For 23 years, the intrepid pianist, radio host, and journalist Sarah Cahill has been the guiding force behind Garden of Memory, a unique Summer Solstice music event held in the Chapel of the Chimes in Oakland, CA. In preparation for this year’s event, which begins on June 21 at 5pm Pacific Standard Time, National Sawdust Log invited Cahill to share her thoughts and reflections on this most distinctive musical offering.


When you walk into the Chapel of the Chimes, you enter another world. You encounter Moorish arches framing an indoor garden with blooming gardenias, azaleas, ferns, and dark green moss, basking in afternoon light. The legendary architect Julia Morgan understood acoustics, which accounts for the preternatural peacefulness; all you hear is the trickle of water in a stone fountain. In the late 1920s, Julia Morgan created a labyrinth of corridors, gardens, nooks, small chapels flooded with colored light from stained glass, secret staircases, and spaces with high ceilings—all acoustically protected from each other, and all perfect for experimental music.

Photograph courtesy Chapel of the Chimes Oakland

This is a columbarium, where the ashes of the dead are stored in urns shaped like old leather-bound books, behind glass cases, so it all resembles a vast library. It still astonishes me that the Chapel of the Chimes allows us to take over the building once a year, every June 21st, for our Garden of Memory summer solstice concert. It began in 1996, when I was on the board of 20th Century Forum (now New Music Bay Area) and we were trying to think of alternatives to the conventional new-music concert format. That first year, I just invited all my friends to perform, and we also had poetry readings in little nooks and alcoves.

Over the years we tried different days in the summer—one year it was June 24, Terry Riley’s birthday, and he came and played piano for the entire four hours. But we discovered it works best on June 21, the longest day of the year and the official summer solstice, when musicians can perform in full light from 5 to 9 pm. Now, over 3,000 people attend every June 21, a diverse audience with lots of young people and kids, pagans, librarians, hippies, goths, and an impressive cross-section of humanity, most of whom might never set foot in a concert hall.

Photograph courtesy Sarah Cahill

Photograph courtesy Sarah Cahill

From the beginning, the idea was for listeners to walk through the maze of gardens and alcoves and chapels and discover music along the way. Each performance draws a crowd who sit and listen. Then you can move on, turning left or right, venturing into the newer section of the building which is more resonant and open, or sitting in one of two large chapels where there’s continuous music, or going outside on a large plaza where Dan Plonsey’s band and Orchestra Nostalgico alternate sets.

One reason this event works so well is that the audience can walk around and find what they like, and if it’s not the remarkable Hae Voces – Majel Connery and Kristina Dutton – it might be the ROVA Saxophone Quartet or Zachary James Watkins or Faythe Vollrath playing Takemitsu on the harpsichord. Wandering through corridors and gardens and antechambers and discovering various kinds of music along the way is ideal for listeners who aren’t regular concert-goers, or for little kids, or for people with short attention spans (and of course John Cage and others had this idea long before me).

At first we didn’t have a program or a map—it was all about getting lost and the pleasure of discovery. But then people wanted more information (darn them!), so we created a program with names and a map with a key to who was performing where. Here’s the map and list of performers for the 2018 event, beautifully designed by George Mattingly. (You can see it full-size on the Garden of Memory website.)

I am eternally grateful that we get to present this solstice concert at the Chapel of the Chimes. But such an unconventional venue will of course have its surprises. The first year, in 1996, I scheduled Maggi Payne in the Chapel of Patience, a dramatic space with a high ceiling. Maggi pointed out to me that there was a constant humming noise coming from some sort of engine or motor nearby, so I asked the superintendent if we could turn that off for the concert. He replied “No, that’s the body cooler for the crematorium next door, so we can’t shut it off.” Another year, Carl Stone had to start performing at 5 pm in the Julia Morgan Chapel, but there was an open casket memorial going overtime, and the staff helpfully told us “Don’t worry, as soon as it’s over, we’ll just whisk the casket out and whisk the sound system in!” There was one year when, at the 5 pm start time, there was a wedding in the big Chimes Chapel and a funeral in the Julia Morgan Chapel, and a few men in suits outside directing the crowds: “Funeral, this way, concert that way, wedding down the hall.” But nothing like that has happened in a while.

Since we’ve been presenting this annual Garden of Memory solstice celebration for 23 years, I thought I’d share some of the reasons why I believe it works:

#1: It’s completely democratic. There are no headliners. Better-known performers like Paul Dresher and Kitka are presented equally with “emerging” artists (and they are paid equally). Experimental music, new classical music, Balkan singing, electronic music, improvisation, percussion ensembles, throat singing, installations, Nino Rota bands, didjeridoos and kelp trumpets and gongs and ensembles with vocalizing parrots—they’re all equal, without hierarchy.

