Sarah Cahill, pianist

Who or what inspired you to take up the piano, and pursue a career in music?

When I was eight years old, I started taking lessons from a teacher named Sharon Mann, who was (and is) charismatic and beautiful and brilliant, and she taught me Bach fugues and Beethoven sonatas, and as a shy child, I adored her and wanted to do nothing but be in that world of music with her. My father also immersed me in his collection of 78s, with performances by Prokofiev, Rachmaninov, and Stravinsky of their own works.

Who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career?

As a new music pianist, I was inspired and influenced by the composer Larry Polansky, who, when I was in my twenties, introduced me to the piano works of Ruth Crawford, Lou Harrison, Dane Rudhyar, and the group of composers around Henry Cowell.  John Adams also influenced me enormously by writing China Gates for me when I was seventeen. The composers I’ve worked with—Terry Riley, Pauline Oliveros, Frederic Rzewski, Meredith Monk, among others—have all shaped my musical life.

What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?

The first few years of my daughter’s life, I struggled with balancing the demands of being a pianist and being a mother.  I always felt I should be better at both.  But I was determined to make it work, and brought her to concerts in Chicago and New Mexico when she was still less than six months old, and I’m very happy that she’s grown up with a community of composers and musicians.

Which performance/recordings are you most proud of? 

I’m proud of my recording of Ruth Crawford’s Preludes, and piano music of Marc Blitzstein, and Mamoru Fujieda’s Patterns of Plants. I’m proud of others too, but those are three of the main ones.  And I’m proud of the premiere of my project A Sweeter Music, with premieres by nineteen composers, at Cal Performances in Berkeley and New Sounds Live in New York.

Which particular works do you think you play best?

I’ve commissioned more than sixty compositions and always want to do them justice and earn the privilege of being the first pianist to give them life, so I think I play them best.  I also love uncovering lesser-known works by Henry Cowell, Ruth Crawford, Leo Ornstein, and other earlier 20th-century innovators, and I think I play them very well too.  Cowell especially has been a great passion.

How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season

I try to imagine what I want to hear as a listener in the audience.  Right now, I’m learning lots of music by women around the globe —  composers from Venezuela, Lithuania, China, Azerbaijan, Ireland, Russia, Cuba, all corners of the world —ranging from the 16th century to today.  This comes from a need to hear music by these composers.  I’m also constantly commissioning and receiving new scores, and planning new programs.  One of my favorites is a program of chaconnes spanning the centuries, by Gubaidulina, Nielsen,  Wolpe,  Jacquetde la Guerre, Danny Clay, Chaminade, John Blow, and others.

Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?

I’m very fond of performing in non-traditional venues, where unexpected and magical things can happen.  One of my favoriteswas playing at a 19th-century stone church in Maui, with its doors open to the ocean, so that Ruth Crawford’s Preludes mingled with the sounds of crashing waves. Another great experience was playing Mamoru Fujieda’s Patterns of Plants for four days, seven hours a day, at the Noguchi Museum in New York, among Noguchi’s gorgeous rough and polished stone sculptures.  I’ve played piano in a redwood grove and by the Pacific Ocean.

Who are your favourite musicians?

My favourite living pianist is Richard Goode.  From the past, I love Artur Schnabel, Joseph Szigeti, the Pro Arte Quartet, Bruno Walter, Rudolph Serkin, Walter Gieseking (these were all my father’s favourites as well). Ursula Oppens and Grete Sultan are also great inspirations.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

My most memorable concert experience were two “New Music Seances” presented by Other Minds at the marvellous Swedenborgian Church in San Francisco, lit by candlelight.  I played three concert programs back to back, with mystical and spiritual works by late 19th century and 20th century composers.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

Communicating the essence of a piece of music, hitting the right notes, and most of all, winning over listeners to a new work which they expected not to like.  Also, a contented composer.

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?

Focused practising, and assiduous research, and curiosity.  Be curious about other musicians, and aware of those who have paved the way for you.  Never assume you’ve come up with an original idea without really investigating the past.  Pauline Oliveros once told me “Cultivate your community,” and it’s become my mantra, in a way.  Instead of competing with a colleague, you can be supportive and share information and resources.  But primarily, don’t get so insular and self-involved that you can’t see the broader picture, of others working in the same field. Also find repertoire which is worthy but, for whatever reason, unexplored

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

My idea of perfect happiness is being at the piano all day long.

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