Fighting for equitable representation in classical composition: Sarah Cahill set to perform in Voxman Music Building

Weaving over sixty compositions and more than forty female composers into her project The Future is Female, pianist Sarah Cahill will share three hours of her total performance with Iowa City listeners


Kyler Johnson, Arts Reporter

Mozart, Bach, Beethoven — these three names are ubiquitous to most any corner of the classical music world and seen synonymous as great. Pianist Sarah Cahill, seeking to change the perception of music composition, will bring her solo project entitled The Future is Female to the halls of Voxman Music Building on Nov. 18.

Now 59 years old, Cahill has been playing the piano for the majority of her life. She has sought to craft a show comprised of pieces from all over the world and a time span stretching all the way back to the 18th century. There is one unifying factor of all of her compositions — they are all written by female composers. 

“There are stereotypes that women write these pretty little miniatures,” said Cahill. “There isn’t anything feminine about this music though.”

Cahill’s goal with her performance is to bring equity to the world of composition, she said. The performance is not meant to draw a divisive line between male composers and female composers. Rather, Cahill wants to make aware that there is not an equal representation of perspectives in most classical concerts.

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“No one questions Bach and Beethoven,” Cahill said. “What I want is for conductors to raise the question and maybe break common cultural norms.”

Incorporating music from China, Russia, Azerbaijan, France, Northern Ireland, and beyond, Cahill’s performance also holds the objective of expanding people’s musical palettes to enjoy a global taste. 

Composer Theresa Wong is one of these speckles of flavor amongst Cahill’s line up. 

A longtime friend of Cahill, Wong became involved on the project a couple years back when Cahill was still ruminating on the project. Eventually, Wong commissioned her piece, “She Dances Naked Under Palm Trees,” inspired by Nina Simone’s, “Images.” Wong was able to see a live performance of her composition in San Francisco as a part of Cahill’s show.

“I was just honored to be included,” Wong said. “Seeing it live, I was overcome  with nervousness and then relief. The show was beautiful.”

The Future is Female presents itself in “marathon” style, allowing the audience to come and go as they please during the performance’s duration. In Iowa City, Cahill will perform music for around three hours, explaining pieces and stories along the way.

Sharing the stories of such composers, however, both Wong and Cahill agreed there needs to be attention to detail in regards to the subject.

“There’s a tricky line to walk when we talk about female composers and female artists,” Wong said.

As both an Asian American and self-identifying as queer, Wong said there were many aspects of her life in which she felt second-rate. Boiling her down to these simple labels to diminish her artistry distorts the reality of who she is as a person. 

However, Wong also emphasized the importance of recognizing these identities in others that allow for aspirations.

“It’s so powerful that people have role models — reflections of who they are,” Wong said.

Showcasing creators of all different backgrounds paves that kind of path in Cahill’s performance. In conjunction with eclipsing the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage in 2020, Cahill said asking these questions of gender in our society is both important and timely in our complicated present.

“I want us all to open our  minds and think about how we think about gender,” Cahill said. “And these composers — they need to be heard.”