Female Artists Matter: Sarah Cahill’s Survey of Piano Music by Neglected Women Composers


First Hand Records FHR 131

Strictly speaking all women composers are neglected. Despite significant efforts in recent years there remain significant disparities in the representation of women composers in the concert and recital halls. Realistically it will take years just to catch up on those composers whose music has languished in unfair obscurity. Now in this International Women’s Month we are seeing the release of a great deal of music by various artists attempting to correct this neglect each with their own lens. Here we have the first installment of three planned CDs by the Berkeley based pianist, Sarah Cahill. This volume, titled “In Nature” is to be followed by one called “At Play” in November, 2022 and “The Dance” in March, 2023.

Photo by Christine Alicino from Cahill’s web site

Cahill is as much curator as artist, a skill evident in her weekly radio program “Revolutions Per Minute” on Bay Area radio station KALW and any number of creative concerts and musical projects in the San Francisco area. She is an internationally acclaimed recitalist and soloist and her You Tube Channel is one I frequently visit just to see what she’s up to. It is where I first heard many of the women composers featured on the present CD and a place where one can get a sense of her unique choices of repertory that characterize her career. Her husband, acclaimed videographer and video artist John Sanborn does the camera work and I must say that these videos were a welcome respite during the COVID lockdown and an opportunity to experience her musicianship up close and personal (only a page turner at a recital gets a better seat).

The first release in this series contains music spanning some 250+ years. The first selection is by Anna Bon (1739/40-ca.1767) which puts her in the late baroque/early classical era. This is the 5th (of 6) in her Opus 2 sonatas for keyboard. This is the first recording on a piano of this entertaining work by this Venetian composer who died in her 20s. Listeners will discern echoes of Mozart (1756-1791) and Haydn (1732-1809) for whom she sang in the choir at Prince Esterhazy’s, Haydn’s celebrated patron and employer. But the sound of the mature J.S. Bach (1685-1750) certainly dominates this very accomplished sonata. This writer hears it almost as a not too distant relative of the Goldberg Variations.

Next we come to 1846 with the music of Fanny Mendelssohn-Hensel (1805-1847), sister of Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847). Though Fanny composed some 450 pieces in her short life most remained unknown and some were falsely attributed to her more famous younger brother, Felix. In fact he published some of her work under his name (in his Opus 8 and 9 collections) as women rarely got published at the time and Felix recognized his older sister’s talent.

Cahill has chosen numbers one and three of Fanny’s Opus 8 “Four Lieder for Piano” (a form which her younger brother would later embrace in his “Songs Without Words”). These accomplished early romantic works will leave the listener wanting more of this woman’s music which remains still largely unrecorded. They are a testament to her inventiveness as a composer as well as her virtuosity as a pianist and one hopes for a reassessment of her work.

The next selection comes from a Venezuelan composer, soprano, pianist Teresa Carreño (1853-1917). Sometimes referred to as the “Valkyrie of the Piano”, she had a 54 year career championing the work of luminaries such as Edward MacDowell and Edvard Grieg. Her 1848 etude-meditation, “A Dream at Sea” is a romantic virtuosic work that sounds like a challenge to play but a joy for the listener. This deserves to be in the recitalist’s repertory.

The next unknown gem in this fine collection comes from the pen of Leokadiya Aleksandrovna Kashperova (1872-1940) who was one of Igor Stravinsky’s piano teachers. In a sad echo of present day events Kashperova’s works, though published, were suppressed from performance due to her Bolshevik in exile husband whose politics were, to say the least, unpopular. Cahill here plays her Murmur of the Wheat from the piano suite, “In the Midst of Nature” (1910). Cahill handles the finger busting, Lisztian virtuosity with seeming ease and makes a case both for the further exploration of this woman’s music and the inclusion of it in the performing repertoire. This recording is the commercial recording premiere of the work.

We move now from one of Stravinsky’s piano teachers to one of John Cage’s. American composer, pianist, educator Fannie Charles Dillon (1881-1947) studied composition with Rubin Goldmark (one of Aaron Copland’s teachers) and piano with the great virtuoso Leopold Godowsky.

Years before Olivier Messiaen took up the practice, Dillon, was known for the inclusion of birdsong in her works. One of her 8 Descriptive Pieces, “Birds at Dawn Op. 20 No. 2” (1917) was performed and recorded by early 20th century virtuoso Josef Hoffman. Cahill comments in her fine liner notes, “Dillon’s score is remarkable in its specific notation of bird songs: the Chickadee, Wren-tit, Thrush, Canyon Wren, Vireo, and Warbling Vireo…”. It is indeed a sonic painting of the birds at dawn.

