Pianist Sarah Cahill to celebrate 50 years of female composers at Mills College show

Sarah Cahill’s “Future is Female” concert this Saturday is a prelude of sorts to a “communal feminist immersive listening experience” planned Dec. 18 at BAMPFA.

Pianist Sarah Cahill presents “The Future Is Female” Saturday at Mills College. Credit: Miranda Sanborn

After focusing on women’s undergraduate education for 170 years, Mills College will be opening its door to men in 2022 after becoming part of Northeastern University, a Boston-based private college that already runs satellite campuses in San Jose and San Francisco. While men have long been admitted to the Mills graduate music program, its experimental ethos has made it an essential incubator for adventurous women composers and players since at least the 1960s.

The future of Mills might be coeducational, but for Berkeley pianist Sarah Cahill, the legacy of women associated with the Center for Contemporary Music is well worth celebrating. She presents The Future is Female on Oct. 30 at the college’s Jeannik Méquet Littlefield Concert Hall, a program focusing on compositions by “women with Mills connections, women who were on faculty or studied at Mills,” said Cahill, whose work as a performer, writer, and KALW DJ has long focused on championing new works and overlooked 20th century composers.

“There’s such rich legacy of women at Mills and such a community of composers,” she said. “I just noticed that the program includes a piece by Betsy Jolas, who was born in 1926, and by Theresa Wong, who was born in 1976, so that’s a 50-year span.”

Represented by her 1985 piece Tango Si, the Paris-born Jolas, who turned 95 in August, held the Mills chair endowed for one of her early mentors, Darius Milhaud, and also taught at UC Berkeley. Inspired by Nina Simone, Berkeley cellist/vocalist Wong’s She Dances Naked Under Palm Trees was commissioned by Cahill, who premiered the work in 2019.

Saturday’s performance, which is available for viewing via livestream, also includes pieces by Elinor Armer, Maggi Payne, Pauline Oliveros, Mary Watkins, Janice Giteck, Annea Lockwood, and Meredith Monk (who’ll be premiering the music from her multimedia work Indira’s Net at Mills on Nov. 12-13, performances that will also be livestreamed).

It may sound like a packed program, “but some of the pieces are pretty short,” Cahill said, noting that she commissioned several of the pieces in celebration of Ruth Crawford Seeger’s centennial, including Payne’s Holding Pattern and Oliveros’s Quintuplets Play Pen, as a response to her mystical preludes.

“Those preludes are only a few minutes long and I asked them to write short pieces,” she said. “I’m hoping that some of composers will speak about their work at Mills. Theresa Wong will be there, and I hope Mary Watkins comes and speaks.”

In many ways Saturday’s Mills concert is a prelude to Cahill’s marathon performance Dec. 18 at BAMPFA in conjunction with the exhibition New Time: Art and Feminisms in the 21st Century. The expansive program, which is in person only, encompasses works by some 70 female composers from the Baroque era to today.

Cahill describes the extended presentation as “a ritual installation and communal feminist immersive listening experience.” The performance takes place in the Crane Forum at the center of the museum, where visitors are invited to sit, listen and wander at their leisure.

So how does she prepare for an all-day ritual? Swimming across the Bay? Jogging through Tilden? Pilates? “Mostly I stay hydrated,” Cahill said. “And take a little breaks. When I’ve done it before I find it exhilarating to play this music over a long period of time.”

Cahill acknowledges that the female frame she’s provided to a disparate program doesn’t feel entirely comfortable. Is she doing a disservice to musicians who don’t particularly want to be identified as “women composers” as opposed to simply “composers”?

“I’m ambivalent about the notion of ‘woman composer,’” she said. “When I was writing CD reviews and there was an album or concert of all women composers, it really bothered me. What does Amy Beach have to do with Meredith Monk?”

However diverse the pieces, there’s no question that the Mills program is united by the relationships of the composers to the institution. Her BAMPFA presentation has a larger agenda. “Now I’m doing it because I do see a need to reframe the piano literature, to spotlight these pieces that should be part of the canon and are not,” she said.

“When I started, as a matter of personal discipline, I wondered could I live with just practicing and performing music only by women for years of a time. Friends said it’s too small a scope. But I’ve found this is only scratching the surface and there’s so much more.”

A Berkeley resident since 1996, Los Angeles native Andrew Gilbert is a longtime arts and culture reporter who has contributed to Berkeleyside since 2011.