Celebrate the Summer Solstice

Garden of Memory Concert Brings New Music to the Chapel of the Chimes

    In the middle of a stark, white room, atop a four-foot case that contains urns holding ashes of the dead, stands Luciano Chessa, bowing a 36-inch stainless steel saw. A skylight allows the sun to flood the room with light. The sounds are ethereal, but Chessa’s position is precarious, if not dangerous: bent over, with the saw’s handle between his legs while he holds one end of the saw with one hand and bows with the other. The saw’s teeth are pointed away from him, but one slip could cause him to become a permanent resident of the room, too. Chessa would join the likes of Benjamin Logan (1885–1956) and Ethel Logan (1888–1977), whose remains rest inside the case he performs on.
    Chessa is among a cadre of 35 musicians, ensembles and artists who bring the normally serene house of the dead to life each year on the summer solstice as part of the Garden of Memory concert at Oakland’s Chapel of the Chimes.
    Opened in 1909, the Chapel of the Chimes is a crematory and columbarium that contains remains and ashes of the dead. In 1928, architect Julia Morgan oversaw the expansion and reconstruction of the building, infusing it with ornate Moorish and Gothic-style arches and niches, gardens, fountains and soothing blue and turquoise tiles similar to those found in Morgan’s Hearst Castle and the Berkeley City Club. For the concert, performers take over the columbarium’s many nooks and crannies, producing unbelievable sounds that waft through the building and convince music-lovers to follow their ears toward one intimate setting after another for virtually private recitals.
    Chessa’s chosen room is the California Columbarium, which is part of the original building, so it lacks the ornate touch of Morgan’s addition. “It looks like an old pharmacy. It is very severe and kind of plain,” he says.
    He didn’t care for the room at first, but a chance encounter with a butterfly made him change his mind about it. “A very big orange and black butterfly flew into the room and started to dance in circles against the skylight, obviously trying to get out. The way the butterfly appeared to me, I felt special, and I decided to take it as a sign,” says Chessa, who also plays piano, the Vietnamese dan bau and holds a Ph.D. in musicology.
    Chessa says the saw’s main musical feature is the glissando, or gliding from one note to another. “For me, the musical saw’s glissando voice has supernatural features, a ghost-like voice. It is the kind of voice that resonates particularly well in a space like the Chapel of the Chimes.”
    Marking its 11th year in 2008, New Music Bay Area’s Garden of Memory summer solstice concert at the Oakland Columbarium is one of the Bay Area’s most unique musical events and continues to grow in popularity, attracting more than 2,400 people in 2007.
    Berkeley pianist, radio host and writer Sarah Cahill, the creator and co-producer of the event, first wandered into the ornate Morgan-designed building in 1995 when she was researching a story about the best public bathrooms for the East Bay Express. “The bathroom itself was unexceptional, but the place opened up a whole other world. I heard music coming from some distant place and thought how enticing it is to try and find the music, getting lost in the maze-like structure, and encountering surprises along the way,” she says.
    At the time, New Music Bay Area—of which Cahill is a board member—was looking for creative ways to present new music concerts, and Cahill felt she’d found the right spot.
    Cahill, who designed the program as an informal event to recreate the experience she had that first day, said it’s also a concert that’s perfect for people who may not ordinarily be concert-goers. “So, if you’re walking through and you come across Larnie Fox’s hand-cranked motoric sculptures, or Amy X Neuberg’s songs, you can just enjoy it as whimsical and fun, and spend as long or short as you like with it, without all the baggage of going into a concert hall,” says Cahill.
    The element of musical unpredictability is a huge factor of the concert’s popularity.
    Longtime performer and whistler Jason Victor Serinus likens the concert to a big Easter egg hunt. “Certainly, to happen upon a whistler whistling Schubert for the first time in your life is a surprise.” He performs opera arias and American songs in the intimate Meditation Chapel, which is dark but has small panels of yellow, gold and red stained glass in the vaulted celing that allows slivers of light to stream through. The excellent acoustics allow Serinus’ full-throated vibrato style to shine. “The acoustics are to die for,” he says with a laugh.
