Renaissance Woman Combines Music and Journalism

By DOROTHY BRYANT Special to the Planet
Tuesday May 11, 2004

She steps out onto the platform, looking about 16—rail thin and pale—flashes a shy smile, and sits down at the piano. Her long, straight red hair cascades over her shoulders as she focuses, placing her hands on the keys, then begins some hesitant modal runs that become buoyant, lively evocations of Irish dance, then—CRASH!—her right forearm smashes down across the treble keys—CRASH!—her left forearm across the bass, right, left, right, relentlessly, and all illusions of timidity and frailty explode into bursts of joy. 

Despite her teenage appearance, Sarah Cahill freely admits to her birth year, 1960. She came to Berkeley at five when her father was invited to teach Chinese Art at UC. Both her father and her mother (who still lives in Berkeley) played piano. “In the evening, my father would put a stack of old 78s on the record player, and we would sit there listening to his collection of great old composers, sometimes playing or conducting their own work. That was my musical education.” 

At seven Sarah began piano lessons. She credits Sharon Mann (still teaching and performing) as a central inspiration. “I attended a new elementary school every year in Berkeley, private and public, because my parents couldn’t decide which school was best for me.” (Anyone raising children in Berkeley during the educationally-experimental ‘60s and ‘70s can identify with them.) “I graduated a year early from Berkeley High in 1977,” and, after a chamber music festival in Switzerland, went briefly to the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. “When I got to be 18, suddenly poetry seemed so much more interesting than playing the piano. I did an English major at the University of Michigan, won the poetry prize in the Hopwood contest there, got published. Poetry is still one of my passions.” 

She was soon focused on music again, but never stopped writing (her journalism career began at 17, when she worked as a stringer for the old Berkeley Gazette). From 1985 to 1998, she was the classical music critic for the East Bay Express. “Robert Hurwitt edited my pieces, tearing them apart, sentence by sentence. I’m still amazed and grateful at the amount of time he put into them. Sometimes I felt devastated, yet encouraged by his attention.” She continues to write reviews, program notes for concerts, liner notes, and articles for magazines, ranging from specialized art and music publications to the (NY) Village Voice Literary Supplement. 

In 1989 Charles Amirkhanian, then Music Director at KPFA (now directing the new music organization Other Minds, among other artistic activities in the Bay Area) asked Sarah to do a two-hour classical music program on KPFA. For the next 11 years, she introduced her many faithful listeners to new and old music. Currently you can hear her music program “Then and Now,” every Sunday from 8 to 10 p.m. on KALW 91.7 FM. 

That was an important year in other ways for Sarah. It was the year she met her husband-to-be, John Sanborn, a video artist. And it was the year she decided to concentrate most of her energies on new music. Why? “Because it’s part of our living culture, and is so much broader, more open than it was almost up until I was born. Yes, there were African and Asian influences on western “classical” music, but, up until the mid-1900s, the recognized composers, the ones who got performed, were mostly white males. Now I get to play music by women, by composers of all cultures and countries, and especially California composers, whose sensibility draws less on European sources. I get to work with living composers on their music. Sometimes I see it happening. One time I was practicing with Chen Yi, and she stopped to write some changes on the score! Miranda is going to grow up thinking of composers as people we run into at the Berkeley Bowl!” 

Miranda is Sarah and John’s daughter, born in 1998. “I was scheduled to do my KPFA program the day I gave birth. Charles Amirkhanian took over for me that day and did a whole program of music just for Miranda, and interviewed me about the birth experience from my Alta Bates Hospital bed.” 

Sarah has made her mark as a performer introducing audiences—east and west—to composers like Henry Cowell (of the elbow-smashing chord clusters), Lou Harrison, Terry Riley, Pauline Oliveros, John Adams, Chen Yi, Leo Ornstein, Paul Dresher, and Ruth Crawford Seeger. Her performances of Ravel, Ruth Crawford Seeger, Johanna Beyer and Henry Cowell are available on New Albion CDs.  

Her performing career took off nationally in 1995 when she was part of the east coast “Ladyfingers” tour, “partly, I think, because I played new music. I mean, would those reviewers have paid attention if I was just another pianist playing Beethoven?” In 2001, when John took a job with Comedy Central (the cable TV station), they lived for a year in New York. “I performed at Lincoln Center, Merkin Hall, Brooklyn College, once took the train to Washington D.C. to play at the Phillips Collection.” She shakes her head. “I was miserable. I missed the West Coast music community.” John’s New York job ended abruptly after 9/11, and Sarah is “so glad to be based in Berkeley again! Aren’t we lucky to live in the Bay Area?” 

Her career as a producer is just as active and distinguished as her work as performer. I first spoke with Sarah about 1990 at Bay Area Pianists, a series she organized and ran for four years, “buying the cookies, getting the piano tuned, the whole thing,” a showcase for excellent local performers I’d never heard of. She has organized music festivals in conjunction with Cal Performances, including a Henry Cowell festival (1997). She was a curator at last summer’s inaugural “Edge Fest,” another collaboration with Cal Performances. Every summer she produces the Garden of Memory Summer Solstice Concert, presented by New Music Bay Area at Chapel of the Chimes (yes, at the cemetery on Piedmont Avenue in Oakland). If you’ve never attended this multi-performer concert in this unusual and lovely venue, try it this year—Monday, June 21, 5 to 8 p.m. In June she also goes to Japan for a new music festival, and in October to Rome. In the fall she wants to produce a music series for children at All Soul’s Church (Cedar and Spruce) “to introduce kids, ages 5 to 10, to classical music. You know, Miranda never gets to hear Mozart or Bach unless I put on a CD for her. Concerts always start at 8 p.m., too late for her. So I want to perform classical piano works, talk about structure and form, bring in someone to improvise, make it fun for the kids.” 

And she has another composer to explore, working toward a festival of his music in New York, in 2005-2006. “Ever hear of Dane Rudhyar?” Astrologer? Californian? She nods. “He also wrote poetry, terrible poetry.” She laughs, then becomes serious. “And painted. And composed music. I’m fascinated by an eccentric like Rudhyar, who used the arts in trying to reach and explore altered states. Lately I’ve been reading Coleridge, and how wild he got on opium, how he channeled that part of himself that scares most of us, that’s buried deep within us, and comes out in dreams or in art. I feel incredibly fortunate to be able to play music that can put us in that heightened state.”