Living in the new
Renowned Berkeley pianist Sarah Cahill brings new works to life
The norm-defying genre of music called “experimental music,” or simply “new music,” can be hard to define. A “new musician” can be a top-notch, wildly creative artist who employs inventive techniques, like a pianist playing the interior strings of a piano with mallets, or placing tacks at strategic places on a piano’s hammers to achieve novel, percussive sounds. But the term can create confusion for potential audience members who don’t know if they’ll be experiencing something new and scintillating, or merely a second-rate display of oddball musicality by a less-than-able performer trying to pass him- or herself off as a member of the avant-garde.
“New music” can be “a little vague,” admitted new-music advocate and highly accomplished pianist Sarah Cahill in a recent interview in advance of her upcoming appearance at Chico State Friday, Feb. 24. “But in this case it’s music you would hear in a concert hall rather than in a club or a stadium. It’s related to classical music, but some of the composers have grown up with rock ’n’ roll or pop music, so that occasionally finds its way into these pieces as well. I’m playing a piece by New York composer Phil Kline—it’s called “The Long Winter”—and he calls it a sonata in two movements. But Phil Kline also played in rock bands, and that energy infuses his piece as well.”
Cahill lives in Berkeley and is a faculty member of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, as well as curator of a new-music concert series at the Berkeley Art Museum, and her performance is part of Chico State’s annual New Music Symposium. The no-cost, two-day event, held each year in honor of late Chico State music professor and composer Alfred Loeffler, also will feature a student-composer concert on Thursday, Feb. 23.
Kline’s daring résumé includes founding New York “no-wave” band The Del-Byzanteens with filmmaker Jim Jarmusch and the creation of experimental sound installations. His piece will be part of the peace-themed program Cahill will perform called A Sweeter Music, which she debuted in Berkeley in 2009 and has since performed around the world. The program also features new-music composer Meredith Monk’s “Steppe Music,” as well as Frederic Rzewski’s “Peace Dances” and Japanese composer Mamoru Fujieda’s “The Olive Branch Speaks.”
“All of the [six] pieces on Friday’s program were commissioned by me, and it’s such a pleasure to receive these new scores and get to know them over time,” offered Cahill. “Mamoru Fujieda has been obsessed with the voices of plants, and hooks up a device to the plants’ leaves to pick up bioelectric fluctuations, and then somehow translates that into music. For this project, since the theme is peace and war, Mamoru cultivated an olive tree on the balcony of his Tokyo apartment.”
Colfax-based composer Terry Riley, who has written numerous compositions for the Kronos Quartet, also wrote a piece for A Sweeter Music. Called “Be Kind to One Another,” it makes use of “material he improvised at the piano to lull his grandchildren to sleep as a lullaby,” Cahill said.
A classically trained pianist, Cahill said she “still love[s] playing Bach and Beethoven and Schubert,” and occasionally gives classical concerts. “I have a weekly classical-music radio show on KALW in San Francisco, so I’m constantly listening to classical music,” she offered. “But as a pianist, I feel particularly inspired and excited to work with living composers. And I feel more of a sense of purpose, as if I have a real mission, commissioning and premiering new works rather than performing Beethoven sonatas. There are so many pianists who play classical music, but there are new pieces being written which deserve to be heard and which I feel I can bring to life.”