White droplets speckled the Garden of Fidelity’s stone floor, encircling an upturned bass drum. A shallow pool of milk glowed and trembled on top of the drum membrane, excited by a speaker’s thrumming feedback until little geysers erupted from the quivering surface and added to the lactic halo. John Benson — bassist in A Minor Forest and, more recently, the oblique doom act Black Dog — stilled his performance and addressed a throng of rapt onlookers.
“I gotta take a break and clean up the milk,” he said.
Someone in the crowd likened it to the avant-garde composer Alvin Lucier. Benson said Mötley Crüe inspired him. Assuaging the concern of another interrogator, Benson consulted the jug and proclaimed the milk organic and whole. Gingerly, he added that the piece also works well with pig blood.
Benson was one of about fifty performers stationed throughout Chapel of the Chimes — the Julia Morgan-designed columbarium on Piedmont Avenue, just outside the gates of Mountain View cemetery in Oakland — for the annual summer solstice event: Garden of Memory. In 1995, curator and musician Sarah Cahill was researching public bathrooms in the East Bay for a feature in the Express. According to the program, Cahill entered Chapel of the Chimes on a lavatory lark, heard distant organ music, and prevailed upon the nonprofit New Music Bay Area to organize the first Garden of Memory in 1996. This year, one of the experimental community’s most anticipated annual events fell on Father’s Day.
Chapel of the Chimes teemed with sound and motion on Sunday. Attendees brushed past one another in the labyrinthine structure, their chatter mingling with the sound of running water and crosshatched by an array of electronic, acoustic, vocal, and inscrutable dispatches. Chaotic reflection of sound is typically an undesirable acoustic quality for music venues, but Garden of Memory benefited from it. I walked in circles, got lost, and resisted the urge to consult the program too much. The sun set shortly before 8:30 p.m., initiating a bell-ringing free-for-all in the central gallery. Chiming permeated every other ongoing performance. The ensuing disorientation felt like Garden of Memory’s apex.
Which isn’t to say that no single performance stood out: Kitka, the noted vocal ensemble, sounded radiant in Chimes Chapel, marshaling the drama of a theatrical work with non-lexicon solo leads and a lush choral backdrop. Moe! Staiano coaxed groans from a drum with Scotch tape; ROVA Saxophone Quartet made a point of moving throughout the crowd in a corner chamber; and John Bischoff created the conditions for attendees to perform their own pieces with Chapel Delay, an interactive keyboard, beats, and bells system.
In the Julia Morgan Chapel, Amy X Neuburg adapted a version of Song Drapes, a composition that the late Jerry Hunt originally created to accompany a performance by Karen Finley. Neuburg’s performance, which included electronic drums played to prerecorded ambiguous percussion, was equal parts comic and sinister. Carnivalesque flourishes intersected a chant about “little legs,” the sort of phrase that sounds increasingly bizarre when repeatedly uttered aloud. Perhaps it was the church pews, but her dancing was a bit like the theatric spasms of TV faith healing.
By and large, there’s less of an audience for avant-garde music than visual art. People flock to abstract canvasses more so than even the work of modernist composers, such as, say, Schoenberg, let alone the sort of electronic statements produced by contemporary artists in the orbit of Mills College. Judging by Garden of Memory, however, you wouldn’t think so. It was packed. Much like SF Symphony’s increasingly popular “new music” friendly SoundBox venue, Garden of Memory seemed to testify to an appetite for experimental music that’s unique to the Bay Area. And yet, many of the same artists regularly play to tiny crowds at underground venues. Garden of Memory, then, has singular appeal: the inimitable venue, tradition, and especially the ritual overtones — which charged Sunday’s most moving moments.
After Cahill’s performance in Chimes Chapel — which included Shade Studies, Samuel Carl Adams’ supple, unraveling composition for piano and understated sine waves — she told me how, earlier that day, performers started arriving while people were still visiting markers of the dead, presumably a lot of fathers. The visitors stared at the inscribed faux book-spines, she recalled, or placed their hands on the wall. It was easy to forget where you were, until it wasn’t.
Pamela Z, a longtime fixture of the experimental community, stood in a thicket of cords and gadgets in the corner of one gallery with a glass ceiling. She began dropping metal tongs on the ground, picking them up, and tapping them against the mic stand, all with a cool, deliberate resolve. Each plink and clink was recorded and faded back in while Z added sustained vocal notes and electronics to a busying mix. Then, she moved her hands around an infrared sensor for lower frequencies, as if drawing voices out of thin air while the sky above darkened. The illusion resonated there in the historic columbarium. Then, Z literalized that sense of tribute and read names off of the wall: “Lucille M. Davis, Alice Electa Gay, Blanche Gefferney… .”