Sarah Cahill

The views and opinions expressed by speakers and presenters in connection with Art Restart are their own, and not an endorsement by the Thomas S. Kenan Institute for the Arts and the UNC School of the Arts.

Sarah Cahill is not only a brilliant classical pianist. As a producer, researcher and commissioner of new works, she also works to ensure that the lesser-known great talents of the classical music world — in particular female and non-white composers — are recognized and celebrated. 

One of her newest and most ambitious projects, which had to be put on hold during the pandemic, is “The Future Is Female,” a ritual installation and communal feminist immersive listening experience featuring more than 70 compositions by women around the globe, ranging from the 18th century to the present day. The experience also includes new works, many commissioned by Cahill herself. Sarah performs an evening-length recital version of the event, but when the venue is right, she also performs a marathon-length version that can last from four to seven hours, with audiences encouraged to come and go as they please. She was due to perform the marathon version at the Barbican in London when the pandemic hit. In the 2021-22 season, though, many venues, including the Barbican, will have the great fortune of being able to experience “The Future Is Female.”

In this interview with Rob Kramer and Pier Carlo Talenti, Cahill describes how she embarked on her mission to make the classical music canon more inclusive and why it may be surprisingly simple. As she explains it, all it takes is curiosity, because the music of the overlooked talents speaks very clearly for itself.

Choose a question below to begin exploring the interview:

Pier Carlo Talenti: You have always been passionate about working to ensure that the work of women composers is recognized, celebrated, and included in the classical canon. Can you talk about what effect the events of this last year have had on that goal? Do you feel you’re closer or farther from that goal now than you were a year ago?

Sarah Cahill: I feel probably closer to that goal because there’s been a lot of time for reflection, a lot of practicing. I’ve just been burrowing in with a lot of music and learning music by a lot more interesting composers who were women from the past and women of color and enlarging my repertoire in a way that is different than when there’s a particular goal, like, “Oh, I have this concert, I have this concert, I have this deadline, I have to get ready for this.” It’s mostly been about just living with music, which is wonderful. I mean, to just have time to get to know all the piano works by the Czech composer Vítezslava Kaprálová! 

Music has definitely kept me sane during this time, just studying music. 

Rob Kramer: Where do you see the intersection between art and things like social justice, politics, advocacy work?

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve thought much more about that intersection between music and social justice and the fact that what we do really needs to reflect the world we live in and not just be the living in a vacuum that a lot of classical pianists do.

Sarah: As I’ve gotten older, I’ve thought much more about that intersection between music and social justice and the fact that what we do really needs to reflect the world we live in and not just be the living in a vacuum that a lot of classical pianists do. I was that way for a long time — you grew up with a classical canon — and it’s just existing in a vacuum and very different from the outside world.

Over the years, I’ve realized more and more how important it is to include works by composers of color and also, yes, works by women. It’s just really perplexing that so many pianists play programs year after year after year without one single work by a woman composer. Even if your repertoire’s in the 19th century or the 18th century, there are still so many fabulous works by women. It just takes doing a little research. 

There’s so much schlock that’s played by orchestras. [She laughs.] They’re stuck in the groove of great works by, I don’t know, Saint-Saëns and Respighi. Nothing against those composers, but we’ve heard so much of them. And you wonder, why don’t they just try? Are people so biased that they don’t even look at these incredible works by women of the past and women of the present? 

Rob: What compelled you then to become more of an advocate for women? You mentioned you were one of the pianists living in a vacuum. What opened your eyes?

Sarah: It opened my eyes to start working with women composers. In 2001, I was very immersed in the composer Ruth Crawford or Ruth Crawford Seeger, probably best known in general as the stepmother to Pete Seeger and Mike Seeger and Peggy Seeger. Just a fascinating composer. When she was in her mid-20s, she wrote piano preludes, and I started playing those. And then I did this commissioning project to honor her hundredth birthday. This was 2001. I commissioned Pauline Oliveros and Annea Lockwood and Julia Wolfe and many other composers to write works in her honor. And I think that got me more on the path to … in the way that when you focus on a particular body of music, you realize how rich it is and how satisfying and how inspiring it is to play that work. These were brand-new pieces that they wrote for my project. Then I started working more with Pauline Oliveros and playing some of her earlier work, and it just really opened up this world to me. 

