Even though the music industry is full of women, we haven’t heard many of them. Sarah Cahill’s new album emphasizes just that. This past February, I had the privilege of interviewing pianist Sarah Cahill. Currently a professor at the San Francisco Conservatory, Sarah continues to perform in concerts, gallery events, and recording albums. Her most recent project is “The Future is Female,” a trilogy of albums embarking on a journey to discover and bring to light compositional works written by women throughout the ages.
After we made our introductions, Sarah and I began discussing the difficulties we face trying to find information and resources on female composers and musicians in the classical music industry.
Sarah Cahill: It is so mystifying to me why there is so little music by women accepted in the classical world. I don’t know why that is, it’s just so strange. Here at the San Francisco Conservatory people are so resistant to it.
Sophia Jin: I think it is really odd. I’m optimistic about how people are starting to talk about it, about how we’re recognizing that these canonic writers tend to be men, but they don’t necessarily have to be. What makes them amazing and not other composers, whether they’re female or people of color, or just anyone else really?
SC: We’re lucky to live in a time where there’s more available online, where there are websites like IMSLP (International Music Score Library Project). You can look up scores by Amy Beach and Elisabeth Jacquet de la Guerre, who is so wonderful in baroque. There is so much more available than when I was growing up where you’d have to go to the Library of Congress or the British Museum to look up scores.
SJ: Your albums, this amazing trilogy of just women composers, are incredible. I’ve never even heard of most of the composers on your albums, and I’m sure there are plenty more out there as well that we just haven’t heard. Was it difficult to find scores and information about these composers?
SC: This is just barely scratching the surface with these three albums. The idea was to have a chronological order, each one going from baroque to the present day, to new works that I’ve commissioned, and to make it diverse and represent several countries. The label is in the UK, so each one has at least one UK composer. This one [third volume] has Hannah Kendall. There is a really good piece about a chess game, in Volume 3. In some cases, there are composers I’ve worked with. The latest has Pauline Oliveros and Aida Shirazi, and Regina Harris Baiocchi, with a piece that I commissioned.
That’s another wonderful thing. When I played in Seattle at the University of Washington, this young pianist was in the audience and came up afterwards and said, “I love that piece. Can I buy the score from the composer?” So, I put her in touch with Regina Harris Baiocchi. I like making connections. A lot of the scores on the recent album, Helene de Montgeroult, who’s a composer I love from 1811, her scores are on IMSLP so some of them I found online, but others in libraries. Also just talking to friends. I have this pianist group where we talk about repertoire, and Gracyna Bacewicz, a Polish composer who is on my new album. I find scores through friends, through libraries, and some in my own collection, and some I have to order too.
I find scores through friends, through libraries, and some in my own collection, and some I have to order too.
SJ: People we tend to use as standard practice–canonic male composers— have lovely pieces and wonderful repertoire. I think a lot of people are happy to settle with that. I’m lucky to be surrounded by people who are passionate about unheard people, unheard composers, unheard music.
SC: You’re lucky, because my piano teacher when I was 8 was all Beethoven and Bach. Someone asked me recently if there’s a female composer as great as Beethoven. No, but there also isn’t a male composer as great as Beethoven either.
When we’re studying classical music, we’re given these much lesser composers, and they’re all male and white. I’m glad that your experience is different. I think that, as you say, people are more aware of it [female composers] and there’s more access. There’s no excuse to play all male concerts continually. Yet, famous pianists keep doing it. I keep thinking that if every famous pianist played one work by a woman, that would represent a cultural shift that would be extremely important.
SJ: The fact that you’ve been doing these recitals, and gallery events and concerts, streaming your concerts as well, has been a big step in that shift. I think it’s a very good chunk, your trilogy, to perpetuate all of this discussion.
SC: I guess there is a danger to lumping all these people together. There is no woman composer who wants to be thought of as a woman composer. Is it doing them a disservice to only highlight women composers?
Ultimately, of course, the goal is to integrate these works on a program in general. It’s wonderful going to the San Francisco Symphony and hearing a Beethoven Symphony and then the Florence Price Piano Concerto and something else and Kaija Saariaho and they don’t say, “here’s a Black woman.” They don’t make a point of it, it’s just, “here’s this great music that we should hear.”
There is no woman composer who wants to be thought of as a woman composer. Is it doing them a disservice to only highlight women composers?
SJ: Maybe it’s ingrained in some of us that the reason that women composers are not that known to us is because they’re not as good as men. I think that was the general narrative throughout history. Music is just music; you hear it and you enjoy it.
SC: It’s so true. You know the prejudice, the stereotype of 19th century critics saying, “women only write these little miniatures with pretty tunes and it doesn’t really go anywhere” and I’m like, “wow it sounds like they’re talking about Frederick Chopin.” Nobody ever accuses him of being too feminine. In 19th century criticism around the Victorian era you certainly hear, “oh it’s too masculine, oh it’s too feminine.”
SJ: I was thinking, was there anything you wanted to put on your albums but couldn’t, for whatever reason?
