Pianist Sarah Cahill: The Future Is Female

Pianist Sarah Cahill: The Future Is Female

Written by Anne E. Johnson

Pianist Sarah Cahill has never been interested in the established musical canon. Her whole career, she has sought out composers to collaborate with, most notably Terry Riley and Lou Harrison. But her latest large-scale project is a collaboration of a different kind, mainly because most of the composers involved are no longer with us. For The Future Is Female, Cahill is digging deep into the archives to unearth keyboard music by women, going all the way back to the 17th century.

The three-volume set on the First Hand Records label is divided into vague themes. The first disc is called In Nature, the second The Dance, and the third (not yet released) At Play, for a total of over 70 pieces, many of which are not obviously connected to their categories. While the liner notes remind the listener that this is in no way exhaustive of what women composers have written over the centuries, it certainly is a comprehensive enough overview to move toward the “reframing of the piano literature” that Cahill aspires to.

Right out of the gate, she offers something unknown: Volume 1 opens with Anna Bon’s Keyboard Sonata in B minor, Op. 2, No. 5. Bon was unusual among 18th century female composers for getting a chance to publish her music. This was not just some dabbling housewife. She studied music at the all-girls orphanage in Venice for which Vivaldi wrote many of his greatest works, and she was a member of the choir at Nikolaus von Esterházy’s estate, where Haydn was music director. The second-movement Adagio, spare and affecting, demonstrates her skill, partly thanks to Cahill’s mindful rendering.


Throughout history, many of the women who had the opportunity to compose were themselves performers. Most often keyboardists, since a woman seated at a harpsichord or piano seems to have been somehow less off-putting to society. Some, like Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel (see my article in Issue 88; represented in this collection by her 4 Lieder, Op. 8) were genuine prodigies. A lesser-known and somewhat later piano master was the Hungarian pianist Agi Jambor (1909 – 1997). She studied with the renowned Edwin Fischer in Berlin and heroically joined the Resistance during World War II.

Cahill plays Jambor’s 1949 Piano Sonata: To the Victims of Auschwitz with keen empathy from the first explosive moments of its opening Allegro appassionato, reminiscent of Jambor’s contemporary, Schoenberg’s student Ernst Krenek.


Teresa Carreño (1853 – 1917) was a Venezuelan composer and pianist whose role as a child prodigy started with her New York City premiere at age eight. She would go on to a long, successful concertizing career, often performing her own works. Two U.S. presidents, Lincoln and Wilson, invited her to play for them.


Sarah Cahill. Courtesy of Christine Alicino.

Sarah Cahill. Courtesy of Christine Alicino.


By the time she was 15, she was already an experienced composer, as evidenced in the piece Cahill chose to represent her. Un rêve en mer (A Dream at Sea), from 1868, was subtitled “Etude-Meditation.” This Schumann-like work and Cahill’s performance capture the roiling of both the ocean and the imagination freed by sleep.


Other interesting items from Volume 1 are a movement from Au sein de la nature (In the Midst of Nature) by Leokadiya Kashperova (1872 – 1940), best known as Stravinsky’s piano teacher, and the second movement of 8 Descriptive Pieces by the American Fanny Charles Dillon (1881 – 1947).

Cahill steps outside of her role as producer and pianist for Fireside by living composer Eve Beglarian. The instrumentalist is expected to accompany herself as she recites an essay by Ruth Crawford Seeger in a sort of Sprechstimme style. The piano part is a slow, dissonant chord progression that then doubles in speed before melting into legato.


The just-released Volume 2, The Dance, is anchored by three relatively well-known women. Élisabeth Claude Jacquet de La Guerre (1665 – 1729) whom I wrote about previously in Copper (Issue 78), is represented by a dance suite from her Pièces de Clavecin. Cahill brings an oddly modern sensibility to the opening Prelude, heavily pedaled; it works if you don’t think of it as Baroque but rather a timeless musical wandering. That’s what Preludes were meant to be anyway.


Germaine Tailleferre’s (1892 – 1983) Partita, composed in 1957, has three movements. The first is an ethereal take on the trope of perpetual motion, much explored in the late Romantic period. The second, Notturno, floats eerily until it reaches the border of the technically demanding final movement, Allegramente. Another interesting discovery for me was Madeleine Dring’s (1881-1947) programmatic Colour Suite. The movements “Blue Air” (a gentle blues) and “Brown Study” (a swinging tribute to Bach) are highlights here. Cahill also includes the first-ever recording of She Dances Naked Under Palm Trees, by 46-year-old American Theresa Wong.

The Variations Op. 20 gives a glimpse of Clara Wieck Schumann’s (1819 – 1896) gifts. (See my article in Issue 92.) The best-known living composer on offer is Meredith Monk (b. 1942), whose St. Petersburg Waltz, featured here, was first recorded on Monk’s Volcano Songs album in 1997.

And then there are the less famous women whom Cahill is helping to illuminate for all to see. Zenobia Powell Perry (1908 – 2004) was a Chicago-based African American civil rights activist with classical music training. She wrote an opera called Tawawa House as well as orchestral and choral works. Cahill chose her Rhapsody from 1960, a quiet, intriguing short work clearly inspired by her studies of species counterpoint.

Grammy-nominated composer Gabriela Ortiz gives Volume 2 a taste of Latin music with her two-movement Preludio y estudio No. 3 for Piano. The 2011 work draws its language from 20th-century classical, jazz, and syncopated dance rhythms. Cahill tackles and convincingly conquers the relentlessly tricky rhythms in the second movement, reminiscent of the comingling of these genres by Heitor Villa-Lobos.


Next up in this admirable series is Volume 3, scheduled for March 2023. The details of its contents have not yet been released, but it’s reasonable to expect some great treats and hidden gems. You can learn more about all the composers featured in The Future Is Female project on an info-packed page within Cahill’s website: https://sarahcahill.com/the-future-is-female/


Header image of Sarah Cahill courtesy of Kristen Wrzesniewski.

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