Death Becomes Him 

Life amidst the dust at the Chapel of the Chimes.

The man at the entry to the mausoleum was deferential as we filed towards him.

"Are you here for the visitation?" he asked, ready to impart both sympathy and direction at our nod. But we weren't there for the visitation. We were looking for a concert. And we were lost.

The adventure had started an hour before, when a friend had told us about a "weird music" show that was supposedly taking place in a mausoleum near Mountain View Cemetery. We drove to the end of Piedmont Avenue, parked, and spent twenty minutes walking through tombstones and crypts in a fruitless search for weirdos. The undertaker at the Chapel of the Chimes was our last hope.

"The concert's through the other door," he said quietly.

We mumbled our surprised thanks and jogged over the entrance to the Chapel of the Chimes' columbarium (a building where cinerary urns are displayed), where, true to the suit's word, we found the concert already in progress.

There aren't many musical events that take place in columbariums, but there aren't many concerts like the annual Garden of Memory show. Organized by East Bay pianist Sarah Cahill and New Music Bay Area, the concert -- timed to coincide with the summer solstice -- features simultaneous sets from more than 25 New Music performers and groups.

New Music, for those of you a little rusty on your classical music vocabulary, encompasses everything from lush choral works to atonal laptop bleatings. It's a slippery genre that tends to be more, uh, interesting than it is emotionally compelling. New Music also tends to find beauty in odd places, so it makes sense that its big night out in the East Bay would be set in a mausoleum.

But nothing really prepares you for stepping inside the Chapel of the Chimes. From the outside, the Mission-style structure looks like an ordinary funeral home. Inside, though, is one of the best-kept architectural secrets of the Bay Area. The Julia Morgan-designed building is peacefulness embodied: a snug, terraced labyrinth linked by curving stairwells and intricate gothic arches. Most of the urns filling the towering shelves are in the shape of stately bronze books, with the inhabitants' names and dates classily engraved on the spine. Gardens grow everywhere, fountains plink and echo throughout, and the tall skylight ceilings dust the space with a diurnal lushness.

As I joined the throng of listeners reverently entering the building, I expected to catch sight of angels riding bareback on gamboling fawns, or winged Precious Moments figurines fluttering about the eaves.

Instead, I saw Randy Porter. He was busy playing a trumpet he had Frankensteined out with two twenty-foot lengths of plastic tubing and some alpine-looking tooting attachment. Randy was working the contraption into a breathy sort of bellow when one of the tubes fell off, halting the performance, and inciting an impromptu Q&A between him and the assembled onlookers.

Further on, I found a musician who had kidnapped one of the columbarium's leafy plants and taped up the poor thing, EKG-style, with tiny microphones. There were choirs in lab coats and cellists with electronic instruments and, in one tiny chapel, a man whistling a routine he had performed on the Tonight Show two decades beforehand.

Until the Garden of Memory concert, I'd never really been able to connect with New Music, mostly because I'm lazy and intimidated by pieces of music that are smarter than I am. It reminds me too much of grad school, I guess. But given an entire army of New Musicians playing their music in a death house, well, it just seemed merrier somehow. The vibe was spontaneous and casual, and I found myself racing from performance to performance -- pushing little kids and the feeble older guests into the planters along the way -- so I could be first one to see the Altar with the Musical Light Bulb or the Guy with the Chanting iBook.

I also found myself, for the first time in my life, thinking about getting cremated. The bronze books at the Chapel of the Chimes will do that to you. For reading nerds, especially, the allure of spending eternity inside a tome is undeniable. And what great reading it would be! Finally, a book whose contents are all about you. The only preferable thing would be getting pressed into a record. From what I hear, though, cremains tend to be knobby and toothlike. Which doesn't seem to lend itself to being spun at parties.

So I'm saving up for a book at the Chapel of the Chimes, where you get plants and sunlight and visitors like Randy Porter coming by to toot at you once a year. Sounds like heaven to me.


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