“Who cares if you listen”—that sneering challenge by the late American serialist composer Milton Babbitt—aptly summarized a disdain for the audience by a radical faction of the musical avant-garde in the late 1950s. Sad to say, too many music lovers still believe that contemporary music is by nature unappealing.
Sarah Cahill [photo courtesy of the artist]
In her solo recital for Fresh Sound on Friday (Nov. 4), pianist Sarah Cahill demonstrated a range of alluring contemporary piano music from Terry Riley to Frederic Rzewski to Sam Adams that showed she cared very much if her audience was listening. Faculty member of the San Francisco Conservatory and curator of a monthly new music series at the Berkeley Art Museum, Cahill not only possesses the technical prowess to interpret challenging new scores, but also the ability to provide persuasive verbal explanation that gives context to each composer’s compositional approach.
She opened with Maggi Payne’s contemplative 2001 “Holding Patterns,” a slowly moving collage of subtle forearm clusters with some notes digitally processed by small mechanisms placed on specific piano strings. Although the piece moved at the glacial pace of an Arvo Pärt anthem, Payne’s harmonic clouds were strictly her own.
Quoting composer Frederic Rzewski’s description of his “Peace Dance,” which Cahill commissioned, she invoked the description “dreamlike quilt” to describe his sonata of many short movements written in his knotty, eclectic, but essentially tonal style. I am not certain that the complexity of Rzewski’s musical vocabulary suggests anything “dreamlike,” but I was fascinated by the snippets of popular peace and protest songs, especially “We Shall Overcome,” that peeked through his highly rhythmic forays.
I was happy to encounter for the first time the music of Canadian composer Ann Southam (1937– 2010), whose “Glass Houses” suggested a rhythmically asymmetrical perpetuum mobile. Cahill’s fleet, sumptuous technique imbued Southam’s work with a luster that made me want to hear it again–and soon. For many years George Lewis was a popular (in the sense of well-liked) composer and virtuoso trombonist on the UC San Diego faculty; he moved to New York in 2004 to join the faculty of Columbia University. His 1994 “Endless Shout,” written while Lewis was living in San Diego, pays homage to the great stride pianists of the last century, e.g. James P. Johnson and Fats Waller. Gently and perceptively deconstructing this early style of blues, Lewis followed the four-movement structure of a classical sonata. His propulsive outer movements boasted dark keys and dense harmonies the original stride players seldom used, and his slow second movement gurgled with discreet tremolandos, a favored embellishment of stride pianists. And who could resist the charm of a jazz scherzo, which Cahill performed with muscle and panache.
From the slow progression of trochaic chord pairs in Samuel Carl Adams’ 2014 “ Shade Studies,” my mind drifted to Claude Debussy’s familiar piano prelude “Footsteps in the Snow”—not a bad model for a young composer, to be sure. Cahill cued subtle electronic enhancement, similar to the halo effect in Payne’s piece, from a small screen placed to the left of the score on the piano’s music rack. And, yes, Sam Adams is the son of America’s premier contemporary classical composer, John Adams.
Cahill closed her smartly curated recital with Terry Riley’s “Be Kind to One Another,” a rhapsodic, 12-minute intermezzo that exuded Brahmsian warmth, occasional nods to coy ragtime syncopation, and dappled minimalist reiterations. She explained, in her verbal program notes before she played the Riley piece, that the composer’s grandchildren often requested this piece as their “bedtime music,” although “Be Kind to One Another” turned out to be anything but soporific.
As an ambassador for new music, Cahill has few peers. May her visits to San Diego increase.