Garden of Memory, Piedmont

Chapel of the Chimes1

Celebrating midsummer in a place where time stands still.

Oakland’s Chapel of the Chimes, a labyrinthine shrine designed by Julia Morgan, is usually as serenely quiet as the tomb, appropriate for a columbarium and mausoleum. Folding in layers down to Piedmont Avenue, the many chapels and gardens cleverly spill light down through skylights and open-roofed galleries. Trees stand in the upper gardens, and ferns drink the filtered light of the lower levels.

But on the eve of summer solstice the many halls were most decidedly unquiet: over 75 performers filled the airy architecture with both avant-garde and ancient sounds.

Begun in 1995 by Sarah Cahill, an eminent pianist and specialist in contemporary music, this annual walk-through concert has drawn flocks of music enthusiasts, thrill seekers and families ever since.

Last Thursday I entered from the North, the highest level, and meandered down through vaulted spaces and elaborate fountains, past stone filigrees and ash-filled vessels, and into and out of chambers filled with eclectic sounds and thoughtful audiences.

Despite the live surfaces of brass and glass and polished stone, the music echoed only lightly around the sharp edges, containing each performance in its space. And even more curiously, even the most difficult music seemed tempered by stone and winding paths into meditations.

Orchestra Nostalgico greeted me with fresh improv and old jazz on the plaza, and I then entered and heard the hum of many voices on near-arbitrary notes.  The Cardew Choir inhabited the “Court of Quietude” in a circle, each placing their right hand on their hearts and their left hand on the back of the person next to them, and vocalizing an inward sound. This was an exercise by composer Pauline Oliveros, and I found myself herded into the group for an interval of calm and awareness, a perfect introduction to this curious festival.

Rhythmic burrs led me into the next room, where strings were stretched across the courtyard, gently struck by feathers and electronically amplified into mounds of sound. Around the corner a young accordionist played Piaf and sang French, outfitted in steam-punk aviation lenses. He stopped to announce titles, amplified through an old gramophone horn. The performer, Albert Behar, is carving a niche for his mix of savvy electronics and sound art.

Ensconced in a nearby gallery was a man surrounded by plastic tubes, kelp, tubular bells and a trumpet. His odd “wheeze box” wove a fabric of vocal whispers with golden spangles.

A winding stair led me past a duo of adapted instruments: Thea Farhadian wrapped tin foil under the bridge of her violin, and Dean Santomieri inhabited the lower frequencies with a resonator guitar, together creating an enchanting effect that prickled with scratches and wobbles. Whistler Jason Serinus entertained his packed chapel with a puckered version of “Paper Moon,” and past them I reached the main Chimes Chapel for two of the headliners: Sarah Cahill and Kitka.

KitkaCahill shared the piano bench with Regina Schaffer in two four-hands compositions by Terry Riley, creating a space that was both meditative and high energy, as repeated patterns built and shifted. In one disconcerting passage the two pianists kept to their own rhythms, then merged back into a slightly less complex whole. Seated in worn oak pews in the chapel, it was particularly inward directing, and I recalled that Cahill had organized and performed in three all-day music “séances” with pianist Eva-Maria Zimmerman and violinist Kate Stenberg.

Kitka, a famed women’s vocal ensemble that specializes in Balkan folksong, followed the piano works. Appearing with one of their mentors, Bulgarian singer and scholar Tzvetanka Varimezova, Kitka brought out the tight dissonances and high ululations of ancient Bulgarian folk music. Deep drones contrasted with nasal vowels, and soloists ornamented the themes and added occasional yips. The Balkan love songs brought a sweet focus for the midsummer celebration, and the authentic vocal techniques blended and bridged the experimental festival with its setting of ashes and urns.

Wandering the halls, I heard Amy X. Neuburg looping over her own voice, a chorus of many Amys that sang “…spread it around,” and Paul Dresher and Joel Davel dueling on their long-stringed electronic creation. Nearby, Luciano Chessa waggled a hand saw, hugely amplified into brusque eruptions, while Laura Inserra’s delicate steel drum merged into a forest of fronds.

Above them, Laura Glen Louis read her poems in the Sanctuary, elegies that startled a smile out of grief. She spoke of the burden of wings and the folding of cranes.

After, I walked back up and placed one hand on my heart and one hand on the back of a stranger, and sang.

—Adam Broner

Photos, from Garden of Memory, June 21, 2012. Top, experimental musician Randy Porter on the upper level; bottom, Kitka in the Chimes Chapel.