Pianist Spans Centuries On CD Featuring Music By Female Composers

Sarah Cahill plays music by women composers on three CDs, including one released in April. (Photo by Charles Redding)

The Future is Female, Vol. 3, At Play. Sarah Cahill, piano. First Hand Records (FHR 133). Total time: 79:50.

DIGITAL REVIEW — In 2018, pianist Sarah Cahill started to develop a large-scale project representing her determination to educate the world about women composers from the 17th century to the present. The resulting CDs on First Hand Records are vaguely thematic — Volume 1 is called In Nature and Volume 2 The Dance. But their main purpose is to be a platform for pieces and composers deserving more attention. In April, Cahill released the third and final volume, At Play, which stands out for the number of living composers it includes. She’s showing her commitment to the series title, The Future is Female.

Folk songs of China find their way into the works of Chen Yi (b. 1953), who learned them when she was sent to the countryside to do manual labor during the Cultural Revolution. Her 1989 piece Guessing, written three years after she emigrated to the U.S., includes as many hints of Aaron Copland as it does pentatonic motions in its playful jaunt from one extreme pitch register to the other.

The youngest composer is Aida Shirazi (b. 1987), an Iranian trained in classical music and santoor, a traditional instrument similar to a dulcimer. Her 2017 work Albumblatt uses extended techniques such as having the pianist scrape a string with her fingernail and playing harmonics by pressing a key with one hand and its string with the other. Also borrowing from her native traditions, Franghiz Ali-Zadeh (b. 1947) incorporates Azerbaijani modes into her Music for Piano, written in 1989.       

Hannah Kendall, winner of the 2022 Hindemith Prize, had an intellectual program in mind for her 2013 work On the Chequer’d Field Array’d. Its three movements, illustrating the sections of a chess game, present a complete drama. “Mindplay” features an iridescent texture of pedaled fast notes changing to pauses and alarming accents. “Middlegame” is more thoughtful and chordal, with dissonant yearning, followed by the quiet “Coda.”

There are several commissions here, although not all of them were for this particular project. Cahill commissioned Pauline OliverosQuintuplets Play Pen: Homage to Ruth Crawford in 2001 for the centenary of Crawford’s birth. At Cahill’s request, Oliveros even agreed to notate the piece, something she hadn’t done in decades. It’s a slyly pointillistic essay in atonal counterpoint anchored by a bassline moving at geologic pace. By about three minutes in, it seems to have three time signatures happening at once, yet Cahill somehow keeps her presentation clear.

For The Future is Female, Cahill invited Regina Harris Baiocchi to write a piece inspired by the poetry of Gwendolyn Brooks and Richard Wright. The result was the four-movement Piano Poems. The second movement, “cockleburs in wooly hair/tiny pond,” uses blue notes to color its simple rhythmic texture. The final movement, “a candle burns time,” is a nod to the right-hand melody and two-hand jazz chords of the American Songbook tradition.

This volume also looks back a couple of centuries to shine a light on women composers who deserve more attention. A student of Nadia Boulanger, Polish composer Grażyna Bacewicz (1909–1969) was also the concertmaster of the Polish Radio Orchestra and the host of a series of underground concerts during World War II. Her Scherzo, written in 1934, is a study in subtle syncopation and melodic angularity which Cahill takes on with an easy confidence.

Sarah Cahill (Photo by Christine Alicino)

There are a couple of composers who were famous in their own day, and Cahill considers their fandoms worth reviving. Volume 3 opens with the Piano Sonata No. 9 in F-sharp minor, Op. 5, No. 3, by Hélène de Montgeroult (1764–1836). The most stunning item in her biography is the way she managed to survive the French Revolution despite being noble-born: When called before a committee in 1792, her life hanging in the balance, she played and improvised on La Marseillaise so beautifully that she was released.

Her sonata is a blend of Classical and Romantic styles. The first-movement Allegro spiritoso gets away from Cahill technically in spots, while the second-movement Adagio non troppo works well with Cahill’s underplaying its emotions, letting the composer’s skilled voicing speak for itself.

Cécile Chaminade (1857–1944) was so well known and loved as a composer and pianist that she inspired admirers to start branches of the Chaminade Club all over America and Europe. She composed her Thème varié in 1895, a shimmering fairyland of melodic and harmonic ideas bursting with late Romanticism and touched by Impressionism. Cahill seems to take joy in playing it.

Indeed, this whole project is a labor of love for Cahill. Her contribution to our understanding of music history is a significant one. Here’s hoping her work need not be repeated in the future, and instead female composers receive the recognition they deserve as a matter of course.