaxed and comfortable.

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