The conventions of live musical performance haven’t changed much over the last several centuries, what with an audience inevitably oriented toward a stage and a series of sets punctuated by applause. Despite a few rebellions, the very architecture of every new venue constructed continues to enforce a rigid code of conduct, one that emphasizes, above all else, patience.
Which helps explain the exceptional thrill of Garden of Memory, the carnival of sound and vision held annually in Oakland’s stately Chapel of the Chimes columbarium on the summer solstice, the longest day of the year. On Tuesday night, dozens of performances occur throughout the labyrinthine structure at once. No set demands any more investment than listeners wish to give. Attendees interested in experimental music but leery of the rigor it’s thought to require need not worry: Garden of Memory encourages patrons to wander, to welcome distraction, and ideally get lost.
At this year's event, Rova Saxophone Quartet beckons with the brassy swagger of a jazz orchestra, but Entartete Ensemble’s gossamer understatement inspires a detour. Pamela Z, awash in natural light, seamlessly loops and stitches together a vibrant choral work. John Benson reprises the setup that’s haunted this writer since last year: an upturned bass drum lit from below and covered in a shallow pool of milk, which quivers and gushes to a deep drone. Hallways teem with chatter. Errant melodies escape their designated alcoves. Children sprint past elders who gingerly navigate the stone steps; the disparate generations appear to have struck a truce.
At all times, Garden of Memory is comfortingly cacophonous, reminiscent of the inimitable polyphony that emerges on rare occasions in the hallway of a bustling rehearsal complex. The event concludes with a participatory bell-ringing ceremony that sounds so much like chimes and rain that it threatens, in fittingly pagan fashion, to invoke thunder.
To produce the first Garden of Memory in 1996, celebrated Berkeley pianist and composer Sarah Cahill partnered with the small non-profit New Music Bay Area, then known as 20th Century Forum. At first, it was free and familial, featuring Cahill and her peers. Though attendance has swelled to thousands in recent years, ticket prices remain humble and the organization, simple: expenses hover around $1,000, and proceeds are divided evenly among performers.