The Czech composer, conductor, pianist Vítězslava Kaprálová (1915-1940) was the daughter of composer, pianist Václav Kaprál (1889-1947). She composed some 50 works in her short life and died at the age of 25 in Montpelier, France two days after France surrendered to the Nazis. Her four “April Preludes Op. 13” were written for the Moravian-American pianist Rudolf Firkušný and are her best known piano works. Cahill has chosen the first and third for this recording. The music is notable for its exploration of extended harmonic language and made this listener curious about her other compositions.

This next work is a classic Cahill achievement. As a pianist known for working with living composers as well as being a producer who knows good music when she hears it this is a bit of musical archeology that brings to life in this world premiere recording a work from 1949 by Hungarian pianist Agi Jambor (1909-1997). Jambor studied with the legendary Edwin Fischer and had a career as a pianist and teacher very tragically interrupted by the events of World War II. She came to the United States in 1947 where her husband passed away two years later. She taught at Bryn Mawr College and was granted Emeritus status in 1974.

Her three movement Piano Sonata “To the Victims of Auschwitz” was brought into a legible and performable score with the assistance of Dr. John DesMarteau who befriended Jambor late in her life and to whom the piece is dedicated. And it was in consultation with Dr. DesMarteau, Cahill writes, that she was assisted in the interpretation of this music. According to Cahill’s liner notes this work attempts to represent sonically some of Jambor’s war time memories. It is a substantial work, a lost and lonely artifact of history given a definitive performance and recording.

The amazing composer Eve Beglarian (1958- ), the only of these composers known to this reviewer prior to receiving this album, provides the next offering, “Fireside” (2001). It is in fact a Cahill commission for a project commemorating the centennial of another neglected female composer, Ruth Crawford (Seeger) (1901-1953). Beglarian takes a poem written by the 13 year old Ruth Crawford hopefully describing her fantasy of what she would be in future years and, utilizing some chords from one of Crawford’s piano pieces, constructs a powerful meditation on the subject at hand. As it turned out Crawford wound up giving up her composing career to work with musicologist Charles Seeger, not exactly tragic, but hardly what her 13 year old self had imagined. Beglarian writes that “Fireside is dedicated to women composers of the future, who will undoubtedly be making devils bargains of their own.”, a cynicism which is hard to deny.

This piece, in its world premiere commercial recording, is one of a genre unique to the 20th and 21st centuries, that of the speaking pianist. This puts in in a category shared by works like Frederic Rzewski’s classic “De Profundis” (1994) and Kyle Gann’s “War is Just a Racket” (2008), a Cahill commission for yet another of her fascinating themed projects and recorded on her CD, “A Sweeter Music” released in 2013.

The penultimate track on this journey is provided by Belfast born (now in London) Irish composer Deirdre Gribbin (1967- ). “Unseen” (2017), in its commercial recording premiere, is described by the composer as a sort of meditation on the innocent victims of violence she has seen in her now home city of London whose presence is frequently unseen by many and, in the composer’s words, “reflects my desire to embrace an awareness more fully of my immediate surroundings in all their beauty and cruel pain”.

Mary D. Watkins (1939- ) is an American pianist and composer, a graduate of Howard University who has penned three operas as we as music for orchestra, chamber ensembles, jazz ensembles, and solo piano. She is a fine pianist, an advocate for Black

At first glance I was struck by Shane Keaney’s dark, drab art work of this album’s cover. It echoes the photographic work of Declan Haun and his contemporaries who documented the harrowing events of the 1960s Civil Rights Movement. But after reading the harrowing stories behind this music I find it entirely apt. There is certainly beauty here but also pain and sadness. The monochrome portraits that make up the inside of this gatefold album charmingly includes Sarah Cahill’s face alongside portraits of the composers within, a reflection of the pianist’s solidarity with them. And the other photos in the booklet by Cahill’s daughter Miranda Sanborn add to the sense of connectedness that seems to characterize her projects. This is a wonderful start to a promising project.

Dither, a Unique Guitar Quartet


Dither is a guitar quartet comprised of Taylor Levine, Joshua Lopes, James Moore and Gyan Riley.  The present release is their third album and, like the preceding releases is an adventure in listening.  Their intelligently designed web site has some nice sound and video samples.

