Going to the Chapel 

Music to send chills down your spine -- performed in the Chapel of the Chimes columbarium.

New music mainstay Sarah Cahill first came across the Chapel of the Chimes by accident. Exploring the building in a meditative state, she heard music coming from somewhere in the historic Piedmont Avenue columbarium, whose lush indoor gardens, fountains, gothic cloisters, and stained glass skylights were designed by the great architect Julia Morgan.

"I wandered around and around trying to find the source of the music," Cahill explains. "I never found it, but I thought that the experience -- walking around the labyrinth, finding these beautiful spaces along the way while looking for the music -- was the most exciting thing."

Later on, as a board member of what is now New Music Bay Area, pianist Cahill suggested the organization sponsor a new music event at the columbarium.

"What's really miraculous," she exclaims, "is that when we met with the chapel's staff, they said yes! It taught me that whatever crazy idea you have, you shouldn't automatically decide that other people will turn it down."

Thanks to building superintendent Randy Rivera, who was so excited by the idea that he pitched it to the general manager, the first Garden of Memory/Columbarium Walk-Through event was held in 1996. Some 1000 people showed up to wander through the maze-like structure, drawn by the fantastic sounds that will again resound within the building's eerie acoustic. They discovered the father of minimalism, Terry Riley, celebrating his birthday by playing piano for an entire three hours.

Now in its fifth incarnation, this year's 5-8 p.m. (arrive anytime) June 21 Summer Solstice experience features at least 26 performances, ensconced in various alcoves and chambers at 4499 Piedmont Avenue (call 415-563-6355 ext. 3 for information). A distinct highlight is a special "family" event, organized by composer/performer Dan Plonsey, in which children and adults are invited to join in musical improvisation with members of the fifteen-member Daniel Popsicle/Music of El Cerrito ensemble. Toys and small instruments will be provided, with attendees invited to add their own acoustic instruments to the mix.

Other special attractions -- in such a wondrous setting, everything is special -- include composer Ingram Marshall, whose stunning music combines electronics with elements of minimalism; Village Voice New Music critic Kyle Gann performing microtonal music reflecting Native American influences; Katrina Wreede's participatory Living Wind Chimes, which Cahill says have "a really gorgeous sound"; Laetitia Sonami presenting original music that utilizes light censors in a dark room; and women's vocal ensemble Ya-Elah performing Middle Eastern spiritual music.

Among the returnees are Miguel Frasconi, who plays glass instruments by a pool while bathed in the warm glow of skylights; and a virtuoso whistler whose supra-soprano tones resound with unearthly clarity through gothic chambers lined with little boxes filled with dead people.

Some performances will take on a special poignancy because, as Cahill notes, "we have suffered so many recent losses of people central to Bay Area musical life, including Robert Helps, Joseph Spencer, Justin Blasdale, Nathan Schwarz, and longtime KPFA programmer and jazz musician Ben Lindgren (whose casket was just installed in the chapel). But the experience won't be morbid; Julia Morgan's design isn't about death. We're not going to play taps or the Chopin Funeral March."

Certainly not in a building with acoustics to die for.


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