Pianist Sarah Cahill appears at LPR on April 6th at 7 PM as part of her tour celebrating the music and birth centenary of composer Lou Harrison. She and I touched base earlier this week as she was preparing for her trip to the Northeast.
Hi Sarah. Thanks for taking time to talk with Sequenza 21. Which was the first Lou Harrison piece you played? When were you first aware of his music?
I don’t remember the first piece I played, but I became interested in him because of my fascination with Henry Cowell and Ruth Crawford and that circle of early 20th century American experimentalist composers. And in the Bay Area, where I live, there’s a profound affection and devotion to Lou Harrison everywhere. He taught at Mills College for many years, and lived fairly close by, in Aptos, and worked with many musicians I’m close to, including Larry Polansky, Robert Hughes, Jody Diamond, Willie Winant, Phil Collins, Julie Steinberg, and many others.
What was it like working with Harrison on his pieces? Tell us about the piece that you premiered.
I premiered a piece called Festival Dance for two pianos, with the pianist Aki Takahashi, at Cooper Union in 1998. It’s a piece Lou Harrison wrote in the 60s and had never been played. He was such a gracious person, always kind-hearted and relaxed. He wanted us to emphasize the melodic line.
At LPR, you will be playing ‘Party Pieces.’ What was the collaborative process like in this composition – how did the “exquisite corpse” concept play out in the musical domain?
Lou Harrison, Virgil Thomson, John Cage, and Henry Cowell met frequently in Lou Harrison’s loft on Bleeker Street between Sixth and Seventh Avenues in about 1944 or 1945. Lou Harrison explains it best: “Each composer present would write a measure, fold the paper at the bar line and, on the new fresh sheet, put only two notes to guide the next composer in his connection. The next composer would write a bar, fold at the bar line and leave two more black spots and so on. It seems to me that we would begin simultaneously and pass them along in rotation in a sort of surrealist assembly line and eagerly await the often incredible outcome.” Last month I visited the Lou Harrison archives at UC Santa Cruz, with Lou’s great friend, composer/conductor/bassoonist Robert Hughes, and made copies of some of the manuscripts with my cell phone. I’ll give copies to the audience at my concert on Thursday evening.
What are some of the other pieces you are playing at LPR?
I’m starting with two unpublished Lou Harrison pieces, Range-Song and Jig, that pay homage to his teacher and friend Henry Cowell, who was in San Quentin at the time, with Cowell’s famous chord clusters. Then a movement of Cowell’s own Rhythmicana, dedicated to Johanna Beyer, so then I’ll play a short piece from Beyer’s Dissonant Counterpoint. That will lead to the Conductus from Harrison’s Suite which he wrote while studying with Schoenberg (with a twelve-tone row). Then a short piece by James Cleghorn, who was Harrison’s friend who suggested he take classes from Henry Cowell. His son Peter Cleghorn will be in the audience to introduce that piece. Then a pair of pieces, both composed in 1946 for a performance by the choreographer Jean Erdman: Lou Harrison’s The Changing Moment, not heard in New York since 1946, and John Cage’s Ophelia. Both compositions reveal some of the emotional disturbance and identity crisis that affected both composers at the time. Then a movement of Frank Wigglesworth’s Sonatina, and ending with the wonderful Summerfield Set that Harrison composed in 1988. At LPR I have to stick to a sixty-minute program– otherwise I could go on and on and on with Lou Harrison and his circle, because there are lots of fascinating connections.
Tell us about the concerto? What was Harrison’s approach to orchestration in this piece primarily Western in conception, or does it incorporate non-Western instruments/allusions/tuning, etc.?
Lou Harrison’s Piano Concerto is one of the great concertos of the 20th century. It’s gorgeous and epic and should be played a lot more often. The piano is retuned in a Kirnberger tuning, as are sections of the orchestra. There’s a great battery of percussion.
What else is going on for you this season?
Later in the year I’m playing Lou Harrison’s great Concerto for Piano and Javanese Gamelan a few places around the country, and also playing a program of his piano works on three different instruments– equal tempered piano, tack piano, and piano in Werckmeister 3– in Tokyo and Fukuoka, at the invitation of the extraordinary composer Mamoru Fujieda. I’m learning Messiaen’s Visions de l’Amen for next year, and Takemitsu’s Quotation of Dream (Say Sea, Take Me!) to perform at Interlochen in July. And next month I’ll get to play Lou Harrison on Maui and the Big Island, along with Tania Leon, Ruth Crawford, George Antheil, and many others, at the invitation of a marvelous composer, Robert Pollock, who runs a concert series there.
Sarah Cahill’s April-May 2017 Lou Harrison Tour Schedule
(Fall 2017 Lou Harrison tour dates will be announced in May 2017)
Solo Recital | Le Poisson Rouge | NYC
April 6, 2017 at 7pm
MicroFest North: Iconoclasts at 100 | Center for New Music | San Francisco, CA
May 7, 2017
FULL: Harrison | Berkeley Art Museum | Berkeley, CA
May 10, 2017 at 7pm
Lou Harrison Centennial Celebration | New Music Works | Santa Cruz, CA
May 14, 2017 at 3pm and 7pm
Solo Recitals | Ebb and Flow Arts | Hawaii
May 20-21 2017