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Sarah Cahill: The Future is Female

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Credit: Marianne La Rochelle

Mary Darcy: When you think of classical composers, who comes to mind? Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Soule, Mozart, Felix Mendelssohn, of course. But what about Fannie Mendelssohn, Clara Schumann, or for that matter, Elisabeth Jacquet de La Guerre, Cécile Chaminade, Florence Price, or Pauline Oliveros?

Pianist Sarah Cahill (Facebook) has made it part of her mission to bring the music of these and other incredibly talented women to the public, in concerts, lectures, and in her three-volume series of albums called The Future is Female. It includes renditions of over 70 works of female composers from the Baroque to contemporary. The latest volume at play has just landed, and Sarah Cahill joins us here at WMHT to talk about it.  Welcome, Sarah, and congratulations on this wonderful album.

Sarah Cahill: Thank you so much. It's great to talk with you again. I love your show, and it's such a pleasure to be with you.

MD: One thing that jumps out at me when I look at the composers that make up not just this album, but the whole series, is that they are not composers I was taught about in my music classes in high school and college. To me, a composer growing up looked like Mozart or Beethoven. But it is surprising to me that these names are names I still don't see on a lot of concert programs.

SC: Yeah, absolutely, and I hope things are changing. They're changing slightly. I see younger musicians playing more music by women, more music by composers of color, and that's great. I mean, I think the ultimate goal, as you and I have talked about before, is to integrate all these composers on concert programs and have some equality, and certainly not throw out Bach and Beethoven and Schubert, who are our favorites always and forever and for all time. But to give room for other voices. 

We're hearing much more of Florence Price's music. We're hearing, you know, Baroque groups are starting to say, oh, let's do Isabella Leonardo. Let's perform Elizabeth Schubert, or any of these composers. That is a wonderful thing, and there are more really good recordings of this repertoire being made as well, and that's very, very, very positive.

MD: What made you decide that you really needed to take the leap and do this series.

SC: My own education, and the fact that I like you, I mean, I think you and I both grew up with a sort of traditional classical education, which you and I probably both felt like we got a very rich and, in some ways, diverse education in classical music. Lots of great composers learned all kinds of styles, and that's so important, and that's the basis of classical education.

But I mean, what you're saying about, you know, not growing up hearing music by women, I am right there with you.

My father loved the composers known as Le Six, the six French composers who got together and formed a sort of collective. We listen to a lot of Francis Poulenc, and we listen to a lot of Darius Milhaud, we listen to a lot of George Auric, and he loved Arthur Honegger, you know, we listen to all these composers. But we never, ever, ever, ever listen to Germaine Tailleferre, who's the one female member of the group.

My father died nine years ago, and I still had these conversations with him like, well, why? Why did we never listen to Germaine Tailleferre?

I do feel a sense of deprivation that I was never introduced to these composers, so I'm hoping that we can do some small corrective for the next generation.

MD: You have some of the music of Germaine Tailleferre in this album. Who else will we hear in this album that we haven't heard much out before?

SC: Germaine Tailleferre wrote a lot of piano music from her youth up until, I mean, she had a very long life. She wrote a lot of piano music, so her partita that I play isn't necessarily her best, best, best, best piece. And same with Grażyna Bacewicz, it's a great Polish composer from the mid-20th century. Her scherzo isn't, you know, like maybe her best. It's just music I was drawn to, especially. I was really drawn to the scherzo by Grażyna Bacewicz. She's probably better known for her second piano sonata. She was a great violinist as well as pianist and composer, and let's see, who else is there? 

Cécile Chaminade, who you mentioned before, and her wonderful theme and variations. And I asked Pauline Oliveros for a piece, but I said, I don't really improvise, so could it be a notated piece, because what Pauline Oliveros is best known for pieces like her sonic meditations where it's a sort of description of or instructions, written instructions for, for instance, in toning or thinking of a particular sound or something like that. But I asked her for a notated piece, and she wrote, this was her first notated work, she said since the 1960s, when she wrote sort of thorny 12-tone pieces in her youth. So that was great to get this quintuplets playpen, which is very, very playful and very difficult. And who else Hannah Kendall with her on the checkered field arrayed.

MD: How did you make your selections? Because there's so many, I mean, just because we don't know about the female composers that were out there, doesn't mean they weren't out there. There were so many. How did you find them? How did you make your selections for these albums?

SC: Yeah, you know, now that the third of the three albums is out, there's so much more I want to record. I mean, Louise Farrenc wrote a lot of great, piano music, great etudes, Maria Szymanowska way before Chopin. You know, I think she was a big influence on Chopin. And she wrote Mazurkas and Nocturnes and just an incredible prolific composer. So there's so much more music out there that then I feel like I'm just noticing all the things that aren't on these albums. But I basically just started with kind of what needed to be recorded, what hadn't been recorded.

The music I was drawn to, I wanted each album to go from the Baroque to the present day, in this case it's 1811 to the present day, with new commissioned works. And so on this most recent volume three is wonderful composer Regina Harris Baiocchi, who lives in Chicago and wrote piano poems and I commissioned this from her and they're based on poems by Gwendolyn Brooks, Richard Wright, and herself.

