by Sue Gilmore, Contra Costa Times, 19 Jan 2009

Beating swords into plowshares is about as noble an antiwar notion as they come, but Sarah Cahill of Berkeley is taking the Old Testament injunction out of the fields and into the higher realm of music.

The noted pianist, recording artist and “Then & Now” radio talk-show host on KALW-FM is perhaps best known for her championship of the music of her contemporaries. She is the creative genius and organizing force behind the annual “Summer Solstice” event at the Chapel of the Chimes columbarium in Oakland, a sort of “walk-around concert” that presents 30 or more Bay Area musicians and groups in simultaneous performance of their own works.

Now Cahill, 47, has tapped into her even wider circle of composer friends, some of them quite famous, and charmed 18 of them into participating in an ambitious project she is calling “A Sweeter Music.”

Her solo piano concert featuring new works by nine of those composers, all commissioned on themes of peace, will receive its world premiere at a Cal Performances-sponsored program in Berkeley’s Hertz Hall Sunday afternoon, before moving on to further performances, incorporating works by the other nine composers, in New York, Houston, Chicago, Europe and, if all goes well, Japan.

The title of the piece came to Cahill serendipitously, soon after she conceived of the project, when she encountered this quote while reading the text of Martin Luther King’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech: “We must see that peace represents a sweeter music, a cosmic melody that is far superior to the discord of war.”

Although Cahill will be alone at the keyboard, she has an important collaborator for the project in her husband of 19 years, John Sanborn. An Emmy Award-winning director and videographer and former creative director at Comedy Central, Sanborn has patched together, from sources as disparate as 16th-century paintings, Matthew Brady Civil War photos, computer-generated particle animation and footage he shot from a hot air balloon, a video triptych installation for eight of the works she will perform. His imagery, inspired by the content of the compositions, will flow across three screens above her head as she plays, at tempos in keeping with the music.

Even their 10-year-old daughter Miranda has been roped into the family project as an occasional consultant and go-to carpentry girl. Her contributions include helping stretch fabric over the 10-by-15-foot screen frames and keeping the DVD players and projectors they have purchased running during rehearsals; during the concert, she will be one of four female voices reciting text that precedes several short pieces by composer Larry Polansky.

Besides Polansky, a Dartmouth music professor and founding member of the Frog Peak Music collective, composers contributing to “A Sweeter Music” range from young Preben Antonsen of Berkeley, a Yale-bound 17-year-old who has studied with John Adams, to 72-year-old Terry Riley, a Northern California composer whose work in the mid-’60s was instrumental to the launching of the minimalist movement. The most famous, or even infamous, of them is Yoko Ono, the only artist Cahill does not personally know (although her husband does), who contributed a short recorded piece called “Toning” that the couple say is deceptively simple with its emphasis on inner, rather than global, peace.

The celebrated singer-composerr Meredith Monk responded to Cahill’s call, as have Pauline Oliveros, Jerome Kitzke, Peter Garland and Mamoru Fujieda of Japan. Perhaps most amazingly, the San Francisco-based avant-garde band The Residents, a quartet of music and video artists who have toured and recorded under a cloak of anonymity for more than 30 years, have contributed a piece called “drum no fife,” for which Cahill will play accompaniment to a recorded voice of one of the group. It is the first work the group has written to be performed in public by someone other than themselves.

The composer who is seminal to it all is one of Cahill’s all-time favorites. It was Frederic Rzewski (pronounced “Shevsky”), an internationally known composer and pianist of fearsome technique, who inspired “A Sweeter Music” on a singular morning just about a year ago. Cahill was home practicing his arrangement of the age-old “Down by the Riverside” when she got to musing about its unique resonance as a long-standing anthem of peace.

“So then I started thinking about the composers I know who have very strong political points of view,” Cahill says, describing what came next as “kind of a snowball effect.

“It was more like, wouldn’t it be great to commission some new works that had that same power as Frederic Rzewski’s ‘Down by the Riverside’ — even if they’re topical, even if they address a particular war or viewpoint about the war — that in 20 or 50 or 100 years will still have a life,” she says. “And maybe there will be someone like me who takes out the score and says, ‘Wow, this really resonates with what I’m feeling right now about what’s going on in the world.'”

Rzewski’s newly commissioned work, “Peace Dances,” is central to the program and, by Cahill’s admission, the most difficult of the pieces to learn. But, as Sanborn merrily points out to her, there is a built-in advantage to the challenge she has set for herself. “The nice thing is, you can pick up the phone and call them — because they’re all living composers!” he says, chortling.

Which, in fact, she did, with all of her contributors except Ono. Many of them have also expressed enthusiasm for the conceptual videos; they represent the couple’s first collaboration, Sanborn says, that is “on a scale that is daunting and bigger than the both of us, in certain ways.”

So, has there been arguing?

“More panic than arguing, on my part,” he says.

“Sometimes I look over his shoulder and say, ‘Leave it alone, don’t keep layering things on top,'” Cahill notes. “And then he says, ‘Do I tell you how to play the piano!'”

“No, but you are always cautioning me to go simpler and more direct,” Sanborn acknowledges, as Cahill interjects “not too many bells and whistles.”

“They’re not bells and whistles!” Sanborn protests. “They’re essential images.”

Tuned In appears every other Friday in Weekend Preview. Reach Sue Gilmore at  [email protected] or 925-977-8482.


WHAT: “A Sweeter Music” with pianist Sarah Cahill
WHERE: Hertz Hall, College and Bancroft, Berkeley
WHEN: 3 p.m. Jan. 25
tickets: $38
CONTACT: 510-642-9988 or
Related event: Round-table discussion on “Music of Peace: Can Music Be Political?” featuring Cahill, Sanborn and several composers at 6 p.m. Jan. 23 at Wheeler Auditorium on the UC Berkeley campus. Free.