It was really a case of, “It’s just there; you just need to see it.” I think that’s so true of all of us. It’s just there; we just need to be aware of it and dig a little deeper and not just go with what we’re taught. Because I grew up like everybody with the classical canon, and it was all the composers we love. It was Mozart and Schubert and Bach. I loved playing Bach when I was little, eight and nine and 10 years old. That was it; it was just playing Bach. But I was never aware of women composers, except for these composers you sort of feel sorry for. You feel sorry for Clara Schumann because, “Oh, what a sad life to have 10 children and a husband with severe mental illness, attempting suicide, and her life is so sad. And yes, she composed, but we don’t really have to listen to those pieces because we know that they’re not going to be up to the standards of Robert Schumann, her husband.” Or something like that. You know what I mean: that in having pity on these composers, we diminish them. 

It’s all about the music. Once you listen to the music itself, you realize how extraordinary they are. You don’t need anything else except the music to convince you.

Pier Carlo: What impact did it have on the career you’d planned for yourself when you decided to focus on and honor a more diverse slate of composers?

I think it was only good, because I think when you believe in something, that comes through ... when you believe in the music you’re playing, then that persuades others.

Sarah: I think it was only good, because I think when you believe in something, that comes through, in the way that when something is just performative, the audience knows it and presenters know it and it’s a very different feeling. But when you believe in the music you’re playing, then that persuades others. So it was all good. 

I’ve been doing this project [“The Future Is Female”] — I love doing it as a marathon — and did that at Chapel Hill a couple of years ago. And I’m going to play at the Barbican in London in March, and that will be an all-day concert.

Pier Carlo: Can you describe it?

Sarah: Yeah. It’s just playing five hours or seven hours of music by women around the globe and through the centuries. And there’s some people who sit for the entire time. 

I’ve had some incredible experiences doing this project, for instance, at the North Dakota Museum of Art, which is in Grand Forks, ND, a beautiful, beautiful contemporary art museum and a really inspiring place to play. This was right after Heidi Heitkamp, the senator from North Dakota, voted against the Brett Kavanaugh confirmation, which was a courageous thing for her to do. It immediately became clear that she was going to be voted out in North Dakota and the horrible Republican guy was going to come in as her replacement. This was right after that happened, so to play five hours of these basically silenced voices — a lot of this music had either never been played before or had only had one performance or one recording … .

There were women who sat there for the entire time, and I couldn’t help but think of the silenced voice of Christine Blasey Ford on the stand and all these women who were telling their stories finally. It was a very, very moving experience. 

So there have been times like that where every time it’s deeply meaningful to do this sort of marathon performance. I have them scheduled at the Museum of Fine Arts in St. Petersburg in September and various concerts coming up, and I’m really looking forward to it. It’s great to do it in venues where people can walk in galleries.

Rob: What systems do you think could change that would help audiences better understand, support and listen to a broader set of artists?

Sarah: I think there is some resistance, and after the past year there’s this feeling that institutions are being forced to make these changes. Some are completely open to it, and some are not. I have colleagues who say, “Oh, well, we’ll give our students music by composers of color and by women. Maybe this will go on for a year, and then it’ll blow over.” 

I think the change needs to happen definitely with students and with rethinking their repertoire, because I talk to a lot of students. I say, “Well, why don’t you play any music by women? Because you play the cello, and there’s so much great chamber music by women.” Again, 19th century, early 20th century and onwards. And they say, “Oh, well, my teacher gives me what I’m supposed to play, and so I just play what my teacher tells me.” It has to happen at every level, I think. Teachers need to be educated, students need to be educated, concert halls need to be opened up, outreach concerts. It all needs to happen, I think.

