Sarah Cahill – Photo credit: Marianne La Rochelle

5 Questions to Sarah Cahill (pianist) about Patterns of Plants

Last Fall, Pinna Records released Mamoru Fujieda’s Patterns of Plants, performed by pianist (writer, and producer) Sarah Cahill. We talked to Cahill as she prepared for the New Music Gathering

You have said of Mamoru Fujieda’s Patterns of Plants that the pieces “resonate with Baroque music, but also with the folk music of Ainu and Celtic cultures; with the lyricism of Lou Harrison; with medieval chant; and with a modal language that hints at alternative tunings.” Of all of those, can you say more about the resonances with the Baroque?

Most of the Patterns of Plants involve a dialogue of voices, an intertwining of melodic lines. Sometimes there’s an inner line shared by your two hands, so the challenges are similar to those in a Bach fugue, to create independent and concurrent melodies, including those inner voices. Recently I combined some of the Patterns in concert with a few of Couperin’s Pieces de clavecins, and the similarities were striking, in terms of structure, and ornamentation, and the left hand/right hand relationship, and the sense of intimacy and playfulness. And with Mamoru’s music, I feel the same need for clarity, a more narrow dynamic range, attention to counterpoint, sparse pedal, and nimble ornamentation that are essential for playing Bach.

Fujieda’s pieces were originally written for combinations of a variety of instruments (sho, kotos, violins, gamba, harpischord). Reviewers have noted the transformation to equal temperament in these arrangements for piano, but I’m more intrigued by the timbral translation involved. In what ways did the original timbres shape your approach to this recording?

In his preface to the score to the first several groups of Patterns of Plants, published in the year 2000, Mamoru specified that the piano should be tuned to Werckmeister 3, a temperament used in the Baroque era, “so that you can taste the timbres of a tonality and a variety of nuances of sonorities of each pattern.” I’ve played these pieces on his old German upright, tuned to Werckmeister 3, in Tokyo, and before we recorded at UC Santa Cruz, I asked him if the piano should be retuned, but he decided equal temperament would be okay. But yes, I’m always thinking of other instruments when I play the Patterns of Plants, and of course on a piano you can be an entire ensemble. In one Pattern, I try to evoke a rowdy fiddle solo against a few cellos and basses in my left hand. In another, I hear an alto voice with koto accompaniment. Pianists are always working to transcend the limitations of the instrument by imagining a vast array of sonorities. And it always helps to talk with Mamoru about his original inspirations for these pieces.

You are known for taking on minimalist and post-minimalist works that require considerable endurance. The works on the Fujieda CD are made up of relatively short movements averaging about 3 minutes each, yet critics have remarked upon how well the whole CD holds together. In what ways did your experience with lengthier pieces shape your approach to this CD?

It’s true that extended minimalist works are appealing—I’m working on Terry Riley’s Keyboard Studies right now—but I’ve always been drawn to miniatures as well. One quality that attracted me to the Patterns of Plants is how each piece only a few minutes long can encapsulate an entire microcosm. I love Ruth Crawford’s Preludes for the same reason: she conjures up a whole world view in two or three minutes. But then it’s also true that miniatures can fit together in a cycle, for instance all of Chopin’s 24 Preludes or Janacek’s In the Mists or Scriabin’s last Preludes in one sitting.   And because Mamoru Fujieda has grouped his Patterns into “Collections,” there’s a wonderful continuity from one to the next.

Later this week, the first New Music Gathering will be held jointly at the San Francisco Conservatory and the Center for New Music in San Francisco. Your concert is a marquee event at NMG. Given that the attendees will be new music enthusiasts, what considerations have gone into choosing your program?

As soon as I heard there would be a New Music Gathering in San Francisco, I pitched the organizers a project I’m working on now for Terry Riley’s eightieth birthday year. He’s had such a profound influence on generations of composers, and he’s one of our most extraordinary composer-pianists, so I’ve commissioned a group of composers to write for solo piano in honor of his eightieth year. I’ll premiere new pieces by Samuel Carl Adams, Danny Clay, Dylan Mattingly, Pauline Oliveros, and Gyan Riley at the New Music Gathering, and also play Terry Riley’s Keyboard Studies from the mid-60s and a new arrangement of his Philosopher’s Hand. Sam, Danny, and Dylan are all in their twenties. One extraordinary thing about Terry’s concerts is that he attracts crowds of listeners in their twenties, so it seemed important to include that generation. The new pieces are all fascinating, and none of them imitate Terry’s music, although they evoke it in various ways. On January 29 I’ll play these new pieces at Le Poisson Rouge in New York. There are ten new commissioned works in all (I’ve also received excellent and challenging pieces by Evan Ziporyn, Christine Southworth, Luciano Chessa, Elena Ruehr, and Keeril Makan—the works by Keeril, Elena, and Christine are being commissioned by MIT) so I’ll premiere them all gradually over the next four months or so, and am excited to play the first group at the New Music Gathering.

Sarah Cahill - Photo credit: Christine Alicino

Sarah Cahill – Photo credit: Christine Alicino

Are there any events from the smorgasbord of offerings at NMG that resonate strongly with any of your projects coming up in 2015?

The whole three days and nights look really exciting and compelling and ambitious. It must have taken a huge amount of time and effort for Lainie and Danny and Matt and Mary to put it all together, and they deserve a lot of credit for building community and creating a forum for dialogue. The Bay Area has such a thriving new music scene, and I always love hearing the Living Earth Show, Wild Rumpus, Dan Becker, the Left Coast Chamber Ensemble, and other local colleagues who are participating in the NMG. And I’m always curious to hear new music that’s being created across the country. Mainly I’m just looking forward to hearing composers and performers share ideas and experience, and inspiring each other and networking, and seeing old friends from around the country, and making some new friends as well.