SC: There are some pieces I left out because they had been recorded before. I recorded all three albums in 10 days in August 2020, so there are some I didn’t record because I only found these works after I’d finished recording. I’ve discovered pieces since then for my marathon, for example, at the Barbican last March. I learnt pieces by Maria Szymanowska and Louise Farrenc, others that I would’ve loved to record. If you look at Clara versus Robert Schumann, Fanny versus Felix Mendelssohn, there are much fewer recordings. Minor 18th and 19th century male composers like [Jan Ladislav] Dussek, Nikolai Medtner or [Johann Nepomuk] Hummel who are way down on the list of important composers have around 30 recordings, whereas there’s only one recording of women who are better than them.
SJ: It’s definitely disproportionate.
SC: Speaking of the Schumanns, Robert probably was a major composer of the family, but also women of that time were supposed to put their work aside and be their husband’s advocate. Clara believed strongly that her life’s work was to promote him and advocate for him. She was such a major composer and also had to support her 8 children.
SJ: When we talk about women in general, Clara Schumann really was THE woman. She had a career, she brought up kids, and was just amazing, but again, often swept under the rug.
SC: If you see it from her point of view, not like how we see it as ‘Clara Schumann, the long-suffering wife,’ you’re married to the man you love who is severely mentally ill. The variations that I recorded were written soon after his suicide attempt where he jumped into the Rhine river and was rescued, then he committed himself. If you put yourself in her place, to be married to a man who is brilliant but also has visions and cuts his fingers and self mutilates and has suicide attempts, it’s just so hard.
SJ: She must’ve been a very strong woman. Do you think that, having spoken about works being left off the albums, there could be future projects of a similar nature?
SC: My relationship with First Hand Records, the record label, was just three albums, but I am certainly going to go forward and play the albums. I’m playing next week at the National Gallery in Washington D.C., and doing a marathon of 4 hours, playing the Farrenc and the Szymanowska. I’m fascinated by the way you and I grew up with the classical upbringing and how it’ll change in the next generation or the generation after that. People often say that Szymanowska imitated Chopin when she in fact was several decades before Chopin, and wrote waltzes and polonaises and nocturnes, exactly the format that he wrote. He clearly heard her and was inspired by her. Things like that fascinate me, and we have such biases about women.
I’m fascinated by the way you and I grew up with the classical upbringing and how it’ll change in the next generation or the generation after that.
SJ: For me, the impression I get is that the females, in a lot of industries, tend to be more scrutinized. If you write one bad little piece, you’re a bad composer.
SC: It’s so true. If you judge Beethoven by what he wrote before the age of 25, you’d think that he was totally imitating Haydn and was a mediocre composer. I mean, Amy Beach wrote her “Dreaming” at the age of 25, and that’s just an extraordinary piece! It’s out there, and it’s just about the matter of trying slightly harder going beyond the classical canon that we all grew up with.
SJ: In order to prepare for these albums, what kind of process did you go through? Why did you choose these composers?
SC: FHR wanted at least one female composer from the UK, this one has Hannah Kendal, Madeleine Dring, and Deirdre Gribbin, who lives in London but is from Northern Island. Diversity is a very important factor and having a number of Black composers, composers of color from all over the world. I like that there’s representation from China and Lithuania, Brazil, lots of different countries.
SJ: I noticed! I particularly enjoyed the piece by Frangiz Ali-Zadeh from Azerbaijan with the beads on the piano strings! It’s really interesting how you’ve diversified so many different areas in your albums and bring in the culture, the way that she wrote it.
I had a big question, not necessarily to do with your albums. What inspired you to pursue music in the first place?
SC: My father loved music. He loved the piano. I grew up with his collection of 78s and we listened to a lot of the great Archer Schnabel and Walter Gieseking and all the great old pianists. So, it was natural that I would take piano lessons and I meant Sharon Mann who was interesting and funny. For the 8-year-old me, she knocked me over, she really took me seriously, and was my role model.
She taught me the movements of the Bach English suite and French suite and partitas, and we talked about what a courante was and what a gigue was. She said “okay to really understand this, go and listen to the ‘Qui tolis’ movement from the Bach Mass in B minor.” I had my little record player. I spent a lot of time listening to my record player. My teacher when I was 8 said whilst she was playing, “I’m going to play this at your wedding,” so when I got married in 1991, I called her up and she came over and played it. But that and when I started working with composers like Pauline Oliveros and Meredith Monk, then I really felt like I had a purpose as a pianist to play new music. That’s really when I got going.
After having this discussion with Sarah, a whole world had been opened up to me. There is hope for us all as women in music. Her final album of the trilogy “The Future is Female” will be released on First Hand Records on 28th April 2023.
© Sophia Jin (3/31/23) FF2 Media
LEARN MORE / DO MORE
To visit Sarah Cahill’s website, click here.
CREDITS & PERMISSIONS
Featured photo: Sarah playing at the Barbican Centre is credited to Mark Morreau.