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Sarah Cahill's Tiny Desk Concert at NPR Highlights Female Composers

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Cahill's performance at the famed showcase pulled from her 'The Future Is Female,' a multivolume project that showcases piano music by women composers from over four centuries.

September 1, 2023 by Alex Heigl

Tiny desk, big project. 

SFCM Music History and Literature faculty Sarah Cahill visited NPR's Washington, D.C. office in August to perform at their popular Tiny Desk Concert series, which she used to showcase her The Future Is Female project. Cahill describes the project "as an investigation and reframing of the piano literature featuring more than 70 compositions by women around the globe, from the Baroque to the present day," and the full performance can run from four to seven hours, so she pulled a selection of highlights for her performance, which has notched 79K views on YouTube as of this writing. Cahill performed Vítězslava Kaprálová's April Prelude No. 1, Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou's Presentiment, Élisabeth Jacquet de la Guerre's Suite No. 1, Sarabande & Gigue, and Regina Harris Baiocchi's "a candle burns time." 

The SFCM Newsroom caught up with Cahill to talk about her experience.

How did you get the opportunity to perform as part of the Tiny Desk series?
I've been seeking out repertoire that needs to be heard more often, so I'm sure that my being an advocate for underrepresented composers, and my reputation for commissioning new work, had something to do with the Tiny Desk invitation.

Your performance drew from your The Future Is Female series—what went into selecting the pieces you selected?
Because the Tiny Desk concerts are online forever, the pieces have to be in the public domain or you need to get permission from the composers or their estates. I really wanted to play a piece by the Ethiopian nun Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou; she died this past March at age 99, and it felt important to honor her legacy, so I got permission from her foundation. I chose the other three pieces for a contrast—one from the Baroque era, one from the 1940s, and one that I commissioned only a few years ago. The program can only be twenty minutes total, so everything has to be timed carefully.

For several years I've been researching and performing music by women composers. If every classical pianist played just one piece composed by a woman, even one a year, that would signify a tremendously important cultural shift. Pianists think that their programs of all white male composers are somehow taking a neutral position, but they're not; they're making a statement. In 2023, we need to be reflecting the world we live in. There are thousands of great compositions written by women, from the 12th century onwards: Listen to them and learn them and perform them. 

Video URL

What went into the preparation of these pieces from a performance angle? What is especially challenging about any of them?
I worked very hard on every single detail: Each trill in the Gigue by Jacquet de la Guerre, every left-hand leap in Baiocchi's "a candle burns time," everything. What people love about Tiny Desk is the intimacy and the close-ups, but that makes it very different from performing in a big hall. Everything feels more exposed under a microscope. I rehearsed my spoken comments, because with the time limit, I needed to make every word count. Guèbrou's Presentiment is challenging because she herself recorded it: Do you hesitate where she hesitates, and move forward where she moves forward? Do you try to reproduce her performance, or create your own? 

When you get to the Tiny Desk studio, they let you know that they don't do any editing within a piece, so you have to do a complete take. If you make a mistake you have to do the whole piece over again. What they want is a real concert experience, not something overly edited. So fortunately we just recorded the twenty-minute performance and that was it.

What was memorable about the actual visit and performance? 
It was really like a dream come true. The production crew was incredibly warm and welcoming. I'm a great admirer of Tom Huizinga and everything he's done over the years, his great taste in music, how he's built audiences for classical music, all his amazing accomplishments, so it meant a lot to meet him. The audio engineer, Josh Rogosin, is legendary as well, and he makes every genre of music sound fantastic in that space. It was incredible to see the studio up close and be in the space so many iconic artists have inhabited. Two of my nieces live in Washington D.C., and they also love Tiny Desk concerts, as do their partners, and my daughter Miranda was with me, so I brought five guests to the studio (we all needed to take COVID tests that morning) and we all had an incredible time. Also, if you perform a Tiny Desk concert, you can add a little object to one of the shelves, so I brought a little elephant and put it there and now I look for it in Tiny Desk concert videos.

Sarah Cahill teaching at SFCM in 2016.

Sarah Cahill teaching at SFCM in 2016.

The video at the time I write this is at nearly 80,000 views—how does that feel? 
What feels best about this experience is introducing great classical music to new audiences. Most of my classical music friends don't know Tiny Desk, but my 25-year-old daughter Miranda and her friends are really into Tiny Desk concerts and watch all of them. So the folks who are coming across my video are mostly not into classical music, but they are responding positively to these composers and their music and then will seek out more. That means a lot.  

What are your thoughts on social media like YouTube in general for artists?
During the pandemic, online concerts were a lifesaver. They can't replace the experience of being in a concert hall, but it's wonderful to hear great music in the comfort of our homes. And I love all the masterclasses available online as well. 

With social media in general, I think we have to remember that each of us is not the center of the universe. As musicians, we have to ask ourselves: How can we be of service in our communities? How can we make the world a better place? How can we best communicate the music we love? If our social media posts can reflect those questions, rather than endless selfies, then it's all worthwhile.

Learn more about studying piano or music literature and history at SFCM.