    Several flights of stairs above Serinus, in another all-white room with a small garden, another performer, Philip Gelb, returns each year to visit and remember his friend. Gelb plays traditional, funeral and modern music on the shakuhachi, an ancient Japanese bamboo flute, in the Garden of Supplication, where the ashes of his close friend, Matthew Sperry, are interred. Sperry, 34, a promising young bassist who had played with Tom Waits, was killed by a truck while riding his bike to work two weeks before the 2003 concert. Gelb and Sperry originally met at Florida State University’s school of music and performed together at the Garden of Memory concert in 2002. “I have always enjoyed playing at this event, and now, with Matthew’s remains in the building, it has greater meaning for myself and many other performers who knew him,” he says.
    Sperry left behind a wife, Stacia, and 2-year-old daughter, Lilah. “His wife and daughter always come, and I usually play one piece for them,” says Gelb.
    In her other role as pianist, Cahill plays a Steinway grand piano each year in the Chimes Chapel, which is just off the main entrance. The largest room in the building, the Gothic style chapel features a yellow, gold and red stained-glass window above the altar. The sound echoes wonderfully in it, and there are plenty of wood pews for people to sit on and enjoy the music.
    A champion of new music and unknown American composers in the experimental tradition, Cahill has played such composers as Lou Harrison, Henry Cowell and John Adams. This year, she will play “Metaphors” from her new CD of Leo Ornstein’s piano music. She’ll also play Marc Blitzstein’s rarely performed “Piano Percussion Music” and his “Piano Sonata.”
    For periodic Garden of Memory performer Charles Amirkhanian, composer, percussionist and former music director of KPFA radio in Berkeley, the concert is a bit like a county fair. He comes each year, whether he’s performing or not, anticipating reconnecting with people of like new music interests. He’ll play his text-sound piece “Quince Quinoa.”
    “It’s like a big reunion—not just composers, but a lot of people who used to listen to me on KPFA, or have been in the East Bay for years,” he says. “I love going. I learn about new, younger composers I didn’t know about.”
    But the concert attracts big names in new music as well.
    For instance, in the Garden of St. Mark, which features flowers, palms and a fountain, Maggi Payne will set up her “musical” orchid. Payne is co-director of the Center for Contemporary Music at Mills College, where she teaches recording engineering, composition and electronic music.
    In the early years, Payne played the flute live, but since 1999, she has installed the orchid in the room’s fountain. It works with electronic MIDI circuits and sensors, which are attached to the plant and placed around the fountain. Each sensor is mapped to a different pitch. When water drops on the sensors, or an audience member blows or touches the plant, different sounds are created.
    Payne says the Garden of Memory is a wonderful opportunity for new music performers and installation artists to reach a broader audience and talk with people informally. “It’s so much fun to explain what’s happening to people of all ages and interests. They’re so quick to understand and take delight in knowing what’s going on.”
    The concert, Cahill likes to note, is a collaboration with Allison Rodman of the Chapel of the Chimes and her staff, who loan the space for free, print the programs and schlep in sound systems and hefty instruments. “It’s kind of amazing that no matter what wacky thing the musicians come up with, Allison and the staff are totally open to it. So far nothing has offended them yet.”
    The community seems to have embraced the concert as one of its important annual events, Rodman observes, adding, “For some, it’s the only time of year they see certain friends. It’s also a source of pride. It’s something they have a real affection for.”
    What makes the concert even more appealing, Cahill says, is that people experience the event as more than just a concert; it becomes more of an event for the whole family. “It’s a celebration of new life, even among the ashes of those no longer living. We remember our friends and loved ones and meet new friends along the way.”


    Garden of Memory: a Columbarium Walk-Through Event at Chapel of the Chimes (June 21). Hear new music at the Chapel of the Chimes, 5 p.m.–9 p.m., $12, $8 for students and seniors, $5 for children under 12 and free for children under 5. 4499 Piedmont Ave. Parking is limited, so carpooling or public transportation is strongly encouraged. For more information, call (415) 563-6355, or go to

—By Keith Gleason
—Photography by Carmen Alvarez and Marianne Larochelle

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