Pier Carlo: You teach. You’re on the faculty of San Francisco Conservatory where you yourself attended. Do you find that you’re teaching differently today than you did, let’s say, before the pandemic? Or than you did, let’s say, 10 years ago? What lessons are you imparting to your students that you didn’t before?

Sarah: Yeah, it’s definitely different because I’ve learned a lot. I’m willing to say that when I first started teaching this class at the San Francisco Conservatory on 20th century keyboard literature, the class was like Charles Ives sonatas, John Cage, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Pierre Boulez, György Ligeti, Frederic Rzewski. It’s so easy to create a class just thinking about, “OK, what are the basic trends in 20th century music, and what do I need to cover? I need to cover improvisation and aleatoric processes.” And then you come up with a class that is all white men, and that’s the thing.

For a long time, I think a lot of us just didn’t even notice, because that’s what’s in all the history books. I can’t tell you how many books I have downstairs on 20th century music. There isn’t a single woman or a single composer of color in there, because that’s the way we were taught, that’s the way we carry on teaching others. You carry that tradition forward both as a teacher of music history and music literature and also as a teacher of private lessons. You teach the students what you yourself were taught. 

What I have done now is completely rewritten the syllabus and included Grażyna Bacewicz and Kaija Saariaho and Julius Eastman and even Thelonious Monk, just so many people who are so, so important to teach to the next generation and the generation after that. Again, it’s right there for us to see. So that’s been a change, but I made that change before this past year. It wasn’t just this past year, but I made that change over time. Just as I’ve been doing my own work as a pianist, I’ve been changing what I teach.

Make it come from the music, because students are not going to want to be force-fed anything. ... What I find is if you introduce the music itself and start from there, then it’s much more successful.

I think, again, focusing on the music and not saying, as conservatories and music schools and colleges are saying, not saying, “We need to open things up to include people of color and include women.” Not necessarily make that statement come first, but more to say, “Listen to this sonata by George Walker. Isn’t it great?” Or maybe, “Instead of playing François Couperin for the millionth time, why don’t you look at this keyboard suite by Elisabeth Jacquet de la Guerre, who is equally great, if not greater, but rarely played and almost never studied in conservatories or music schools?” Make it come from the music, because students are not going to want to be force-fed anything. None of us like to be force-fed or forced to play music that we don’t want to play. What I find is if you introduce the music itself and start from there, then it’s much more successful.

Again, in the conservatories and music schools that I’ve been taught in or had residencies in around the country, there’s still a pretty conservative stronghold. There’s still the sense that there’s nothing greater than the Beethoven sonatas, so you need to work on the Beethoven sonatas before you can do anything else. 

I think it is so valuable to these students to realize it’s not about giving up the Beethoven sonatas. You don’t have to cancel Beethoven or cancel Mozart. It’s about adding to the literature and taking initiative and thinking beyond your last year of conservatory. What’s going to happen after that? Are you really going to be a touring classical pianist and play the Beethoven sonatas on the major concert stages for the rest of your life? Is that what you’re going to do? Or can you follow a different path? Is there something else available to you that you can think outside the conservatory box? 

Rob: Can you talk a little about how you decided to become a commissioner of new work and how you put that idea into action? What lessons have you learned along the way?

Sarah: When I was 17, I was given a piece of music as a gift by John Adams, and it was called “China Gates.” 

Pier Carlo: That’s quite a gift!

Sarah: It is quite a gift, yes. Yes, it was, I think, a Christmas present. I know and sometimes I think [laughing], “Wow! If I had commissioned that piece, it would be like $20,000.” 

Anyway that aroused my curiosity, in the sense that I was working on Schubert and Chopin and so on and then there’s this piece of music that has these kinds of zigzagging lines. I don’t know how to describe it except that it’s … I wish I could rush down to the piano and play it for you now. It was a minimalist piece of music. Minimalism was sort of new at that point, and I had no idea what to do with it. I started working on it and thinking about it and thinking, “How do I make sense of this piece?” I didn’t know at that point music by Terry Riley or Philip Glass or any of those composers.

