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Sarah Cahill, New Music’s Tireless Advocate

June 18, 2010

When she is at the keyboard, Sarah Cahill exudes self-confidence. At a recent recital at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music with David Latulippe, a flutist, Ms. Cahill dashed off challenging works by Arvo Part and Terry Riley with an easy flamboyance that matched her bright orange dress.

But during the curtain call, another side of Ms. Cahill’s personality came through. With an awkward bow and a shy smile, she looked more like a student playing in public for the first time than a seasoned world-class performer.

Ms. Cahill has such a gentle demeanor that it can be hard to grasp the magnitude of her impact on the contemporary music scene — not only as a pianist but also as a champion of contemporary composers, a prolific events producer and an influential broadcaster of classical music.

Composers like Pauline Oliveros and Frederic Rzewski have dedicated works to her. John Adams wrote his 1977 piano piece “China Gates” for Ms. Cahill when she was just 17.

Alex Ross, The New Yorker’s influential classical music critic who used to live in the same building as Ms. Cahill in Berkeley in the early 1990s, calls her a “superb pianist” and has exchanged e-mail with her about his feverish dreams of being mistaken for a concert pianist.

Home to such new music luminaries as Mr. Adams, the Kronos Quartet and the Other Minds Festival of New Music, the Bay Area is a hub for new music nationwide, and Ms. Cahill is one of the scene’s chief architects and most vibrant advocates.

“I number Sarah Cahill among a handful of Bay Area people who have made an impact on the new music scene,” said Pamela Z, the experimental performer and composer.

Ms. Cahill stands apart from many other professional classical musicians by commissioning new works from composers that she finances with donations from wealthy individuals and grant-makers, often premiering and recording those pieces herself. Ms. Cahill has commissioned around 40 works to date by such artists as Lou Harrison, Yoko Ono and Meredith Monk.

With an aesthetic steeped in the West Coast tradition of composing that is often lyrical in character, Ms. Cahill has helped to make contemporary music more accessible to the public. “People expect new music to be so thorny and abrasive,” she said. “But many composers I’ve worked with show that it doesn’t have to be.”

Ms. Cahill’s advocacy on behalf of contemporary music extends to producing imaginative concert and radio programs. She produces the continuing “A Sweeter Music” project showcasing composers’ responses to war and runs a monthly music program at the Berkeley Art Museum where art lovers can experience performances by musicians like Ken Ueno, the throat singer, while wandering the galleries and sipping wine. Her Sunday night classical music program on the public radio station KALW, “Then and Now,” attracts a devoted audience.

Now in its 15th year, Ms. Cahill’s coming Garden of Memory event at the Chapel of the Chimes in Oakland encapsulates her eclectic musical sensibilities. Last year, the walk-through Garden of Memory concert attracted 1,500 people. On Monday, audience members can wander around the maze-like columbarium experiencing such musical offerings as an electro-acoustic piece by Albert Behar, a young composer based in New York, involving two dancers wearing “megaphone helmets” (headgear that plays music wirelessly as the wearer moves) and a duet between Henry Kaiser, an experimental rock guitarist, and a balloon clown.

“The Garden of Memory event has created a spiritual haven for new music, an art form which isn’t typically considered to be very spiritual,” said Charles Amirkhanian, a composer who directs the annual Other Minds festival.

Born in 1960 in Washington, D.C., Ms. Cahill moved to the Bay Area at age 5 when her art historian father was offered a job at the University of California, Berkeley. She took up the piano at 7 and, like most other students, concentrated on the classics. It was only while moonlighting as a music reviewer for the East Bay Express in her 20s that she started developing an interest in contemporary music.

“I talked to composers because I was trying to understand the Bay Area new music scene, and they began asking me to perform their music,” said Ms. Cahill, whose composer friends at that time included Larry Polansky, Evan Ziporyn, Mr. Amirkhanian and Mr. Adams. “Premiering these pieces gave me a feeling that I never had while playing Beethoven and Brahms. I felt like I was introducing something new.”

With concert halls across the world favoring the classical repertoire, and with limited financing for contemporary composition, new music is not an easy cause to champion. Yet Ms. Cahill tirelessly continues to push the contemporary music cause.

“She still has the enthusiasm that I read in her when she was 25,” Mr. Ziporyn said.

Her current plans include premiering a new work by Carl Stone on Aug. 3 in New York, and producing a program by composers influenced by mysticism, like Dane Rudhyar and Ruth Crawford in the fall.

“You can’t just wait for Carnegie Hall to call,” Ms. Cahill said. “You have to envision what you want to happen and get on with it.”


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