Sarah Cahill Calendar 2009

A Sweeter Music

3 pm Sunday, January 25 
As part of the Cal Performances series, Sarah premieres new compositions, written on the theme of peace, from her project  A Sweeter Music

New works include Frederic Rzewski’s Peace Dances, Terry Riley’s Be Kind to One Another (Rag), Peter Garland’s After the Wars, Yoko Ono’s Toning, Larry Polansky’sb’midbar, Pauline Oliveros’ A New Indigo Peace, The Residents’ drum no fife, and Preben Antonsen’s Dar al-Harb

Video projections, on three screens, are by John Sanborn, who has collaborated with such artists as Bill T. Jones, Van Halen, and Mikhail Baryshnikov. 

Hertz Hall, UC Berkeley. 
(510) 642-9988.

Sunday, February 15 – Sarah performs selections from A Sweeter Music  at the Point Reyes Dance Palace. 503 B Street, Point Reyes Station.  (415) 663-1075.

8 pm Thursday, March 12 – As part of the New Sounds Live series, hosted by John Schaefer and broadcast on WNYC, Sarah performs a program of new commissions which for this concert has been titled “Notes on the War: The Piano Protests,” featuring the New York premieres of works by Frederic Rzewski, Terry Riley, Yoko Ono, Pauline Oliveros, Peter Garland, Phil Kline, Jerome Kitzke and Kyle Gann.  Video projections, on three screens, are by John Sanborn.  Merkin Hall, 129 West 67th Street, New York.  (212) 501-3330.

Friday, March 27 – Sarah performs selections from A Sweeter Music for the annual Music for Peace concert, co-sponsored by the Foundation for Modern Music.  Rothko Chapel, 1409 Sul Ross St., Houston, Texas.

Friday, April 17 – Sarah presents new work from A Sweeter Music for the graduate seminar of pianist Bruce Brubaker.  New England Conservatory, 290 Huntington Ave, Boston, Massachusetts.

Sunday, April 26 – Sarah performs selections from A Sweeter Music.  Chicago Cultural Center, 78 E. Washington St., Chicago.  (312) 744-6630.

May 8 – Sarah performs selections from A Sweeter Music on the Wayward Music series, curated by Steve Peters.Chapel Performance Space, 4649 Sunnyside Avenue, Seattle.

Sarah Cahill Biography

Sarah Cahill was recently praised in the Village Voice for “her phenomenal technique, her instinctive command of recent aesthetics, and quite possibly the most interesting repertoire of any pianist around.” She specializes in new American music as well as the American experimental tradition, and has commissioned, premiered, and recorded numerous compositions for solo piano. Composers who have dedicated music to her include John Adams, Terry Riley, Frederic Rzewski, Pauline Oliveros, Kyle Gann, Andrea Morricone, and Evan Ziporyn, and she has also premiered pieces by Lou Harrison, Julia Wolfe, Ingram Marshall, Toshi Ichiyanagi, Ursula Mamlok, George Lewis, Leo Ornstein, and many others.

Cahill is particularly fascinated by how the early 20th-century American modernists have influenced composers working today. She has explored these musical lineages in numerous concert programs, the most ambitious being a three-day festival celebrating the centennial of Henry Cowell in 1997. For the 2001 centennial of Ruth Crawford Seeger, she commissioned seven composers, all women, to write short homage pieces, which she has performed at Merkin Hall, Dartmouth College, the Cincinnati Conservatory, and at Hampshire College in Amherst. For another project, Playdate, she commissioned composers including Lois V Vierk and John Kennedy for a concert especially designed for children.  Her newest project, A Sweeter Music, will premiere in January 2009 at Hertz Hall in the Cal Performances series, with future performances at New Sounds Live at Merkin Hall and other venues across the country.  She enjoys working closely with composers, musicologists, and scholars to prepare scores for performance.

She has performed at the Miller Theatre and Cooper Union in New York, the Other Minds Festival, Pacific Crossings Festival in Tokyo, at the Spoleto Festival USA, and at the Nuovi Spazi Musicali festival in Rome. For two “new music seances” produced by Other Minds, she performed most of three separate concert programs back to back, spanning music from the early 20th century to the present day (a third “séance” is scheduled for this December). Sarah and pianist Joseph Kubera appear frequently as a duo; they premiered a set of four-hand pieces by Terry Riley at UCLA’s Royce Hall, and have performed them at the Triptych Festival in Scotland and at Roulette in New York. 

Most of Sarah’s albums are on the New Albion label. She has also recorded for the Tzadik, CRI, New World, Albany, Cold Blue, and Artifact labels. She is currently preparing recordings of music by Leo Ornstein, Marc Blitzstein, and Mamoru Fujieda. Her radio show, Then & Now, can be heard every Sunday evening from 8 to 10 pm on KALW, 91.7 FM.

In 2008, Sarah will be working on a long-term project which involves commissioning eighteen composers to write new works envisioning peace. This project is titled A Sweeter Music, after this quote from Dr. Martin Luther King’s Nobel Lecture: “We must see that peace represents a sweeter music, a cosmic melody that is far superior to the discords of war.”

The composers are Meredith Monk, Frederic Rzewski, Terry Riley, Yoko Ono, Bernice Johnson Reagon, Pauline Oliveros, Peter Garland, Kyle Gann, Paul Dresher, Carl Stone, Ingram Marshall, Jerome Kitzke, Phil Kline, Mamoru Fujieda, Larry Polansky, Michael Byron, The Residents, and Preben Antonsen.

Sarah will premiere a group of these new pieces in the Fall of 2008, and take them on tour throughout the U.S. and abroad.