#2: It’s a complete sensory experience. Most of the musical performances are visually captivating. A favorite every year is John Benson and his bass drum full of vibrating milk. John creates patterns on the glowing milk’s surface by sending vibrations through his suitcase synthesizer and feedback from a speaker:

Photograph: Holly Healy, courtesy of Sarah Cahill

Then there’s The Living Earth Show, playing Preludes and Fugues by Dennis Aman involving percussion with colored jello…

…and cellist/composer Theresa Wong.

#3: This event pays for itself. We’re a small volunteer organization, and expenses are minimal. Ticket prices are $10-$15, and since we’ve been getting audiences of about 3,500, that is a fair amount of cash to divide among all the musicians after expenses. And we don’t have to fundraise.

#4: Lucy Mattingly. When Dylan Mattingly was a child composer and multi-instrumentalist, his parents Lucy and George brought him to Garden of Memory. Several years ago I asked her to get involved, and she’s transformed the event into what it is today. I’m not even sure how this event happened at all before Lucy. She’s always thinking about how to improve it, how to be inclusive of the Bay Area new music scene but also plan carefully in terms of space and money. She now knows the building like the back of her hand, and where all the electrical outlets are. She starts planning early, she makes lists and spreadsheets and Excel documents. It was her idea to open up the event more to new proposals, and develop a system for doing that, with a small committee who listens to submissions, and while it’s not a perfect system, it’s a lot better. Lucy is incredible with social media, and because of her the audience has grown from a thousand to 3,500. She invites food trucks and rents port-a-potties, since there are only two very small bathrooms in the building.

I asked Lucy to write something about the concert, and she says:

“There is only one musical event to which I feel I can invite absolutely everyone I know – everyone on my Facebook friends list, every one of my co-workers, from the forklift drivers, to the tattooed tasting room staff” (Lucy is office manager at St. George’s Spirits) “to the bookkeeper; my neighbors; strangers I strike up a conversation with – any and all – knowing they, and their family members of all ages, would enjoy it, find it revelatory and fun – and that is the annual Garden of Memory at Chapel of the Chimes.”

#5: The musicians. If you have musicians like Pamela Z and Gautam Tejas Ganeshan and John Bischoff, who schlep all their gear up narrow staircases and set up and are completely independent and professional, then you are truly blessed.

#6: Convergence of location, community, and new music. There’s nothing morbid about the Chapel of the Chimes, even though it’s a vast above-ground cemetery. And Garden of Memory is never “about” death, but it’s a powerful combination of ritual, celebration, memorial, community gathering, and experimental music concert. Over the years we’ve played music for friends and colleagues and loved ones: Lou Harrison, Pauline Oliveros, Don Buchla, victims of the Ghost Ship fire in Oakland, and the list goes on. Today we’ll be playing for toddlers in detention centers, or for personal losses, or for the musicians who have played at this concert over the years who are now interred in these walls: Matthew Sperry, Toyoji Tomita, Ben Lindgren, and others.

Kate Stenberg (L) and Sarah Cahill
Photograph: Chris Tompkins

Probisci: Timba Harris (L) and Gyan Riley
Photograph: Chris Tompkins

#7: The audience is involved. There are always lots of interactive musical experiences, like Maggi Payne’s Theremin Morph, which people line up to play, and there are always two remarkable rituals which people look forward to every June 21st. The Cardew Choir, directed by Tom Bickley, invites listeners to join them for Pauline Oliveros’s Heart Chant, in which Oliveros instructs you to:

Place your right hand over your own heart. Place your left hand on the back of your left hand partner (back of the heart). After a few natural breaths sing/chant/intone “AH” on any pitch that will resonate your heart. Sense the energy of your own heart and that of your partner over the course of several breaths.

There is more to the score, but that is the basic idea. Complete strangers join the circle and share this profound experience.

Then, at sunset, Brenda Hutchinson leads the annual ceremonial bell ringing as part of her dailybell practice. This video combines the bell ringing and the Heart Chant:

#8: The Chapel of the Chimes doesn’t charge rent. I still can’t believe they let us do this. Every year I check in with the general manager and ask “Are you sure you’re okay with electric guitars and musical saws and vintage synthesizers in this sacred awe-inspiring place?” and they say “Sure! It’s all fine!” Again, I am eternally grateful.

Please come and join us on Thursday if you’re in the Bay Area!

Sarah Cahill has commissioned, premiered, and recorded numerous compositions for solo piano. Composers who have dedicated works to her include John Adams, Terry Riley, Frederic Rzewski, Pauline Oliveros, Yoko Ono, and Ingram Marshall, and she has also premiered pieces by Lou Harrison, Julia Wolfe, Toshi Ichiyanagi, George Lewis, Leo Ornstein, and many others. Her radio show, Revolutions Per Minute, can be heard every Sunday evening from 8 to 10 pm on KALW, 91.7 FM in San Francisco. She is on the faculty of the San Francisco Conservatory and curates a monthly series of new music concerts at the new Berkeley Art Museum.