Sarah Cahill’s “The Future is Female” Volume 2: The Dance


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The fanciful subtitle of this release, “The Dance” is a follow up to the first volume titled, “In Nature” (a third volume titled, “At Play” is due out in March, 2023). These vague titles are fanciful and more connotative than specific. They seem to reflect the nature of the project and the nature of Sarah Cahill‘s style of conceptualizing what must be an overwhelming undertaking, Beginning with the simple concept of female composers (the term “neglected” would be redundant here) Cahill has produced a sweeping survey ranging from the baroque era (the earliest piece so far in this anthology is from 1687) to the present and her survey seems to know few geographical boundaries in this representative survey of keyboard music. Of course we are talking about basically the paradigm of western classical music but non-western influences are of course included via the composers’ individual talents. Many of these works were presented in Cahill’s fine YouTube series which can give listeners further clues to the pianist’s varied interests.

The cover art (which I had described as “drab” in the first review) now seems to aptly reflect the struggle for equality and now nicely represents this project in an iconic way with the same monochrome cover photo on each of the three volumes and a primary color panel with the disc title. Green for Volume I, Yellow for Volume II (I’m guessing “red” for Vol III?). This survey is shaping up to be an influential as well as hugely entertaining anthology.

What struck this listener is Cahill’s facility with both technique and interpretation of a mighty diverse set of pieces. Known primarily for her work with music written after 1950, she demonstrates in these recordings an impressive command of baroque, classical, romantic, and modern idioms. I have never heard her play Bach but I wouldn’t miss an opportunity to hear her do the Goldberg Variations.

This was particularly striking in her reading of the keyboard suite that opens this release. This is apparently not the first recording of Elisabeth JACQUET DE LA GUERRE‘s (1665-1729) Suite no. 1 in d minor (the complete suites for harpsichord were recorded by harpsichordist Carol Cerasi in 1998) but Cahill seems to channel the spirits of the pioneering efforts of Wanda Landowska and Rosalyn Tureck whose abilities to play harpsichord music effectively on the modern piano helped set the standard for this practice in the twentieth century and beyond. This late French baroque suite is a thoroughly engaging way to draw the listener in. With echoes of Bach and Couperin this virtually unknown composer is seriously engaging and substantive. This recording includes five (of nine) movements of the suite. One hopes to hear more of this woman’s music and Cahill is very much up to the task of providing a definitive performance.

With the next track we hear the music of Clara SCHUMANN (1819-1896), better known as the wife of Robert Schumann (1810-1856). Clara was in fact a highly accomplished virtuoso and composer whose works are only now getting the recognition they deserve. The piece chosen here is her Variations on a Theme of Robert Schumann Op. 20. These seven variations were a gift for her husband on his 43rd birthday in 1853. Sadly it was to be the last birthday he would celebrate with his family. Robert Schumann was infamously institutionalized in 1854 and died in 1856. The work has all the splendor of high romanticism with the virtuosity associated with the great composer/pianists (Brahms, Schumann, Liszt, Rubinstein, et al). And, as with the previous piece, Cahill seems very at home in her reading of this wonderful set of variations.

Germaine TAILLEFERE (1892-1983) is next up with her three movement partita of 1957. The title “Partita” suggests a connection with the baroque suite which opens this collection. The connection is one of form, not harmony or melody. The three movements here are “Perpetuum Mobile”, “Notturno”, and “Allegramente”. Taillefere, who is perhaps best known for her lively Harp Concertino of 1927, was the only female member of France’s celebrated “Les Six” (the other members were, Louis Durey, Georges Auric, Arthur Honneger, Darius Milhaud, and Francis Poulenc). This largely neoclassical group of composers developed their styles in the shadow of Debussy and Ravel. Cahill’s first album was a fine reading of Ravel’s piano music and she is very much in her element with this delightful three movement work which echoes Ravel to some degree,

Zenobia POWELL PERRY (1908-2004) is the first composer in this collection to be born in the twentieth century. She was a black composer/conductor/pianist and teacher. Her work appeared before in this blog in coverage of her opera “Tarawa House” which was given a revival in Modesto, CA in 2014. Her “Rhapsody” (1960) is in a sort of Neo-romantic style with some challenging virtuosity required. This is a fine introduction to her work which deserves serious reassessment and more performances. Musicologist Jeannie Gayle Pool continues to publish, preserve, and advocate for this neglected American artist. Pool maintains the website for this composer and is a useful, informative site,

Madeleine DRING (1923-1977), a British composer/pianist, a new name to this writer, is characterized by her use of popular and jazz idioms. Cahill here plays two (of five) movements of her “Color Suite” (1963). This whets the listener’s appetite for more of this interesting composer whose work was well known during her career but whose star has dimmed since her passing. Dring is one of many women composers of that era whose work, though influential, has not been incorporated into the repertory of contemporary classical musicians.