So, it was hard making the choices and also since firsthand records, which is the label it's on, is based in the UK. They particularly asked for a British composer to be on each volume. So this one has Hannah Kendall and the other two have British composers as well.

MD: Was there one that you were like, oh my gosh, look at this, I can't believe I found this?

SC: The Alinda Mosherous Sonatas were like that for me definitely. And Teresa Carreño's pieces, I think. And the fact that she wrote the piece I recorded on Rev. O'Mare when she was 15 years old, you know, and some of these pieces are very youthful.
You got seen about Cheva Scherto on this volume three, she wrote when she was 25, or maybe young 23.
I mean, all of them speak to me.
I love immersing myself in Elisabeth Jacquet de La Guerre's suites, which, you know, give you all that satisfaction of figuring out the Baroque ornamentation and how to do the repeats, if you want to do them differently.
As you would with Bach, she was before Bach. I mean, she was, I think, one of the first to publish keyboard music in France, and very celebrated in her time.
And I think everyone should be playing her music too. But it's just, it's great to just see all this music so much more available than it used to be.

MD: What surprised you in this journey of making these, you know, not just the one but the three volumes?

SC: Yeah, what surprised me was the amount of music by women that's available, and that what surprises me is that pianists and, you know, musicians in general and institutions and conductors and presenters, there's a resistance. And I don't know why. 

Sometimes I wish that the name of the composer wasn't available, just like in art museums when we look at the plaque, you know, we sort of gravitate to the plaque to see who it's by to see if it's an important work instead of just looking at the painting itself, you know, look at the painting itself.

If it's, if it's great, who cares if it's by a male or female artist or so in that way, I wish that we didn't think in terms of gender, but I think this, this is important to do to show the vast range of music. Again, this is just like a tiny fraction of what's available. So what surprises me is that this music isn't performed and recorded more often.
And there should be 200 recordings of the Alenda Moseru Sonata's, just as there are of Kounau or Karl Cerny or any of these Nikolai Metner and any number of male composers who aren't in the in the first-rate or even second-rate, sometimes of composers.

MD: Did you give any blowback when you were starting this series? Has anyone given you a hard time about focusing on female composers?

SC: I had a friend, a composer and musician who said, that sounds very limiting. He said, I think you'll find that it's very limiting. And I found it anything but limiting because, you know, it's just it goes on and on and on.
I mean, there's no end to the material and I just play the piano. So just in terms of keyboard music, it's just without limits completely.
You never get to the point where you say, okay, now I've explored all the piano music by, you know, the great piano music by women. You never get to that point.

MD: Yeah, I mean, not only are you delving into this music, you have the opportunity to play it when very few other people have.

SC: You know, very lucky. Yeah, but even even a composer like Fannie Mendelssohn, you know, she just has so much, so much wonderful music. One common argument is, I don't want to think about gender.
I just think about good music and bad music. All the matters is, is whether the music is good. It's the quality that matters.
But as you well know, then conductors and ensembles and opera companies only program music by men because that's all they know and that's all they're sort of in touch with.

MD: So we're exposed to what has an effect on what we like.

SC: Exactly. So then you think, well, this is good music and I think we all have to just confront our biases because I think we all have them and really open ourselves up and expose ourselves to all this great music by women.

I think the title of the future is female strikes some people as too confrontational or to sort of, you know, political or something. So when I played at the Detroit Institute of the Arts, there was this older man who said, well, what does the future's female mean and I said, well, what does it mean to you?
And then they started talking about it and then that opened up a lot of interesting conversations. So I think the idea is more to start dialogue and really, you know, start thinking about some of these issues rather than, rather than just communicate one particular message.

MD: Will this continue to be part of your mission?

SC: So I'm meeting composers all the time and discovering music. I mean, my next project is I'm going to record all three volumes of birds and insects by the composer Arlene Sierra who was born in the United States, lives in London.
I mean, this is the kind of thing where once you do research and explore what's available, the more you explore, the more you research, the more you practice, the more you more you want to keep doing it.
And the more you realize it's so important to introduce people to this music. And I mean, I'm amazed at the reaction of audiences and people who are just so delighted, you know, old people, young people, men, women from all walks of life who just really love hearing this music. And it so deserves to be heard.

So I guess the answer to your question is I will, of course, keep playing it. And as long as there are so many concert programs of all white male composers over and over and over and over and over, as long as there are those programs, you know, being done all over in every major classical institution, then I'll keep doing this. Absolutely.

MD: Do you think there will be another volume?

SC: I'll have to talk to First Hand Records about that, but I don't know.

MD: Well, these three are wonderful. Sarah Cahill album is at play. It is the third volume in the three volumes that the future is female, more than 70 recordings of works by female composers from the Baroque to contemporary. Sarah, it is such a pleasure to talk with you again. Good luck with the album and come back soon.

SC: Thank you so much. It's a pleasure to talk to you too.