Welcoming the summer in the Garden of Memory

Held each year on the summer solstice, the Garden of Memory at the Chapel of the Chimes is an experience that no Oakland resident should miss. As the sun sets, over fifty experimental musical performances congregate in the columbarium’s many magnificent rooms to commemorate the longest day of the year.

This annual event, which began in 1996 and held into one of the Bay Area’s most exquisite places, has exploded in popularity over the last few years. This year, big names in the world of avant garde music—including Pamela Z, Kitka Choir, and Paul Dresher—attracted large crowds to wander the Chapel’s mazelike corridors. Visitors were drawn to the mystifying sounds of gongs, theremins, water glasses, and other unconventional instruments and voices. Although a map was provided, the fun of the evening was in losing yourself to the surprise of navigating by sound, not knowing what might wait around the next bend.

Salley Hirsch and Theresa Wong in the Garden of St. Matthew. Photo by Dasha Bulatova.

In the Garden of St. Matthew, composer and vocalist Shelley Hirsch teamed with celloist Theresa Wong for a playful duet of spoken word and sound. They wove together pops of poetry and plucked strings in an energetic performance that counterbalanced some of the more subdued, hushed pieces found in other parts of the chapel.

Karen Stackpole and gongs, one-half of a duet with Krys Bobrowski, performing in “Gentleness.” Photo by Dasha Bulatova.

Nearby, Krys Bobrowski and Karen Stackpole layered an entire array of gongs against the high-pitched sounds of the Gliss Glass- an invented instrument resembling large crystal glasses filled with water. Two incongruous materials—water and metal—resonated and interlocked in unpredictable ways. The musicians’ intense concentration was a waypoint within the somewhat chaotic movement of the crowds weaving their way through the building.

In the main chapel, groups alternated performances, which included songs by the Balkan singing group Kitka, vocal and piano recitals by New Moon and bass Richard Mix accompanied by pianist/composer Ann Callaway. Sarah Cahill, the event’s founder and principal organizer, played pieces by Percy Grainger and Terry Riley, and she dedicated her performance to a long-time Garden of Memory volunteer who had died this past March.

Anne Rainwater and Melinda Becker of New Moon Duo singing songs translated from Quechuan to Spanish and set by contemporary composer Gabriella Lena Frank. Photo by Jaime Robles.

Another unforgettable aspect of the Garden of Memory is the sensation of comingling with the names and spirits of the thousands of people who lie in rest at the columbarium. The sense of closeness with the dead, although they remain out of reach, was evoked by waves of uncanny, hazy drones, such as James Beauton’s percussion and The Sound Cave Project’s musical sculpture. Although obscured by the flow of the crowd, this sensation was experienced best by nesting into a bewitching corner of a room, and focusing closely on a particular performer.

While the sheer magnitude of this year’s crowds inevitably detracted from the contemplative possibilities of the experience, the bell-ringing ceremony, led by composer Brenda Hutchinson marked the exact moment of sunset with a joyful wave of sound. Hundreds of people, musicians and audience members alike, rang bells and sang out a note and its harmonies in (ironically) the Chapel of Quietude. The chapel resonated with the vibrancy of life as the evening concluded and visitors filtered out into the night to begin their summer. The Garden of Memory is an occasion to look forward to every year.

–Dasha Bulatova