Betsy JOLAS (1926- ), a French born American composer whose career has included work as a composer, pianist, and teacher. No stranger to the Bay Area, Jolas taught at UC Berkeley and Mills College as well as Harvard and Yale. The listener accessible nature of her music belies the innovation and complexities it contains. Though she has been recognized throughout her career her work is due for a new reckoning. Her brief “Tango Si” (1984) is entertaining and sufficiently compelling to spark interest in her work going forward.

Elena KATS-CHERNIN (1957- ) hails from Uzbekistan and migrated to Australia where she studied at the New South Wales Conservatorium and subsequently with Helmut Lachenmann in Germany. Kats-Chernin has been a prolific composer and is now perhaps mid-career and, happily, pretty well known. “Peggy’s Rag” (1996) is one of a set of several rags written between 1995 and 1999. This work is dedicated to Australian composer Peggy Glanville-Hicks (1912-1990), another artist, another female composer deserving of a revival.

Meredith MONK (1942- ) has long been one of this reviewer’s favorite “downtown” composers whose initial musical ventures were first heard in her New York SOHO loft. She, along with other rising stars, including Philip Glass, Steve Reich, Phill Klein, Rhys Chatham, etc., are now the historically recognized mavericks who’s creative ideas formed in contrast to the power elite of the “uptown” composers heard commonly at Lincoln Center.

Monk was initially trained as a dancer and that has been evident in most of her output. But she is perhaps best known for her exploration of extended vocal techniques (which she also teaches). It is fitting that her “St. Petersburg Waltz” (1997) is included in this dance themed installment of music by women composers. Despite being an “east coast” composer initially, Monk has achieved international recognition and has a particularly large following in the Bay Area. No surprise then that our pianist guide in this journey has a long standing familiarity with Monk’s work. Cahill demonstrates her grasp of Monk’s minimalist inflected style most admirably and, as in the preceding tracks, leaves the listener wanting more.

Gabriela ORTIZ (1964) is a Mexican composer. Born in Mexico, trained in England, and now teaching in Mexico. Her light shines brightly even in the glare of the heavily politicized immigration issues that dominate the media and is another in a long line of world class composers from that underrated country. Ortiz, in addition to her academic appointments, has produced a large number of works in multiple formats from piano and chamber music, to orchestral, dance, and opera. Her work draws in part on the folk music traditions she absorbed in her childhood and she has amassed a significant number of international commissions and recordings.

Ortiz is also an accomplished pianist and the work chosen here is “Preludio y Estudio No. 3″(2011), one of four two part compositions. Cahill’s brief but useful notes provide the listener with her personal insights to the underlying complexities that drive this music. The incorporation of folk and non-classical elements has been embraced by composers for hundreds of years and Ortiz succeeds in incorporating such elements into her personal style,. As with all of these works, Cahill produces interpretations that, if not absolutely definitive (there are always detractors) stand as a challenge to subsequent interpreters, a necessary element in such a grand project.

This volume ends with the most recently composed work by the youngest composer of the lot, Theresa WONG (1976- ). Wong, a graduate of Mills College, is cherished performer in the Bay Area and beyond, As both composer and performer she has maintained an active schedule and has produced a great deal of music documented in a large and growing discography. Her collaborations have included many of the established Bay Area artistic royalty (including Ms. Cahill, of course).

“She Dances Naked Under the Palm Trees” (2019) is a composition for which the backstory (provided in Cahill’s notes) is particularly useful for the listener. It is the incorporation of extramusical ideas and musical. quotation that drive the drama here to some extent.. The music certainly stands on its own but the addition of the technical insights will send the listener back for repeated hearings and the music will guide the listener to seek more of the work of this wonderful artist whose star continues to rise.

