A Musical Melange in the Midst of a Mortuary

By STEVEN FINACOM Special to the Planet
Friday June 18, 2004

If you don’t have a serious religious ceremony to attend on the Summer Solstice—next Monday, June 21—but would still like to mark the longest day of the year with something special, head over to Oakland’s mortuary row for a unique musical event. Each year, dozens of musicians and singers assemble for the annual “Garden of Memory” concert in the venerable Chapel of the Chimes on Piedmont Avenue. 

Every nook and cranny of the extensive columbarium complex should be alive with music from the horn-like hoots of Australian didgeridoos to Balkan folk singing, classical and contemporary piano, koto players, percussionists, guitarists, choirs, and the wielder of a musical saw. 

It reads like a cacophony but it all comes together in harmony, due to the setting. The Chapel of the Chimes contains scores of ceremonial spaces, arcades, courts, alcoves, and corridors, each with its individual performing artist or group this one night.  

The event runs from 5 to 9 p.m. You arrive when you wish, pay $10 ($5 students and seniors) and receive a chart showing who’s located where. The groups perform separately, just out of easy hearing distance of each other. Some stage rehearsed pieces while others strum, keyboard, bow, or blow away experimentally. 

You can listen to the same musician over and over, or take in as many of the performances as possible, slipping quietly from one setting to the next. Some of the performances are in chapels with pew seating, others have folding chairs temporarily set up, and not a few are standing room only. 

In some spaces the music is broad and energetic; choirs sing, chords resound, instruments boom. Other performances are solo, ethereal.  

For example, in a skylit alcove beyond a tiny, exquisite, plant fringed pool there’s typically a haunting performance by ‘glass artist’ Miguel Frasconi who draws wonderful sounds from goblets and vases partially filled with water. Each year I also make certain to catch one of the performances by Jason Serinus, who whistles like no one you’ve ever heard. 

This year’s performers include 10 or more composers, the William Winant Percussion Group, the Cornelius Cardew Choir, Lines Ensemble, Ya-Elah, trombonist Monique Buzzarte, the Natto Quartet, and guitarist Henry Kaiser, among others.  

The event was founded and is annually organized by Berkeley’s nationally known pianist, Sarah Cahill (see “Renaissance Woman Combines Music and Journalism,” Daily Planet, May 11-13), and New Music Bay Area. Co-sponsors this year are the American Composers Forum and the Berkeley Arts Festival. 

Much of the magic of the occasion comes from the setting. Depending on your frame of reference, the Chapel of the Chimes may seem like an Arthurian fantasy, Edwardian mansion, or Harry Potter set. Winding staircases, arching corridors, and spacious courts connect spaces with names like Serenity, Eternal Wisdom, Truth, Gentle Spirit, the Chapel of Patience, Sanctuary of Compassion and Garden of Life Eternal.  

Everywhere there are the interment niches, thousands upon thousands of them from floor to ceiling, inscribed with the family names of Oakland’s past and containing urns with the ashes of the deceased. Many of the interior spaces are carefully planted—one year the courts were ablaze with coleus—and the place is a lesson in indoor gardening.  

Julia Morgan designed much of the building in the 1920s and her exquisite touch is seen in Gothic inspired cloisters, glowing stained glass skylights, and tranquil chapels. The complex climbs up a hill to a late 1990s addition, with each sequence of spaces reflecting the changing tastes of American interment.  

When I first went to this event I was a bit cautious about the propriety of performance in a columbarium. Mindful of generations of my family interred in a similar space, I worried about the event trivializing such a solemn setting.  

A very few scenes raised my eyebrows in past years, including a set-up of toy electric trains on the floor of one large court and a musician who climbed on top of a set of niches during his performance.  

But by and large the performers and performances are respectful of this setting and Julia Morgan’s halls can be a luminous place to hear music. The deceased deserve peace, but quiet isn’t always necessary, especially when the music is this good.