Summer Solstice at the Garden of Memory

Summer Solstice at the Garden of Memory

Some years back Sarah Cahill, now an accomplished Bay Area pianist, was writing an article for a local paper on elegant and not-so-elegant public restrooms in the Bay Area. She wandered into the Chapel of Chimes, designed in 1926 by Julia Morgan, one of the first, maybe the first prominent woman architect, to serve as the grand, over-the-top columbarium / mausoleum / cemetery for wealthy East Bay residents. As she wandered through the labyrinth Cahill heard distant organ music from one of the chapels and thought what a great venue this would make for a music festival, with its maze of chapels, fountain gardens, stairways, alcoves.

So in the guise of New Music Bay Area she approached the management and they said yes, and so she started a summer solstice festival where each of the 40 or so chapels has a different music soloist or ensemble playing. You pay $15 and then wander around this maze — and it really is a maze, covering well over a city block — of chapels and alcoves and prettily landscaped courtyards and gardens, and at every corner, amid all the dead people in their urns and funerary niches and tombs, a soloist or an ensemble is making music, mostly new or avant-garde music.

My favorites were Cahill, the founder, playing selections from a two-CD set she’s bringing out in the fall – short pieces by a Japanese composer who’s recorded the voices of plants, i.e., their changing electromagnetic resonances and frequencies, and adapted these to piano compositions ; Kitka, a seven-voice a capella women’s chorus singing Russian poetry set to music and composed by their director Eric Banks ; an avant-garde percussion duo led by Paul Dresher that uses xylophones and cymbals and made-up instruments to do a jumpin’ jive sound mix ; and Pamela Z., whose dreadlocks alone are, as the Michelin Guide says, vaut le voyage, but who makes the most extraordinary music by wiring and miking her body and mixing her beautiful mezzo-soprano with other sounds, in this case birdsong, with the mix blended and distorted in correspondence with her body movement Most memorable might have been the “Pavarotti of Pucker,” a 70 year old talent who’s revived the lost vaudeville art of whistling — you can see him via the miracle of YouTube at

The chapels and courtyards have names derived from that 1920s interest in Theosophy – there’s no mention of God but only an invocation of Virtue and Big Ideas — “Garden of Effulgence,” “Courtyard of Revelation,” “Integrity West,” “Adoration West,” “Chapel of Gentle Spirit,” “Courtyard of Tenderness,” “Hall of Valiant,” “Sanctuary of Dawn,” etc. The organizers call the program “Garden of Memory” — you can find it at — but I was thinking “Wake the Dead” might be more appropriate.

 Although! Who could ask for a better parting gift, than a great annual gathering of people celebrating music in an elegant environment that your funeral expenses helped build and maintain? Do the dead stir restless in their vaults, annoyed at this troubling of their timeless meditations? Or do they long to rise and listen and dance? Are they happy to see the musicians and the crowds depart, or do they long for our return?

 I did leave thinking that Morgan may have thought she was designing a building to celebrate the dead — that’s what she was commissioned to build — but in fact that once a year the building finds its true purpose, which is a celebration of life. For sure the effect of the evening was heightened by listening to the musicians and encountering their very new music in the presence of hundreds, probably thousands of people who had spent a great deal of money to be memorialized in a grand “final resting place,” only to be remembered only infinitesimally more than the pauper who dies and is cremated with no ceremony. Who was Julia K. Black, 1899-1984, or Clarence Tracy Jones, 1911-1964?

 I’m mystified as to why someone would prefer to suffer the indignity of embalming and interment in a metal coffin sealed into a wall vault over being placed naked in the sweet and welcoming earth and having a tree planted overhead, but values are changing and maybe we are moving from the former to the latter. In the meantime, though, once a year the formers can stir in their vaults or urns or tombs and listen to the call of us, their heirs, making sweet noises and having a good time as the turning tilting earth shudders to a halt and begins its slow reverse wobble, as the sun stays up later than any other day in this particular year — no doubt because the musicians are making it so hard to go to bed.

  • Hunter Madsen

    An inviting head’s up about the artists involved in this event – thank you. Sarah Cahill’s playing, across a variety of materials and composer’s sensibilities, is compelling. (She’s got me scrambling to hear more of Leo Ornstein; and I was intrigued to hear the lush crossover music that Terry Riley is composing these days, and that she has commissioned and performed for her series on peace.) Kitka is also new to me, their old-world harmonies being ideally potent, one would suppose, for permeating a westcoast columbarium with ethereal enchantment.

    I’m with you on the choice to return to the earth or atmosphere, rather than to linger on pointlessly as a distinct yet forgotten residuum at some unvisited spot in the universe. Heck, go ahead and spread me around… again.

    July 1, 2014 at 1:13 am
  • Lucia Jacobs

    This is as beautiful as was the evening! Thank you!

    July 9, 2014 at 5:19 am