Oakland’s ‘Garden of Memory Sheltering in Place’ event this Sunday
By Lou Fancher
In 2020, with COVID-19 restrictions continuing to place a stranglehold on live concerts, the sound of silence on June 21 at Oakland’s Chapel of the Chimes will be deafening. Last year and annually since its founding in 1995 by Berkeley-based pianist Sarah Cahill, the physical sprawl and eclectic artistry of Garden of Memory, a four-hour summer solstice new music festival, has filled the multilevel columbarium with celebratory sound to mark the northern hemisphere’s longest day of the year.
After discussions with chapel management, though, Cahill said in a recent phone interview that reality finally struck. Plans for a livestream event or limiting attendance to maintain social distance guidelines were abandoned after initially sending inquiries to 75 artists scheduled to perform.
“The WiFi is spotty, especially in the older, beautiful parts of the building. It would be logistically very difficult. They have a strict cleaning policy and have to be safe. They suggested photographs of the spaces that people could use as backdrops for a Zoom event."
One of the particular pleasures of the self-curated, marathon concert is wandering unrestricted through the Julia Morgan-designed architecture’s warren-like gardens, cloisters, stairways and antechambers. Natural light, stained glass windows and music ranging from new classical to electronic, jazz and world music meld with sounds from the sea of humanity — appreciative applause, cheers and whispers; the giggle of children captivated by a performer or ensemble. Translating the sensations into a virtual format wouldn’t capture the same magic, agreed Cahill and her collaborating partner, Lucy Mattingly.
“Sitting in front of your laptop is so antithetical to this concert experience,” Cahill said. “We could do four hours, and viewers could click on spaces, similar to going around the building. But the truth is, that takes tech, crew and resources we don’t have.”
Instead, footage from a documentary filmmaker that features past years will be livestreamed.
“It’s about four hours of material that will make you feel you’re in the building,” she said. “We haven’t decided yet; this has been a steep learning curve for all of us. Our plan is just to broadcast the documentary footage and end with the bell ringing. I’ll be on KALW that evening and will speak with Brenda Hutchinson by phone so she can lead us through the communal bell ringing, with us each in our own homes.”
This year’s virtual event, “Garden of Memory Sheltering in Place” will take place from 5 to 9 p.m. June 21. Those interested can check gardenofmemory.com for updates or more information. Meanwhile, as concerts are canceled and projects postponed, Cahill is strengthened by the daily rituals of practice and performing music online.
“Right now, in our upside-down world, music is what’s real and true. It grounds us and keeps us sane. Music is essential when there’s so much uncertainty around us.”
Reflecting on this year’s Memorial Day death of George Floyd and its subsequent worldwide protests and memorials, Cahill said, “I keep thinking about his daughter saying ‘My daddy changed the world.’ Events of the last few weeks have led us to examine every part of our lives, and in my case, that means what music I perform as a pianist, whose music I play on my KALW radio show and who I interview on that show, who we choose to perform at Garden of Memory, what books I read and so on.”
One project Cahill undertook is titled “#The Future Is Female.” Even before recent events underscored what’s felt is a need for classically-trained musicians and composers looking beyond a traditional white male-oriented repertoire to include the work of women, African Americans and other people of color, Cahill in the series of livestream concerts performs women composers’ piano repertoire from 18th century Baroque to contemporary and newly commissioned works.
Featuring compositions from artists worldwide — Elisabeth Jacquet de la Guerre, Florence Price, Gabriela Ortiz, Margaret Bonds, Meredith Monk, Fannie Dillon, Tania Leon, Hannah Kendall and others — Cahill said, “We all have to work against the classical canon we were raised with, which excludes women and people of color, and that work is constant and ongoing. It’s not enough to say I’ll play music by both men and women. I have to go further and say I’m also aiming to play music by people of color.”
Asked about a recent Old First Concert on a Fazioli piano that was streamed from a private home in Oakland — the series is presented from a variety of local and national venues — Cahill said performing into silence with no one to applaud save the camera operator is similar to recording.
“You’re alone, and it’s about what you’re expressing musically. There’s no reaction, which is a strange format. With a livestream it’s a little different, but it is still very weird. There were comments that I saw at intermission and afterwards, but it’s not the same as seeing faces and hearing people clap and getting a hug.”
Even so, revealing the pioneering keyboard work of one of Jacquet de la Guerre’s Baroque era piano suites or the power in a commission from composer Theresa Wong is a rich reward.
“Wong is a young person of color, a queer artist and a multitalented musician. People connect with the overt expressivity and strong rhythms,” Cahill said.
Another outgrowth of the isolation is a piano forum Cahill started. Six pianists gather weekly on Zoom and play for each other.
“It’s not perfect, but it’s wonderful to play something and get feedback. To have community is encouraging.”
This pleasure — music shared in community — requires recalibration in today’s skewed landscape. Throngs of Bay Area music fans will not congregate and intersect in the Chapel of the Chimes this year. Instead, they’ll find their own ways to participate in the summer solstice; perhaps following the Garden of Memory’s traditional final moments by ringing handheld bells for 8 minutes and 46 seconds to honor lives lost and future hope born that leads to a more peaceful and just world.