What do you plan to do for the solstice this Wednesday? Many locals have learned to spend their summer solstice evenings in musical nirvana at the annual Garden of Memory walk-through concert at the Chapel of the Chimes in north Oakland.
This is one of the weirdest gigs on the local concert circuit and one of the most memorable. Chapel of the Chimes is a columbarium, a building for the storage of cremated remains. The original part of the building was designed in 1928 by Julia Morgan. More modern additions have been made since. It is labyrinthine. Maps are supplied showing all the rooms and where the performers are. Tiny winding cloister passages and short flights of stairs (the building is on a hillside) connect the tiny rooms. The space is beautiful, peaceful and reverent, an indoor garden with plants and running water.
It may seem an odd venue for a concert, but pianist Sarah Cahill visited it one day, some 20 years ago, and thought it ideal for her purpose. Management was agreeable; the show has been on annually ever since. Many performers appear every year, though there are always newcomers. Anything that might be considered avant-garde may be heard here, from modern classical to world folk music, through independent rock, new age, experimental jazz and much more. It is a total of about 45 separate performers or groups.
Arriving at 5 p.m. when the doors open, the listener will find on the left the main chapel, the largest room, usually occupied by rotating half-hour sets by three performers. Here one might find the a cappella women’s choir Kitka performing wordless nasal minimalist pieces by Meredith Monk or folk songs from the Caucasus with great good humor, mesmerizing and enriching even when it sounds like geese honking, or Cahill herself in ruminative postmodern piano music by Lou Harrison or Sam Adams. Adams will perform at the concert himself for the first time this year, collaborating with violinist Helen Kim.
Down the hall is a smaller chapel, normally occupied by Paul Dresher and Joel Davel performing semi-improvised electronic ambient minimalism of mesmerizing quality. They alternate with Amy X Neuburg, who dubs herself an “avant cabaret” singer-songwriter. Neuburg’s quirky, imaginative songs, performed with the help of electronic tape loops recorded on the spot, are something like a mix of David Byrne and the Bobs. They were my most delightful discovery of my first visit to the concert. I’ve been known to spend the whole event sitting here.
But the listener who does that will miss all sorts of fascinating music going on up the hillside in the smaller rooms and passages. These performers usually play for the entire four hours, though they may take lengthy breaks between sets. Laura Inserra, gently playing soft hypnotic padding notes off a large metal drum in her lap, is one I find increasingly agreeable to listen to the longer I am there. So is Probosci, a violin and acoustic guitar duo which plays quiet, intricate, absorbing music. Henry Kaiser may be found nearby, noodling thoughtful cascading notes with infinite slowness on his electric guitar. Maggi Payne will often let audience members try out her theremin.
Up on the outer balcony at the back entrance on the far side of the building is where the retro big-band Orchestra Nostalgico usually camps out. I expect that the balcony with its broad view across Oakland will be the ideal site for Brenda Hutchinson to lead the sunset bell ringing. Also on this year’s program will be special tributes to two notables who died over the last year. Synthesizer inventor Don Buchia will be honored by multi-instrumentalist Peter Apfelbaum and his colleagues. Composer Pauline Oliveros will also receive a tribute: I expect this will be from the Cornelius Cardew Choir, which regularly performs her semi-improvised composition “The Heart Chant,” to which audience participation is invited.
It’s a glorious occasion: Everyone is invited.