Pianist Sarah Cahill plays Berkeley Arts Festival

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Berkeley pianist Sarah Cahill will play at the Berkeley Arts Festival on Sunday Sept. 22. Photo: Christine Alicino

About six years ago, anguished by America’s ongoing foreign wars, Sarah Cahill decided to take matters into her own hands. Ever since John Adams wrote his early breakthrough piece “China Gates” for her in 1977 the Berkeley pianist has specialized in presenting new music by living composers, and she launched her own anti-war campaign by commissioning a series of new works.

Cahill’s gorgeous new album A Sweeter Music (Other Minds Records) features eight of the 18 composers involved in the project. She celebrates the album’s Sept. 24 release with an Other Minds event Sunday afternoon at the Berkeley Arts Festival space on University, performing excerpts at 3 p.m. and 4 p.m. (a copy of the CD is free with any donation over $15).

The album’s title references a line from Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Nobel lecture, “We must see that peace represents a sweeter music, a cosmic melody, that is far superior to the discords of war.” She singled out composers who share a similar light-a-candle-rather-than-curse-the-darkness outlook. While one might expect the music to reflect the horror of war and the anger of activists protesting recent US military interventions, the mood is more elegiac than outraged.

“I was thinking about that period of time when we were all so frustrated,” she says. “These wars were happening, we objected so vehemently, and there was nothing concrete we could do to stop them. Pacing around my house one night I thought I could commission some composers and add to that body of protest music, anti-war music by artists like Brittan and Seeger and Rzewski that is so great and so enduring.”


If fact Frederic Rzewski was the first composer she approached, and he contributed the album’s longest commission, “Peace Dances,” a series of nine brief pieces (what he calls “nano-sonatas”) that reference an array of folk songs and protest anthems. When she approached Terry Riley, whose beatific rag “Be Kind To One Another” opens the album, he told her he didn’t want to write something anti-war, “he wanted to do something pro peace,” Cahill says. “Musically I think a lot of the composers I work with are more in the California school, coming out of Henry Cowell and Lou Harrison, focusing on melody and tonality, and not so much the East Coast school of dissonance.”

Her impressive cast of composers also includes Meredith Monk, Yoko Ono, The Residents, Phil Kline, Carl Stone, and Kyle Gann, who created a musical setting for a passage from Marine General Smedley Butler’s famous 1935 essay “War Is A Racket” (recited effectively by Cahill) that slyly concludes with an allusion to Gershwin’s “It Ain’t Necessarily So.” She’s been performing the Sweeter Music program around the country over the past four years, garnering enviable reviews from publications like The Village Voice, which wrote that Cahill’s commissions “will live as event-driven art long after this war finally ends, in the fashion of Picasso’s Guernica.”

She didn’t foresee it at the time but A Sweeter Music turned out to be topical no matter which party is in office. When she started developing the project in 2008, her father said that “if McCain gets elected it will have a life, but if Obama gets elected it’ll be moot. I said, that’ll be great, I won’t play these pieces anymore. But it turned out quite differently,” Cahill notes, citing the standoff with the Assad regime in Syria.

Even before its release the music has struck a chord. “I’m stunned at the response,” says Other Minds artistic director Charles Amirkhanian. “We got sales from all over the world, to every country in Europe. It’s a success before its release date. We put out a lot of CDs that are very intellectual, this is one you can also put on and enjoy.”

The El Cerrito composer, percussionist, and radio producer has known Cahill since he ushered her on the KPFA airwaves in the early 1980s, when he was the station’s music director. Impressed by her taste and commitment to championing contemporary composers, he’s watched her mature as an artist, carving out a niche as an interpreter of pieces requiring extended techniques, like playing inside the piano by directly strumming or striking the strings.


“Sarah has a particular genre she excels at,” Amirkhanian says. “She plays these pieces that are not at all pianistic in the traditional sense that can actually injure other pianists. When we presented Somei Satoh’s ‘Birds In Warped Time’ at a New Music Séance we tried to find a pianist who could do it, and several just weren’t able to handle it, but Sarah nailed it. Now she’s come up with a really great album and I’m so proud of her.”

Born in Washington D.C., Cahill moved to Berkeley at the age of five when her father, the eminent East Asian arts scholar James Cahill, joined Cal’s Department of History of Art, and she recalls elementary school days interrupted by tear gas. “We used to go hear Malvina Reynolds and Pete Seeger perform,” Cahill says. “I was too young to be active in the movement, but it made an impression.”

At Berkeley High she hung around with some of the prodigiously gifted young musicians turning the campus into a hotbed for jazz, particularly her best friend, tenor saxophonist Jessica Fuchs (now Jessica Jones). She was also very serious about music, but “was more of the nerdy classical kid playing with the Young People’s Symphony Orchestra,” Cahill says. “But I would go to concerts by Peter Apfelbaum, Steven Bernstein, and Benny Green. It was exhilarating, a very good time to be at Berkeley High.”

She studied briefly at the San Francisco Conservatory and pursued music at the University of Michigan, but ended up graduating with a degree in English. While immersing herself in new music, she also found work as a journalist, contributing to the Berkeley Gazette. Over the years her contributions to the Bay Area music scene have been vast, from her decades at KPFA championing underappreciated composers and musicians to her insistently creative work as a concert producer, most gloriously in founding and curating the Garden of Memory summer solstice event at the Chapel of the Chimes.

She’s also worked extensively as a critic, particularly in the original incarnation of the East Bay Express, which through 2001 boasted a collection of music writers unequalled by any publication on the West Coast (I was extremely proud to join her, Derk Richardson, Erik K. Arnold, Larry Kelp, Lee Hildebrand, j poet, Gina Arnold, and Jason Serinus as an Express contributor when I moved to the East Bay in 1996).


It was her diligence writing reviews for the Express that helped shape her passion for performing new music. In seeking to understand the work of composers she was covering, she would often seek out scores at the Berkeley Public Library, which possesses an extensive collection of music manuscripts. While she loves to perform classical music, Cahill has found her calling as an interpreter of 20th and now 21st century composers.

“I liked the idea of not having a score that hundreds of people have played before you, where before you start practicing you know exactly how it goes, and it’s a matter of working out your own subtle interpretation,” Cahill says. “If I’m one of many, many, and how would I ever carve out my own space? When I played Ruth Crawford Seeger’s music I felt I had a purpose, to introduce her music to people who had never heard it, to get into it in depth and work on it for a decade and understand these pieces that way I had Beethoven, Bach and Mozart. It just felt liberating and it made sense.”

Andrew Gilbert, whose Berkeleyside music column appears every Thursday, also covers music and dance for the San Jose Mercury News, Contra Costa Times, Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe and KQED’s California Report. He lives in west Berkeley.

Berkeleyside’s Uncharted: The Berkeley Festival of Ideas is two days of provocative thinking, inspiring speakers, workshops, and a big party — all in downtown Berkeley in October. Be a part of it. Register on the Uncharted website