The names Clara Schumann, Fanny Mendelssohn and Margaret Bonds don’t resonate the way Robert Schumann, Felix Mendelssohn and Wolfgang Mozart do.
But if pianist Sarah Cahill has her way, they will. And not just the names, but the music these composers created, will become as much a part of the standard classical-music repertoire as the compositions of male musicians.
The Berkeley musician, described as “an intrepid illuminator of the classical avant-garde” by the New York Times, has been developing her The Future is Female project since 2018. “My husband, John Sanborn, woke up from a dream in which I was doing a project called Smash the Patriarchy,” she said, chuckling. “I thought about that name for the project, but The Future is Female seemed a bit less confrontational.”
In Sanborn’s dream, Cahill commissioned female composers to write music in honor of female composers of the past. “But I thought it would be even better to uncover some of that music by female composers of the past—composers from around the globe—and perform it alongside new commissioned works,” she said.
That started a train of thought, research and collection, resulting in a seven-hour marathon performance piece, which has been performed several times. The Future is Female will be presented at the Berkeley Museum of Art and Film Archive on Dec. 18 from 2–9pm, as part of BAMPFA’s ongoing exhibit, “New Time: Art and Feminism in the 21st Century.”
Cahill’s training as a classical musician was based almost entirely on male composers, she said, and she sees The Future as Female as a “counterweight to all-male programs.” But, she emphasized, “It’s not about canceling Beethoven.” Instead, it’s recognizing and giving exposure to composers and music that deserve that recognition and exposure.
Her research led her down multiple rabbit holes in books and on the net, but she discovered many jewels. In tracing the beginnings of keyboard music, for example, she came across the work of harpsichordist and composer Elisabeth-Claude Jacquet de la Guerre, whose opera, Céphale et Procris, is believed to be the first composed by a French woman. Another score came from a friend who found it in a library.
Despite being told by some naysayers, “You’ll get sick of playing only music by women,” the opposite happened, Cahill says. She described the first time she did the performance as a six-hour marathon, at the North Dakota Museum of Art. The Supreme Court confirmation hearings for Brett Kavanaugh were ongoing at the time, and it was apparent that North Dakota’s Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, who was publicly opposed to confirmation, would be voted out of office.
“Playing six hours of music by women, [I felt] their silenced voices were being reunited,” Cahill said. “One woman stayed for the whole six hours.”
But attendees at the BAMPFA event are expected and encouraged to walk through the different sections of the “New Time” exhibit in-between listening to the music of the more than 70 composers featured in The Future is Female. The event will take place in the Crane Forum, just inside the museum’s entrance. “I’ve always thought of it as an installation,” Cahill said. “Sitting silently upright in a chair doesn’t always serve classical music that well.”
Cahill is no stranger to nontraditional music venues and presentations. It was while researching a story on public bathrooms for the East Bay Express in 1995 that she came across Oakland’s ornate Chapel of the Chimes, heard organ music playing somewhere in the building, and was inspired to create the “Garden of Memory” summer solstice concert of avant-garde and experimental music, which became an annual event until temporarily sidelined by the pandemic.
Composers who will be featured on Dec. 18 include de la Guerre, Maria de Alvear, Franghiz Ali-Zadeh, Meredith Monk, Vítězslava Kaprálová, Tania León, Fannie Charles Dillon, Zenobia Powell Perry, Clara Schumann, Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou and Hélène deMontgeroult, along with pieces commissioned by Cahill from contemporary composers Regina Harris Baiocchi, Mary Watkins and Theresa Wong.
“Sometimes I talk about the pieces [during a performance], but the music must stand on its own,” Cahill said.
She is often approached by young female musicians and composers who see her as a role model, and noted that it’s important to her to work with the next generation, opening doors that she had to open for herself, and giving them insight into composers like Margaret Bonds, the Black woman who was a frequent collaborator of Langston Hughes, and who wrote works for piano such as “Troubled Water.”
“In 2021, we are still having these conversations,” she said.
The BAMPFA marathon presentation comes in advance of a new three-album project, centered around The Future is Female, which Cahill is currently developing with First Hand Records. The trio of releases are meant to encompass works by composers highlighted through The Future is Female, and will include newly commissioned works, as well as a number of world-premiere recordings.
The first album, titled The Future is Female, Vol. 1, “In Nature,” is scheduled for release in March 2022.