The last disc in this landmark anthology (due next year) will ultimately contain only a portion of the approximately 70 pieces which Cahill has chosen. Like her previous anthology (of politically influenced music) “A Sweeter Music” released in 2013, the limitations of time and money prevent a more complete vision of said anthologist but there is more than enough to provoke further interest by listeners and artists and isn’t that the point?

Ravel and Bartok Go Electric


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While this album is not likely to cause as much of a stir as Bob Dylan did when he went electric in 1965 at the Newport Folk Festival it is revelatory in its own way. Of course Ravel and Bartok did not write for even acoustic guitar but they, like all western classical musicians, were very familiar with the art of transcription. Functional electric instruments wouldn’t come into use until the late 1940s. But the art of transcription (essentially a synonym for “Covers” as used in pop music) can be applied to any instrument and, at its best, transcription brings out perspectives in the music that were not obvious in its original incarnation. That is what is achieved here.

There are no liner notes but it appears that these musicians have done the transcribing themselves. And their backgrounds include having played guitar with the likes of Chris Cornell, Natalie Merchant, Rufus Wainwright, Joan Baez, Patti Smith, Ian Hunter, and others. Their facility with their guitar playing comes from (the more traditional role of the guitar) in rock/pop genres and here they apply this knowledge to playing classical repertoire which they came to love. Why can’t they have both?

A more pedestrian choice of repertoire for a debut might have been Bach inventions or Scarlatti sonatas (which worked remarkably well for Wendy Carlos) but these guys made what, on first look, seems very unusual choices. Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite (hardly that composer’s best known work) and 6 (of the 44) duos for violins by Bela Bartok (among the composer’s least known compositions). So I approached this release with a great deal of skepticism.

Well, the sounds they create, recorded so lucidly too, instantly won me over. This is a spectacular release and makes a very enjoyable listening experience. Their transcriptions provided a perspective that sent this listener back to the original compositions for another listen. I had a minimal familiarity with the Ravel and even less familiarity with the Bartok but the sheer energy of their performances combined with a real feel for the jazz roots that underlie the Ravel as well as a curious set of sounds chosen for the Hungarian folk derived Bartok effectively recasts these pieces in a very different perspective.

Like Bob Dylan, they thrust the modern electric guitar center stage and provide what will be for some, a jarring or disturbing experience. Purists may find these transcriptions sacrilegious but I suspect that many will be charmed and (perhaps their endgame) may find electric guitars to be anywhere from acceptable to revelatory as instruments which can do justice in the classical world.

Electric guitars are now pretty common in folk as well as rock and blues. Dylan gets significant credit for this and these guys seem to be aiming at a similar goal, that of bringing electric guitars into legitimacy in the performance of classical music. Whether this eventually happens remains to be seen but this is a mighty well conceived and executed effort and, in the end, it is a very fine piece of sonic art. Kudos to Jack Petruzzelli and Cameron Greider as well as to Sono Luminus.

Jenny Q Chai brings Synaesthesia to CNMAT in Berkeley


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All is set up in the diminutive performance space at CNMAT.

Jenny Q. Chai is a graduate of Curtis Institute and the Manhattan School of Music.  She is trained as a pianist but she is in the process of expanding that role somewhat.  Chai is one of an unusual group of people called “synaesthetes”, that is, people who see sounds and hear colors.  Her program tonight is entitled, “Sonorous Brushes”.

I am not a synaesthete and it is most likely that most of the audience was more like me.  The actual prevalence of synaesthesia in which stimulation of one sense (such as sound) simultaneously stimulates another sensory or cognitive pathway (such as color or emotion) is estimated to occur in about 4% of the general population (estimates vary).  This condition is unusual but is not pathological.  The interest or the challenge here is the artist’s attempt to convey her personal synaesthetic perceptions in a way that can be understood by those not similarly wired.

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Chai spoke eloquently about her research to the audience.

The program was divided into sections.  In the first Chai performed some mostly conventional repertoire from the early twentieth century namely Debussy, Ravel, Messiaen.  The four Debussy pieces with which Ms. Chai opened this recital (two etudes, “Pour les huits doigts” and “Pour les quartes” and preludes 11 and 12 from book 2) left absolutely  and no doubt as to  and the artist’s virtuosity and interpretive skills.  She then launched into a Ravel homage by one Frederic Durieux followed by Ravel’s Oiseaux Tristes and a  truly athletic Messiaen piece.  Understandably these pieces inspired visual creations by this artist and seemed to be the seed for her ongoing research.

