Garden of Memory: A Newcomer's Review
Updated: Jul 3, 2019
Stepping out into the Bay Area new music scene, I review the 23rd annual Garden of Memory event at Oakland’s Chapel of the Chimes.
As I wandered out of the Chapel of the Chimes at the end of the night, the most prominent thought going through my head was, "what a wonderful event to build a music community."
The 23rd annual Garden of Memory music festival was a particularly important event for me as a music researcher who is relatively new to the Bay Area, having moved from the East Coast with my family in 2017. After a two-year period of very little music making, things are finally turning around, and I am more excited than ever to get out and explore the vibrant music that the Bay Area has to offer. What better place to start than the Garden of Memory festival at the Chapel of the Chimes in Oakland. The event took place on Friday, June 21 from 5:00-9:00pm.
I may be new to the Garden of Memory, but the festival has been a stalwart of the Bay Area New Music scene for twenty-three years. The story goes that local piano luminary and community builder, Sarah Cahill, was investigating public restrooms in the East Bay for an article back in 1995 when she stumbled upon the toilets at Chapel of the Chimes, the "largest above-ground cemetery west of the Mississippi" (gardenofmemory.com). Predictably, the mausoleum itself was more impressive than the water closet, with its dramatic uses of natural light and shadow, grand, lush spaces situated next to small, cloistered nooks, endless twists and turns in beige and gold. As she roamed the grounds, Cahill could imagine harnessing the magic of the place for a festival of New Music. Members of the community, including children, could freely explore a wide range of experimental and intercultural sounds within this dramatic, spiritually imbued setting. The event was realized in 1996. It has been an annual event coinciding with the summer solstice ever since, each year with a new lineup of local and touring performers.
This 2019 program was explorative because I had not previously seen many of the artists perform live, and most of them were local to the Bay Area, my new home. After a mild episode of frustration trying to figure out which of the many lines to queue in to buy a ticket, I decided to start by merely wandering around the space with my program in hand, allowing my ears and eyes guide me through the Chapel of the Chimes. This was serene at first, as I arrived at the beginning of the festival, before the crowds of spectators picked up throughout the night (eventually, there were many hundreds of people occupying the building). Although I was present for the whole event, I only managed to see about 1/3 of the 54 performers on the program, as I stopped to listen for periods of time. After winding and climbing, enjoying and cringing throughout the four-hour event, two artists stood out to me the most at Garden of memory: Pamela Z, and Theresa Wong.
Let me expand on vocalist Pamela Z. First of all, I connect deeply with singing. The voice is the most organic, most intimate instrument of them all. Z sings and then processes her voice through electronic mediums, and this is, to me, intellectually stimulating, and aesthetically interesting. Intellectually stimulating because it asks the audience to contemplate hybridity between humans and machines. Like a good science-fiction writer, Pamela Z takes her listeners through a creative sound world which is far more sophisticated than the scape created by the average imaginer. Aesthetically, her music is interesting for similar reasons. She produces a sound (a beautiful, rich one at that), and then that sound can become disembodied, and then multiplied and manipulated.
Pamela Z is a true Bay Area leader, having lived, performed, and developed as a vocalist, composer, and "intermedia" artist in San Francisco since 1984 (Macnamara 2017). I'm not the first to observe that the history of electronic music has been predominantly white and male, yet, at least locally, she has been able to break through that ceiling. Z also received the distinguished international Rome Prize Fellowship for the 2019-2020 year, so we can (hopefully) look forward to seeing her career visibility flourish beyond the Bay. Additionally, it is enjoyable to watch her use her gesture controllers, which are derived from VR technology. It adds another element of magic and futurism to her work.
At the Garden of Memory specifically, Pamela Z shared the sky-lit, lush Garden of St. Paul room with her long-time colleague, Donald Swearingen. They took turns performing every thirty minutes. Children and adults gathered around the foyer, some sitting on the floor, but most standing where they could. While she performed her work for solo voice and electronics, the Garden of St. Paul continued to fill with people—some who clearly knew who she was, and others who were drawn in by the excitement, and by Z's magnetic presence. Her performance was short and sweet, but made an impression on me. I will be looking out for more opportunities to see Pamela Z perform.
As for Theresa Wong, I hadn't heard very much about the cellist-composer-vocalist before researching for the Garden of Memory concert. This is more of a poor reflection on my attention to music of late than it is on the visibility of Wong's music. I knew that she had a record out on Tzadik, The Unlearning, and that is often an indicator that I might enjoy the music. I also knew that she was a cellist. Who doesn't like cello? I was even more intrigued after reading about her.
