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Music for listeners
December 2018 | Profile by Jane Ledwell 

Sarah Hagen (photo: Buzz)Not many Islanders commute to Toronto and west, but when touring classical pianist Sarah Hagen is home at Argyle Shore on Prince Edward Island, she is inevitably home from somewhere. On the day of this interview, it is from a tour, mostly of care homes, in Manitoba, with a quick detour to Sioux Lookout (“it’s only five hours from Winnipeg,” she grins) and a flight to Powell River in her original home region of British Columbia. She also performed her one-pianist comedy show on her tour.

Sarah first came to Prince Edward Island “on a whim” when she was twenty, in the days when you could buy cheap student VIA rail passes that would take you past the end of the rail lines to PEI by bus. She stayed in Charlottetown for a few grim spring days, and yet, “I knew I would come back out here.”

Several years ago, she says, “I lived in Toronto, and I loved Toronto, but I thought I might as well move to PEI and commute.” She laughs broadly, “You know, I’m not very spatial.”

A career as a pianist “chose me,” Sarah says. “I’m the youngest of five kids. I felt like it was my own space… I love doing things with others, but the solitude of piano works well for me, the physicality of piano, the ways you could use it.”

Island audiences know Sarah best from her Night Music recital series at St. Paul’s Church in Charlottetown, where audiences are invited to arrive in silence, pay what they can, reflect on a reading on the program, listen intently for an hour of performance, and leave in silence. The concerts are moving meditations in the evening dark.

Night Music was inspired by an idea Sarah hear from a Danish jazz pianist colleague, Søren Bebe, who first told her about a concept that translates as “night church.” “The idea intrigued me—I often think about the concert format and why it does not resonate with some. I thought, what if the music stood on its own, but there were parameters?” People attending Night Music, Sarah says, “know it will be one hour. They will not have to worry about when to applaud. All they have to do is be present. It appeals to people’s need for calm, and their need to be together… It’s an anti-social social event.”

As a performer, does she miss the feedback of applause? No, Sarah says, “I can hear people breathing—the louder it is, the more I know they are present.”

She continues seriously, “I have a fear of classical music being watered down. I politely request people don’t use ‘accessible’ in reference to my concerts. I fear ‘easy listening’ means you won’t feel a thing. The role of the artist is to provide a safe emotional experience,” she insists—and by that, she means an emotional experience in safety, not safety from emotional experience.

“When you listen in silence—that is intense. You listen to those around you. You listen to yourself,” she says. It saddens Sarah when classical music is seen as elitist, and yet, she says, “I don’t think playing it in blue jeans is the ticket in.”

Rather than accessible, then, she asserts, “I like the word ‘relevant’… That’s the power of this music I’m doing—it changes people, of all ages.”

I ask about the tour of care homes, and Sarah is thoughtful. “Classical music is very calming. People in care homes are often very anxious,” she reflects. “I started playing for a church service in a care home as a teenager, and I remember the first time, and I won’t lie: I found it really hard,” she says. “But playing at a care home in my hometown (of Courtenay, BC), I developed relationships. People in care homes are the forgotten audience—but they deserve the highest quality playing.”

“I am just now starting to become a pianist,” Sarah says. Through ups and downs as a touring musician, even through a period when, she says, “I couldn’t face the concert stage,” Sarah says, “I was finding myself—to help other people find themselves. That’s what the artist does.”

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