A quick look at their recorded output places their performing repertoire clearly in the “new music” category and their work has been granted a kind of serious legitimacy by their inclusion (of their second album) in John Zorn’s wonderful Tzadik record label.  So along comes the truly rising star of New Focus Recordings whose service to new music adds yet another imprimatur to this group’s collective resume.

dither tracks

A quick look at the track list on the back of this gorgeously designed album reveals 9 works spread across 12 tracks (one of the works is in 4 movements) which includes one track from each of the musicians alongside some other interesting new music and, at the end, the gift of one older piece which, though certainly modern in concept is too little known. The only negative is the lack of liner notes both on the album and on their website.

I assure you that I don’t mean to trivialize this wonderful album by calling it “post-psychedelic” but it is difficult to not hear the riffs and effects as having an ancestry in the psychedelic sound.  But for this disc the psychedelic sounds appear to include Frank Zappa, Rhys Chatham, La Monte Young, Brian Eno, as well as Jimi Hendrix, Mahavishnu John Mc Laughlin, and their compatriots.

The first track, “The Garden of Cyrus” (1985) by Eve Beglarian, a much sought after composer who emerged from the downtown New York scene and continues to enthrall with her inventive talents.  This track is generally speaking a sort of post minimalist piece with a rather immediate appeal and serves as a fine introduction to the album. It has a variety of sections with varying degrees of rhythmic complexity and harmonic density. It is sometimes microtonal, sometimes spectral, sometimes antiphonal, sometimes dissonant, sometimes warmly consonant, but always engaging.

Next up is “The Tar of Gyu” (2013) by Gyan Riley.  Gyan is indeed his own man musically who has emerged from the shadow of his famed father Terry Riley in a most gracious manner.  His collaborations with his father continue to be a must see concert event and his work in solo and chamber groups reflect a growing and fascinating identity as a composer and musician entirely in his own right.  The present work makes excellent use of the timbres of the electric guitar and makes for another engaging if rather somber track. This work is largely about sustained tones and timbres and shows a real mastery of composing for this unusual chamber ensemble as well as a side of Riley’s compositional style less familiar to this reviewer.

Paula Matthusen, an associate professor of music at Wesleyan where she became the sort of heir to Alvin Lucier’s Music 109 class (documented so well in Lucier’s book of the same name).  Her music combines electronics with instruments and sometimes recorded sounds.  Her piece, “but because without this” (2009) was written for Dither and continues her unique compositional journey. Without notes it is difficult to say much about this work by a composer who tends to insert herself pretty organically into her compositions.

Jascha Narveson is a name new to this reviewer.  He is another composer deeply involved with electronics as well as acoustic instruments.  Ones (2012) is a four movement work written for the Dither Quartet.  This is basically a set of etudes for the effects pedal.  The four movements, titled “The Wah One”, “The Driving One”, “The Warped One”, and “The Floaty One” are each apparently a reference to electric guitar foot pedals and these minimalist etudes exploit the effect created by the pedal as a compositional device. Really fascinating.

Mi-Go (2012) by the ensemble’s own Joshua Lopes and it is here that the Zappa comparison is most evident.  This piece (the second longest on the album at 9:38) sounds like an aural refugee from Zappa’s “Jazz from Hell” (an album much admired by this writer).  Lopes creates a work of some complexity and many moods utilizing the potential of this instrumentation to great advantage creating a work of almost symphonic dimensions.

Up next is James Moore’s Mannequin (2014), one of the shorter pieces here.  After a loud and somewhat cacophonous opening this piece goes on to explore sustained tones and glissandos.

Candy (2010) by Ted Hearne is the first of only two pieces here that was not written by one of the performers.  Hearned earlier released a fine disc of his own music (also on New Focus). Like many of his peers he wields a tool box of compositional styles that includes jazz as well as contemporary classical techniques. This is certainly one of the more complex pieces here but Hearne’s music communicates well with the audience.

Track 11 is by Dither’s Taylor Levine. Renegade (2013) is a relatively brief piece and one which wanders furthest from my characterization of this album being “minimalist”. It seems to have its roots at least partly in noise bands but its complexity engages and seems to fit the program.

Track 12 is by James Tenney (1934-2006).  His Swell Piece (1966) is actually an early example of minimalism an is part of a series of compositions written on post cards and called, “Postal Pieces”. Tenney spent a portion of his career in California teaching at Cal Arts where he mentored many composers and performers working today,  This is a fitting conclusion, an homage to one of the great experimental composers whose music, thankfully, is now getting fine performances and recordings.

Holes in the Sky, Lara Downes Channels the Collective Artistry of the Feminine


downesholes

Sony/Portrait

Lara Downes has proven herself as a virtuoso pianist in solo, chamber, and with orchestra.  She has demonstrated facility with standard repertoire as well as an intelligent selection of contemporary composers.  In this sort of mid-career place she has begun releasing a more personal kind of album of which this is the third incarnation.  The “series’ to which I refer is the perception of this reviewer, not one defined as such by Ms. Downes but stick with me. Her previous releases have been organized on one level or another on themes just like most album of any stripe.  The difference is a more sociopolitical focus.