According to a published interview at Berkleyside.com, Wong originally trained in design, after committing to putting her string playing on hold. It wasn't until she traveled to Germany, where the design and classical music scenes overlap a bit more than they do in the Bay Area, that she got turned on again to playing. When she returned to the East Bay, she pursued further studies in composition at Mills, and has continued to be a major player and community member in the Bay Area New Music realm.
I happened upon Wong and Nils Bultmann, the local violist-composer, at the Garden of Memory, and caught the last ten minutes of their set of improvisations. Both exhibited their best "edgy" string sound, which filled the bright St. Matthew room they occupied. Their improvisations had tension, melody, harmony, and space—all ingredients for good improvisatory music. I would definitely go see them play as a duo again, and look forward to experiencing it with deeper listening.
As a composer, Wong's solo piano piece, "She Dances Naked Under Palm Trees," was showcased in Sarah Cahill's set in the main chapel, who commissioned the work as part of her ongoing piano project, The Future is Female. This, for me, was the highlight of the entire Garden of Memory festival. Gorgeous descending and ascending glissandos, short, memorable melodic phrases, a slow, breathfull dance gradually morphing into more assertive, rhythmic gestures. Cahill's expressive movements at the piano aided the evocation of such a warm-weather dancer suggested in the piece's title. I hope Cahill keeps Wong's piece in her performance repertoire for a while longer, so others can experience it as I did.
There were many other acts that caught my attention that night for their playfulness and virtuosity. Gautam Tejas Ganeshan performed long-form new music for South Indian vocals in the contemplative, dimly lit Sanctuary hall. As a fan of Karnetic music, I will keep an ear out for him in the future. Composer Maggie Payne's theremin was made available for the public to engage with. Kids seemed to especially enjoy experimenting with it, along with the Sound Cave Project's sculptural 5 Elements Tea House, a little house with walls of percussion and keyboard instruments, which was situated immediately outside the Chapel of the Chimes.
Once I eventually made my way up to the third floor, I saw the beginning of Composer Brian Baumbusch's, "The Pressure," performed by his Balinese gamelan-inspired Lightbulb Ensemble with the Friction Quartet. The work is rich in textures and dramatism. The bit I saw made me disappointed that I had missed a previous performance. Nearby, it was a curious sight to see Lulu the African Gray parrot improvise with a small ensemble. There is more and more research relating to animals and music-making, which I am eager to dig deeper into in another post. However, parrots are such emotionally fragile, neurotic creatures, and as I watched, it wasn't clear the Lulu was all that comfortable in the big, noisy crowd. Performing in the next space over was the Trance Mission Duo—Stephan Kent on didjeridoo, and Beth Custer on bass clarinet, plus a man on hand drum—a raucously fun, groovy dance fusion that is not at all as corny as it was in my jaded ethnomusicologist's imagination.
I look forward to seeking out a few more groups that I was sad to have missed, including Kitka, Janam, Ann Hege, and Majel Connery. Despite missing out on many of the artists who presented their talents, I was so glad to have attended, and to have experienced firsthand the essence of the Bay Area New Music community.
From a presentational philosophy perspective, I was most relieved to find that at Garden of Memory, world music, New Music, their hybrids, new music within non-western idioms, and electronic experiments, were featured prominently together. There was something for everyone, and the performers did not all adhere to a theme, musical aesthetic, training, or intellectual viewpoint. To me, at least, It didn't feel like the typical "electronic gearhead" events I had frequented on the East Coast, and which I half expected I would find again back in the Bay Area, the tech capital. The Garden of Memory, at least, has a much wider vision for new music, and that vision includes a diverse array of perspectives. As I wandered out of the Chapel of the Chimes at the end of the night, the most prominent thought going through my
head was, "what a wonderful event to build a music community."
Gilbert, Andrew. “Berkeley’s Theresa Wong: Have cello, will travel.” Berkeleyside.com. Published Jan 30, 2015. https://www.berkeleyside.com/2015/01/30/berkeleys-theresa-wong-have-cello-will-travel
Macnamara, Mark. “The Omnivorous Mind of Pamela Z.” San Francisco Classical Voice. Published August 29, 2017. https://www.sfcv.org/article/the-omnivorous-mind-of-pamela-z