5 Questions to Sarah Cahill (pianist) About Music by and for Terry Riley

Sarah Cahill is not only a skilled and accomplished pianist, but also an incredible champion of new music. She seems to make a habit of commissioning new works and showcasing composers–both established and new–all over America while also becoming a central force in the San Francisco music scene. Her latest project turns a spotlight on Terry Riley celebrating his 80th birthday with a four CD set entitled Eighty Trips Around the Sun: Music by and for Terry Riley. Eight additional composers–Samuel Adams, Danny Clay, Christine Southworth, Dylan Mattingly, Gyan Riley, Elena Ruehr, Keeril Makan, and Pauline Oliveros–were invited to create new works for the project in honor of Riley, and the end result is incredible. Naturally, we had some questions for Cahill about the project.

This is such a intriguing project, yet a large and challenging one to take on. What is the story behind its inception, and why Terry Riley specifically?

I think as performers we need to be advocates, and I love being an advocate for Terry Riley’s music. He’s one of our greatest composers, and also one of the most misunderstood. He’s had a tremendous influence on everyone from The Who to Philip Glass to younger generations of composers and sound artists, but the classical music establishment has never known what to do with his music and with how freely he moves between Indian raga, jazz, minimalism, ragtime, and other genres. I’m fascinated by his extraordinary range of piano music, including twelve-tone pieces he wrote in 1959 and his amazing minimalist Keyboard Studies from 1965. So I wanted to record a lot of his solo work, spanning half a century, but I had also wanted, for many years, to record five four-hand pieces which I had commissioned from Terry starting in 1997. My good friend and duo partner Regina Myers and I had been working on them and looking for an opportunity to make our recording. When I approached David McIntire at Irritable Hedgehog with the idea of doing a four-hand Terry Riley recording, he suggested making it a bigger project and including as much of the solo music as we could, as well as the new works I commissioned from other composers in honor of Terry’s eightieth birthday in 2015.

I can imagine that it would have been easy to just record music written by Terry Riley and stop there. Why did you choose to bring in other composers, and how did this additional element shape the project?

When Terry Riley’s eightieth birthday was approaching, in 2015, I decided to commission ten composers to write new pieces in celebration. The project was called “A Piano Party for Terry Riley at 80.” Each composer has a strong connection to Terry’s music, even if he or she doesn’t know him personally. It felt important to show the range of his influence, from composers in their twenties to 82-year-old Pauline Oliveros, who met Terry in the 50s and was lifelong friends with him. Three of the ten pieces were actually commissioned by MIT, when they were hosting a big Terry Riley eightieth birthday concert, put together by Evan Ziporyn, who has worked closely with Terry for many years. I’m grateful to David McIntire for suggesting that we record these new pieces along with Terry’s music. And by the way, there are two other new pieces which didn’t make it into this boxed set: Evan Ziporyn’s You Are Getting Sleepy and Luciano Chessa’s Green Sea.  I hope to record both of them later this year.

What directions or parameters, if any, did you give the other eight composers on this album?

There were no parameters other than to write a piece in tribute to Terry Riley at eighty. It was so exciting to see how each composer approached the task so differently. Some quoted him directly, and others evoked him in their own way. There were also no restrictions as to length, so while some are four minutes long, Dylan Mattingly and Danny Clay both wrote wonderful multi-movement works, about fifteen minutes each. Pauline Oliveros’ score is open at to length, and I had been performing ten-minute versions, but David McIntire suggested we record an extended performance, and he was absolutely right. I was so lucky to work with Sam Adams, who took a freer approach to Pauline’s score while staying faithful to it, and he’s a fantastic improvising pianist. He brought in some little resonators which he laid on the strings, and played brilliantly while I thumped around on the strings.

Terry Riley and Sarah Cahill

Performing minimalist music can sometimes require a lot of stamina, especially with four CDs worth of music. What was the recording process like?

That’s a very good point! You’re right that it can be strenuous to record a piece like the Keyboard Studies, doing multiple takes, especially for a 25-minute version like the one on the Eighty Trips boxed set. The four-hand Etude from the Old Country is also challenging, and that’s Regina and me interlocking fast intricate patterns. In both cases, we did multiple takes with lots of breaks for stretching exercises on the floor, and we were working with an extraordinary engineer, Jonathan Robertson, who is somehow capable of editing very rapid minimalist passages that you would imagine were impossible to edit. 

Would you consider doing a project like this again in the future, and if so, what other composers or music would you want to explore?

I’ve done five large commissioning projects, and this is my third project in homage to a great composer. The first was in 1997, for Henry Cowell’s centennial (commissioning Terry Riley, Meredith Monk, and others), and the second was in 2001, when I commissioned seven women composers to write new pieces for Ruth Crawford’s 100th birthday. I’m not sure which composer I might choose next, but I love this kind of project: it feels important to get deep inside one composer’s work and show her or his influence on several generations of composers. Right now, I’m working on a commissioning project called “Smash the Patriarchy!” We’ll see what happens after that.