One look at the eclectic musical choices here and one sees Downes sharing her spotlight with kindred spirits (composers and performers both) while her themes take on more socially conscious ideas.  The first of these was America Again (2016) which is a beautiful collection of short piano pieces predominantly though not exclusively by black composers.  It is a very personal choice of repertoire reflecting her profound knowledge of the repertoire as well as the neglect of black composers.  The second was Lenny (2018), a tribute to Leonard Bernstein.  It includes a marvelously varied group of guest artists and, much as Lenny did, blurs the line between the “classical” and the “vernacular”.  It was a love song to a cherished artist (this writer included in the cherishing).

She does something similar here in this album whose title is taken, appropriately enough, from Georgia O’Keefe, “I want real things, live people to take hold of, to see, and talk to, music that makes holes in the sky, I want to love as hard as I can.”  In the essay that opens the program booklet Downes speaks briefly of her relationship with women in general and women as composers and as performers.

The album opens with a 1949 piece by Florence Price, a black American composer much of whose whose work has recently been rediscovered and recorded.  Her work was also featured on the America Again album.  This is a mid-century romantic piece for solo piano.

The second track, and the one that hooked this listener big time is this recording of Judy Collins early song, Albatross (1966) which appeared on her album Wildflowers which in turn provided some of the design elements of the album.  The liner notes to the present album also note this connection.

In place of detailed liner notes there is a fascinating conversation between two of the women involved with this album, Lara Downes and Judy Collins.  A lovely black and white portrait is included in the liner notes.  Their discussion centers primarily on the Albatross song but also touches on the nature of political activism in which Downes laments not being active in marches.  Collins tells her (and this writer agrees wholeheartedly) she belongs at the piano.  Indeed her activism, though of a gentler nature, gets ideas out most effectively utilizing her incredible talents as a pianist, historian, and fellow musician.

Rather than go through an analysis of each of these pieces I am simply going to provide a track list.  It appears that this album is designed to be heard and contemplated as a sonic document first and as a research project at a later time (one hopes for more detail at some point because these are interesting pieces).

1. Memory Mist (1949) by Florence Price

2. Albatross (1967) by Judy Collins

3. A Tale of Living Water (2010) by Clarice Assad

4. Dream Variation with Rhiannon Giddens (1959) by Margaret Bonds and Langston     Hughes

5. Ellis Island with Simone Dinnerstein (1981) by Meredith Monk

6. Don’t Explain with Leyla McCalla (1944) by Billie Holiday

7. Willow Weep for Me (1932) by Ann Ronel (arr. by Hyungin Choi)

8. Venus Projection (1990) by Paula Kimper

9. Morning on the Limpopo: Matlou Women (2005) by Paola Prestini

10. Farther from The Heart with Hila Pittman (2016) by Eve Beglarian and Jane Bowles

11. Favorite Color (1965) by Joni Mitchell (arr. by Nora Kroll-Rosenbaum)

12. Noises of Gratitude (2017) by Jennifer Higdon

13. Arroyo, Mi Niña with Mogos Herrera (2018) trad. arr. by Lara Downes

14. Music Pink and Blue (2018) by Elena Ruehr

15. Idyll (1946) by Hazel Scott

16. Blue Piece with Rachel Barton Pine (2010) by Libby Larsen

17. Bloom (2018) by Marika Takeuchi

18. Just for a Thrill with Alicia Hall Moran (1936) by Lil Hardin-Armstrong (arr. by               Hyungin Choi)

19. Agwani (Doves) (2009) by Mary Kouyoumdjian

20. What Lips My Lips Have Kissed (2014) by Georgia Stitt

21. Rainbow (n.d.) by Abbey Lincoln and Melba Liston (arr. by Laura Karpman)

22. All the Pretty Little Horses with Ifetayo Ali-Landing and The Girls of Musicality (Trad. arr. by Lara Downes and Laura Karpman)

In these 22 tracks all the music is by women composers and, most charmingly a selection of women performers who appear as sort of cameos on different tracks.  The music ranges from the mid-twentieth century to the present and embraces a variety of genres (classical, folk, blues, etc.).  The end result is a charming and very intimate document but also one which is somehow gently subversive as it presents the best in musical and performance quality as an acknowledgement of the accomplishments of women in general, (to paraphrase Ms. O’Keefe) making music as hard as they can.