Keys to the Kingdom 

The ecstatic piano music of composer Ruth Crawford

Long treasured for her contributions to the Express, KPFA, and the Bay Area contemporary music scene, pianist Sarah Cahill returns briefly from her temporary base in the Big Apple to celebrate the release of her New Albion CD of music by Ruth Crawford and Johanna Beyer (NA 114 CD), and to perform a concert commemorating Crawford's centennial."I feel privileged every time I play Ruth Crawford's Nine Preludes," explains Cahill. "Her music set the stage for most American music in the 20th century. She forged her path alongside composers who get lots more recognition, such as Aaron Copland, when in fact many believe her music to be more important."

Cahill describes the Nine Preludes as more tonal than Crawford's later works, yet radical in the ways they extend the sonorities of the piano.

"They're very mystical. When you play them, it kind of puts you in an altered state. Crawford was very influenced by the Transcendentalists, the Theosophist movement, Walt Whitman, and Scriabin. In the Ninth Prelude, which is inspired by Lao-Tze, she has your hands at the extremes of the keyboard, which feels like a cosmic dialogue between heaven and earth."

Playing cutting-edge music is nothing new for Cahill. She started playing piano when she was seven, and began studies with Berkeley's Sharon Mann the following year. After John Adams wrote a piece for her when she was seventeen, Cahill's attention turned to contemporary music, which has since become her focus.

Since her December recital at New York's Miller Theater, which the New York Times described as performed with "illuminating clarity," Cahill has played at the Freer Gallery in Washington, DC and at the famed Spoleto Festival. After her Sunday Berkeley concert, she'll return for an August 3 Old First Church recital as well as a November Mills College "Songlines" appearance. Forthcoming performances include New York's Lincoln Center and Merkin Hall, as well as the Phillips Collection in Washington, DC. Through it all, she tapes KPFA programs in New York's besieged WBAI studios and raises her three-year-old daughter Miranda with her husband, John Sanborn.

"Working on Crawford's pieces as a new mother, and feeling the usual conflict of career vs. motherhood, I can relate to her description of herself as 'bursting with music' before she had four kids and stopped composing," says Cahill.

After marrying Charles Seeger, Ruth Crawford Seeger raised such Seegers as the famed Mike, Peggy, and stepson Pete, and got deeply involved with the socialist movement.

"In some ways it's a great tragedy that she didn't compose more," says Cahill, "because she's definitely one of the most important composers of this century. But she accomplished a tremendous amount later in her life, especially in terms of the folk music revival; she arranged folk songs with the Lomaxes which were put into two great songbooks that are still used."

Cahill's love for contemporary music runs deep. "I feel a lot more engaged by contemporary music than by Beethoven and Chopin. I feel like I have something to say about it--that I have a purpose that I didn't feel when I played overplayed composers.

"There's also a depth to it that I continually discover. I'm particularly fond of music that's ecstatic--music that penetrates your soul directly. When I play Henry Cowell's big forearm clusters, there's something so ecstatic and sensuous and joyful about it. I feel the same way about Ruth Crawford's music. I just love the way she found her own uncompromising way of expressing her inner world and her deepest emotions."


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