So then I kept playing classical music but got interested in early 20th century composers like Henry Cowell, who is my hero from here in California. I did a big project for his hundredth birthday here at Berkeley, at Cal Performances, and commissioned pieces in his honor. And I thought, “OK, let’s have pieces by Henry Cowell that he wrote in 1915 or 1920 and then by composers who have been influenced by him, like John Cage, who was his friend, Lou Harrison, who was his friend. They were his students.” But then go further and think, “Well, who nowadays is really in touch with that spirit of Henry Cowell?” So that was the first time I commissioned Terry Riley.

Then a friend of mine was working with Meredith Monk. She wrote a piece that was 40 minutes long for this friend of mine, the amazing pianist Nurit Tilles, and I commissioned a piece from “Blue” Gene Tyranny. And it became very addictive to say to a composer, “I want you to write a new piece, and I’ll come up with money. How much money do you need?” and then to get this brand-new piece of music, which is so surprising and astonishing. And then my mission is to bring that piece to life. That’s just the greatest thing in the whole world.

Pier Carlo: I love the idea of performing artists commissioning work. I’m amazed it doesn’t happen more often, that a dancer wouldn’t commission a choreographer or an actor commission a play, that it’s just left to institutions. I’m wondering what advice would you have for an artist who is thinking of commissioning a piece? Is it harder or easier than it sounds?

Sarah: Yeah, it’s both harder and easier. I would say you have to take risks, and sometimes you get a really terrible piece that you never want to play, ever [she laughs]. You won’t always get what you want, but then a lot of times you’ll get something that takes a while to get to know. 

So right now I have this piece by Frederic Rzewski, who’s one of our greatest living composers. He wrote a piece for which I got the score. He always writes in manuscript, and it’s hard to read. You get it, and it’s like, “Hmm, I don’t know about this.” But then you live with it for a while. I just performed the first movement in an outdoor concert recently, and people really responded to me, like, “Wow, I want to hear the whole thing.” So sometimes you need to let it sink in. 

In terms of money, I often encourage students at the conservatory to work with student composers, young composers, because you never know what will happen to these composers. When John Adams gave me that piece, he was a young composer just on the verge of starting his career. You never know what will happen in the future. When I work with young composers, what I find is that they don’t want to talk about a fee. So they’ll say something like, “Well, whatever, just a couple of hundred dollars or something,” or “I don’t care.” And I say to them, “OK, you have to ask for at least a few thousand dollars, like your time is worth something. If you don’t value your own work now, then it’ll be hard to do it later. And you have to have that money conversation upfront. Yes, it’s sort of awkward, but you have to do it.” 

I’ve used some of my own money. I’ve done commissioning projects where I say, “Okay, if it’s $5,000, then when I make a thousand dollars in my next project, somehow I’ll send a thousand dollars to you and then installments over time.” But also I find that many of us know people who have money who are willing to help, who might have family foundations or some way to help, and we only need to ask them. I’ve had experiences like that, where even people I haven’t met before, I ask them, and they say yes.

I think you just need to be enterprising and adventurous and be willing to jump in there. Money is always an awkward subject, but we just have to do it, I think. Then also, yes, it all has to be in writing: When will you get the piece? How long will it be? Is it about a particular subject? And so on.

I recently commissioned a piece from a wonderful composer in Chicago, Regina Harris Baiocchi. She does a haiku project for inner city kids in Chicago, getting them to write haiku and read haiku. And she did this project about Gwendolyn Brooks and Richard Wright and herself. It was so beautiful. There are things like that that are just so delightful.

Rob: What current or upcoming project are you most excited about?

Sarah: Well, let’s see, tomorrow I’m recording a piece with the San Francisco Girls Chorus and this wonderful local composer, Theresa Wong. We’re doing that over Jacktrip, which I guess has low latency, so we can all record together. Theresa Wong used texts that the teenage singers of the San Francisco Girls Chorus wrote about their experience during the pandemic. It’s very moving and very beautiful. I think we often underestimate teenagers, and their experience is so deep and surprising and just really extraordinary. 

May 31, 2021