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.

Charles Amirkhanian, Catalyst of New Music Turns 75


Charles Amirkhanian interviewed by Kyle Gann at Berkeley’s David Brower Center (Photo by Allan Cronin, Creative Commons license)

A large and sympathetic crowd filled the Goldman Theater in Berkeley’s David Brower Center on this 19th day of 2020, the 75th birthday of composer, broadcaster, producer, new music catalyst Charles Amirkhanian. His is perhaps not a household name except in the households of the legions of composers, musicians, and fans of new music (this writer’s household definitely included).  That is a substantial crowd actually and close to 200 of them were in attendance.  

It was somehow fitting that this celebration take place in this particular venue. The Brower Center also contains the office from which he administers the wonderful Other Minds organization, the current outlet for his various projects supporting new music including the annual Other Minds concert series. 

Joshua Kosman’s respectful article of January 14th served notice to all of this impending event.   

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Amirkhanian with his ASCAP Award in the background (Photo by Allan Cronin Creative Commons license)

Charles is the executive and artistic director of the Other Minds Music Festival in San Francisco, which he co-founded with Jim Newman in 1992.  That festival will mark its 25th incarnation this year.  In addition he produces Other Minds Records and maintains a huge archive of interviews and music as well as a weekly radio broadcast on KALW featuring new and interesting music presented by he and his musical confederates.  

His stint as music director for KPFA in San Francisco lasted from 1969 to 1992 during which time he also interviewed most (if not all) the significant new music composers and performers of the time.  This writer has dubbed him the “Bill Graham” of new music because of the detail and care he always takes in producing concerts, conversations, recordings, and happenings.

His musicological efforts can be seen in his writings and advocacy of the work of George Antheil (for whom he served as executor of the composer’s estate) and Conlon Nancarrow, expatriate American composer who spent much of his creative life in Mexico City.  It was in the composer’s studio there that Charles recorded all of the groundbreaking studies for player piano on the composer’s original instruments (a major undertaking).  Indeed Charles’ history of advocacy and support of fellow musicians and composers would be a worthy subject for a book on its own.  His advocacy is a large part of his legacy as well.

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Photo by Ebbe Roe Yovino-Smith (all rights reserved)

The 178 seat Goldman Theater had but a few empty seats.  The crowd was a clearly enthusiastic one comprised of artists and supporters of the arts.  The evening commenced with an interview by fellow composer and scholar Kyle Gann, himself long associated with Mr. Amirkhanian (since at least 1982).  A professor of music at Bard College, Gann came here to the west coast expressly for this interview.  

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Kyle Gann, composer, scholar, professor of music (Photo by Ebbe Roe Yovino-Smith)

After a brief intro from Blaine Todd, Other Minds’ Associate Director the interview (actually more of a friendly conversation) began  with brief discussion of Amirkhanian’s beginnings and subsequent history in music in the Bay Area (and beyond).  Just in this casual conversation we met the man whose experiences has had him cross paths with a virtual Who’s Who of the most significant figures in 20th (and now 21st) century music while pursuing his own compositional efforts.  

In many, or dare I say, most cases his relationships have been very beneficial to his peers.  This was quite evident in a few conversations which this writer had with fellow audience members.  One gentleman asserted that Charles has put his advocacy ahead of his own work in favor of supporting new and emerging talents.  Another reminisced about how much he had learned of new music as a result of listening to those KPFA shows and how much this meant in his life.  His support of this very blog is another example.  It came about during the experience of volunteering at the Other Minds office.  And one need only look at the histories of many of the composers hosted at the fabulous Other Minds festival to see the subsequent successes attained by the talented individuals invited to perform at those events.  Henry Brant’s Pulitzer Prize winning organ concerto, “Ice Field” (2001) was an Other Minds commission.  More examples abound.

 

Amirkhanian’s sound poetry can be found on albums such as Lexical Music (1979, now on OM records 1032-2), Mental Radio (1985, CRI records, reissued on New World Records), Walking Tune (1997, Starkland Records), and his genre defining anthology “10+2: 12 American Text Sound Pieces (1975, OM 1006).  

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New World Records 80817

There is more to be had in this one man’s work than one evening could hope to contain but this program was also a CD release event of Amirkhanian’s sound collage works, a distinctly different genre from those who may know his language based works.  The two CD set on New World Records, “Loudspeakers” is a compendium of four works, Pianola (Pas de mains) (1997–2000; the subtitle is French for “no hands”), Im Frühling (“In Spring”, 1990), Loudspeakers (1990) ,  a vocal portrait of Morton Feldman, and Son of Metropolis San Francisco (1987/1997).  This release serves as a fine birthday present for the composer and his audience illustrating this important aspect of his oeuvre..

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Carol Law

At one point Amirkhanian quipped about his “long suffering wife” Carol Law who is a photographer and visual artist whose work includes some fascinating collaborations with Mr. Amirkhanian.  The two spent the mid 1960s traveling and meeting sound poets throughout Europe and the Nordic countries.  These efforts were very nicely showcased some of his work in the Other Minds 23 concerts.  I include one photo from that festival to give some idea of the significance of the collaboration. Law’s affable presence is a part of all these concerts and, far from suffering, she seems to derive much joy and satisfaction from this work.

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Amirkhanian performing his sound poetry in conjunction with Carol Law’s surreal slide show in which Amirkhanian becomes a part of the striking images.

 

Though Charles once remarked in an interview that one cannot really play these sound collages and expect people to listen in a concert hall (these pieces are originally conceived for presentation on radio) that is exactly what he did at this event.  We were treated to some or all of the pieces on this important new release including the entire 20 minutes or so Son of Metropolis.  And this sympathetic audience ate it like candy.  Indeed these sonic landscapes, the experimental Pianola, and the humorous homage to the late Morton Feldman in the titular Loudspeakers were absorbed by hungry ears and met with appreciative applause.  It is clear to those with new music ears that this release is a major event.

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Other Minds OM-1025-2

In a role reversal consistent with our guest of honor’s reputation for magnanimity a portion of the event was given to listening to an excerpt (the album is over 2 hours long) from Kyle Gann’s masterful Hyperchromatica, a piece written for three computer controlled disklaviers all tuned to a 33 tone octave and produced by Amirkhanian on Other Minds Records.  One cannot accurately describe the sound of this music except that it may remind some of a detuned old piano.  It is anything but detuned and Gann owes his inspiration in part to the experiments with tuning from predecessors such as La Monte Young and Ben Johnston (among others).  Actually he just recently released his own carefully researched tome on the subject of tuning.  

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Amirkhanian briefly took the role of interviewer and provided a very useful introduction to this work prior to hearing one of its movements.  As with the earlier pieces the audience listened with respectful attention and responded with warm applause.  This Other Minds records release was also available before, at intermission, and at the conclusion of the vent with both Charles and Kyle happily autographing and discussing their work.  Both the Hyperchromatica disc and this new book are major additions to the world of new music.

 

 

 

And, of course, no birthday is complete without a cake.

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Photo by Ebbe Roe Yovino-Smith

Many lingered following the event (which exceeded its two hour original plan) to chat with the kindred spirits and share in the cake, cookies, and fine UBUNTU brand coffee.  It is an event that will live in this writer’s memory and doubtless in the many who attended.

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The man of the hour toasting his “semisesquicentennial”.

A very Happy Birthday to you, Mr. Amirkhanian.  Your vision and efforts have been and continue to be a blessing to the Bay Area and the new music community in general.  Salud!!