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Sarah Cahill Turns Her Musical Spotlight on Lou Harrison

October 7, 2017

Every composer wishing to extend his or her legacy—especially those who write music for or including piano — should hope to have a Sarah Cahill.

The Berkeley-based pianist has been on a Terry Riley jag for years that in early October resulted in a Bandcamp release of a digital treasure of music titled Eighty Trips Around the Sun: Music by and for Terry Riley (Irritable Hedgehog Records). The four-CD boxed set follows next month and features solo pieces, including a long version of his 1965 Keyboard Studies and his less-known, 12-tone Two Pieces from 1959; and four-hand works commissioned by Cahill and on which she is joined by Regina Myers. Eight new commissioned works in honor of his 80th birthday in 2015 are by Pauline Oliveros, Gyan Riley (Terry’s son), Samuel Carl Adams, Dylan Mattingly, Danny Clay, Christine Southworth, Elena Ruehr, and Keeril Makan.

In the meantime, composers of the past are made stars of the present by Cahill, a vibrant performer of contemporary and neoclassical repertoire who seems to have few expectations she cannot exceed. The most recent example: Cahill has been on a Lou Harrison junket in honor of his centennial, marked in 2017. A more-than-yearlong tour in the United States and Japan continues through March 2018 and featured programs at New York’s Le Poisson Rouge in April and another show shortly thereafter at Tuesday@MonkSpace in Los Angeles. And while preparing for an October 12 performance of Harrison’s concerto with gamelan at the ICA in Boston and in Ohio on October 20 at the Cleveland Museum of Art, Cahill has worked in a local date as well.

Cahill will perform Harrison’s Piano Concerto (1983–1985) with the San José State University Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Fred Cohen, on Tuesday, October 17, at 7 p.m. in the Music Concert Hall. The program also includes Grieg’s Holberg Suite and Mozart’s Symphony No. 39.

“Lou Harrison taught at San Jose State University for many years and had a strong relationship with the school, so it's meaningful to be playing his Piano Concerto there,” says Cahill. Lou Harrison: American Musical Maverick (Indiana University Press) by Bill Alves and Brett Campbell, makes “profound connections” between the university and the composer’s development. “He wrote the concerto for organ and percussion orchestra for a conductor there,” she says.

While Harrison’s biography is interesting for the light it sheds on his work, even more so, for Cahill, is unpacking the present-day impact of Harrison’s zig when his colleagues zagged; his tendency toward maverick musical investigation that caused him to seek world music in Asia and Indonesia instead of Europe. And then, there’s his internal curiosity and courage that had him defy the “norms” of 20th-century piano concertos. “This concerto I’m performing at San José State -- when I did it with La Jolla and Berkeley Symphonies, I heard from bloggers and general audiences. They weren’t necessarily music scholars. They told me this was their favorite piece on the program. The concerto is immediately appealing and gorgeous. They’re surprised. They expect it to be dissonant, angular.”

Audiences also believe they must be fully informed or have zealously read the program notes to enjoy a 20th-century work. “That’s why Lou Harrison and Terry Riley have not been appreciated as much as they should,” she says. “They write beautiful music. Audiences worry that they will sit and manage to get through it. They don’t imagine it will have the beauty of Brahms.”

The concerto’s first movement is grand, with rich harmonies, epic scope, virtuoso playing and rhythm shaped by Harrison’s investigation of the Javanese gamelan.

The second movement, Stampede, includes chord clusters played with forearm or a Charles Ives-inspired wood and felt cluster bar. Drawing from the medieval dance form, estampie, the downbeat is emphasized, as is tempo. “Some pianists play the Stampede really fast, as fast as possible. That’s always the question with any virtuoso piece of music: Do you play Ravel’s Scarbo as fast as possible or, if you do that, do you miss important musical details? I think with the concerto, that gets away from the dance Harrison wanted to portray. Listening to recordings is instructive in that way: I can admire how a pianist negotiates the Stampede, but it’s really about how I want to do it differently.”

Finding the sublime in the third movement’s ethereal chords, Cahill suggests that time stops, or disappears as irrelevant. The abbreviated allegro moderato fourth movement comes with asymmetrical meters (measures of 4-2-3) and a backstory. The concerto was written for Keith Jarrett, who casually requested that Harrison write something for him. “They never worked out a fee, because they didn’t like to talk about money. Shortly before performing it, Jarrett told Lou Harrison that he thought it was just going to be an honor that he would play it, so Harrison wouldn’t get a fee. Some people say that’s why the fourth movement is really short — that Lou Harrison got angry and wrote a short movement. Others say no, he was professional and would never have compromised the concerto.”

Either way, the work demonstrates Harrison’s mature process, which included approaching a composition from multiple angles. “To me, he’s like the early Beatles, when they were trying out styles, finding the voice, approaching from angles of bluegrass, American folk, blues. I feel he’s doing a similar thing in the ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s that led up to his finding his style. I’ve been playing unpublished works from his manuscripts, things gotten from friends. He wasn’t interested in the equal-tempered piano. He got interested in gamelan, chord clusters.” Working specifically on the concerto with Robert Hughes, composer and co-founder of the Cabrillo Music Festival with Harrison, Cahill recalls Hughes telling her to “Create a singing line and make it sing more than a person in the audience might sing.”

About the San José State orchestra, Cahill is confident, despite the challenges: The strings must soar; alternating rhythms in the second movement challenge the orchestra; retuning to the Kirnberger II temperament requires reference to a diagram in the score. Shaping the arc of the unevenly proportioned movements into a satisfying whole requires sensitivity and deep understanding. “There are students who are his descendants; having worked with the percussionists that Lou Harrison worked with. There’s an oral tradition of how to perform his music that’s being passed on by teachers to students from generation to generation.”

Confidence comes also from practice. “I love practicing,” says Cahill, in answer to techniques she employs to relieve the stress of touring and recording multiple repertoire, conducting Revolutions Per Minute (her Sunday evening KALW, 91.7 FM radio show), teaching at San Francisco Conservatory, and curating a monthly series of new music concerts at Berkeley Art Museum. “My favorite thing when I go out of town is to have a piano all day long. It’s like heaven to me. Exercise is important to me, and trying not to learn music too fast. Tension can take a toll on the body.”

Dreams are useful in planning the future. “My husband had a dream that I was doing a project called “Smash the Patriarchy!” It’s a concert of all women composers writing in response to women composers of the past. I don’t know if it’s a good idea to do a concert of all women composers, but he had a dream, so I’m going to do this project next.”

Likely to happen in 2018 and 2019, the all-women-composer project seems the perfect note on which to end an interview. After all, why should male composers like Riley and Harrison have all the fun and benefit from having a Sarah Cahill?

Lou Fancher is a San Francisco Bay Area writer. Her work has been published by, Diablo Magazine, Oakland Tribune, Contra Costa Times, InDance, East Bay Express, Oakland Magazine, SF Weekly, and others.  She is a children's book author, designer and illustrator, with over 50 books in print. Also a choreographer, ballet master and teacher, she coaches professional ballet and contemporary dance companies in the U. S. and Canada.  Visit her website online at