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It is curious and somehow very fitting that this musical exploration begin with music that was inspired by the visual.  Impressionism was pretty much paralleled by the music which appears to have been inspired by the visual art, an early argument for synaesthesia.  There is little doubt that many artists (and non-artists) have had this condition for better or worse but it is likely that such unusual perceptions would have been classified as pathological and not the topic of polite conversation back in the 19th century and before.

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On this night it would be not merely a topic of conversation but an introduction to research which began with a grant Chai received from the French government for research into synaesthesia and presenting these ideas to a wider audience.  Far from pathology, this could even be seen as a deficit in those who lack this ability.  The key then is to explore synaesthesia as a potential asset.  Of course a complete and detailed explanation was not the goal of the evening.  This was to whet our appetites.

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Composer Jarosław Kapuściński explains some of the technology behind his compositions and the visual art that accompanied these performances.

 

This next part of the program involved the work of Jarosław Kapuściński (Warsaw, 1964-) whose two pieces were slated for the last portion of the program.  He is, since 2016, the chair of the music department at Stanford University and no doubt spends time with CCRMA (Stanford’s equivalent of CNMAT) investigating music, sound and computers.  He spoke of being inspired by a calligrapher who was also well known to Ms. Chai, a Chinese woman and master calligrapher named Shanshan Zhao (the film was done at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music).  While he did not go into great detail the composer basically shared his visual inspirations and spoke a bit about how his composition program “listens” to the performer (see the photo with the two mikes inside the piano below) and responds in some way.  This sounds like another chapter in the book which includes David Behrman’s early computer/performer interactive experiments.  Some 50 years later (this piece, “Calligraphies for Ziqi” is from 2018 and got its US premiere here tonight).  Another generation shows its expertise.

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Note the two black microphones inside the piano. No, its not the Russians.

The title, “Calligraphies for Ziqi” (2018) references Ziqi, a man whose listening was so perfect that the musician destroyed his instrument after Ziqi died because he knew he would never find a better listener.  This ancient Chinese story (approx 770-476 BC) is also about the merging of sound and image in its way.  Several calligraphies are displayed in process during the performance with the music reflecting the moods of the Chinese characters being displayed.  Each movement involves a different Chinese character and a different attempt at calligraphy.  There may be extramusical references here but the music does a satisfying job of standing with the visuals and further analysis can be left to musicologists and program annotators.

In addition Kapuściński is no stranger to Asian arts.  He has explored eastern musics and incorporated aspects of them into some of his works.  He is also no stranger to computers and their use in composition.  His appreciation of disparate artistic techniques effectively spanning 5000 years and utilizing them effectively is a mark of genius in this writer’s opinion.  This is a challenging piece for the soloist but it is a sensual journey for the audience.  While the geekier folks (this reviewer definitely included) would like to know much more about the technical aspects of this gorgeous music, suffice it to say that such knowledge is not a prerequisite for enjoying the art.

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Chai playing the interactive piano part to the visuals in “Calligraphies for Ziqi” (2018), This was the California premiere.

This was followed by another visual/musical collaboration, Side Effects (2017) also by Kapuściński involves music set to videos by Kacper Kowalski who shoots from a perspective 150 meters directly above his subjects.  Think a latter day Koyaanisqatsi (do I need to footnote that reference?).  Again we see affecting music which captures the composer’s reaction to the visuals.  I didn’t get the sense that there was any computer interaction here, just some good music to some stunning visuals.

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Chai playing the music to the visuals in “Side Effects” (2017)

The capacity audience (the room capacity is only 49) was very appreciative and gave a standing ovation which compelled no less than two encores.  Forgive your reviewer for not being able to recall the first but there seemed to be a new magic afoot when this pianist launched into the second, a wonderful rendition of the aria from Bach’s Goldberg Variations.  It was a loving and intense interpretation (no doubt full of colors as well) and it left the audience satisfied as a dessert would cap the climax of a fine meal.  Brava, Ms. Chai.  And thank you Mr. Kapuściński.