N.B. I’ve had this sitting in my drafts folder for almost a year now. Given that the summer solstice is almost here, I decided to dust it off for publication. Unfortunately, I’m almost certain you won’t be able to attend this year due to COVID-19.

Yesterday, I attended the Garden of Memory, one of those uniquely Bay Area events that mashes up two disparate subjects so completely and effectively you’ll wonder why you didn’t think of it first.

How best to describe the Garden of Memory? Music festival in a mausoleum? Architecture and avant garde? Ethereal sounds for eidolons? Truthfully, it defies description, but I will do my best.

Back at the turn of the 20th century, a popular day trip in Oakland was to take the streetcar all the way north along Piedmont Avenue til the end of the line, where you’d wind up at Mountain View Cemetery1. You’d pay respect to your loved ones before going and waiting in the Key System station. Little did those folks know that the same place they waited for the streetcar might just be the place where they would spend their eternal rest. For in 1909, the station was converted into a columbarium2.

And there our story would remain if a certain Julia Morgan hadn’t entered the picture. Julia Morgan was a star architect, especially renowned in California, where she most notably designed Hearst Castle but also a plethora of distinctive buildings across Berkeley and Oakland. In 1926, she was hired to design a huge addition to the columbarium which would surround the old train station. She came up with a distinctive Gothic and Roman architecture that is wholly unique in the Bay. The building is chock full of small niches and alcoves with gently trickling fountains, exotic plants, and diffused light. Although every niche has a distinct design, it’s impossible not to get lost—it feels like you’re walking through M.C. Escher drawing. Walking through the building is an eerily moving experience; despite the absence of sound during normal operation it still has a way of overpowering the senses.

One day, an alt-weekly journalist was writing an article on the best public bathrooms in the East Bay when she stopped in and had a similarly moving experience. It reminded her of the similarly-overwhelming music she was accustomed to in her role as member of the board of New Music Bay Area. She came up with having a concert inside the Chapel of the Chimes, and thus Garden of Memory was born.

As for the music, it is mostly experimental/avant-garde and it is definitely not for everyone. I remember chuckling several times because the program mentioned acts “composed music specifically for Garden of Memory”. I would think “Oh that’s pretty cool, I should check it out!” and it would wind up being something like this. That’s when I remembered I am simply a backcountry hick who’s so musically disinclined that my Catholic school teachers told me not to sing at weekly Mass.

Jokes aside, many of these acts are world-renowned so clearly I was the one without a clue. Regardless of what you think of the music, it is a worthwhile experience to observe masters of their craft doing what they do best. In addition to seeing some truly unique instruments, you’ll also discover clever uses for everyday household objects, electronic equipment, the human body, and trash.

As for the acts, I particularly enjoyed perforamnces by East Bay locals Amy X Neuburg, Sarah Cahill, and Amma Ateria. I found The Lightbulb Ensemble to be fairly unique compared with many of the other acts present. The Rova Saxophone Quartet was one of the more famous acts on the billing. Their performance was memorable because instead of saying in one niche like all the other acts, they walked around the alcove in a parade-like fashion, with a trail of curious observers trailing behind them like ducklings. But the highlight was definitely Kitka, a women’s vocal ensemble performing songs inspired by Eastern European folk music. They got top billing in the Gothic, stone chapel and the reverb was insane. I mean seriously, listen to this, feel the power, and then imagine the sound echoing off every surface rather than emanating from your tinny computer speakers.

So how can you check it out for yourself? First, Garden of Memory happens every year on June 21. You should purchase tickets ahead of time to avoid long queues, which you can do here. Even then, I would recommend arriving early. Each artist performs two or three times throughout the evening, but the more conflicts you can avoid and the more you can see before the crowds arrive.

And wow, is it crowded. The hallways are narrow and the niches are small, and there are tons of people all walking around trying to see the forty-something acts scattered throughout the building. The building is brick and stone, it’s covered in skylights, it’s packed with people and, oh yeah, it’s the summer solstice. So it gets really hot and sweaty. Bring two water bottles if you can. Bathrooms are crowded. There are port-a-potties outside that get less use, for obvious reasons.

I’d recommend making a whole evening of it. The surrounding neighborhood is home to some really unique establishments: Cato’s Ale House, Kona Club, and of course, Fenton’s Creamery.

  1. The Mountain View Cemetery is fascinating in its own right. It was designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, a famous American landscape architect who is also responsible for New York City’s Central Park. It sits high up on the hill, providing amazing views of San Francisco across the Bay. Some of the preeminent and wealthiest citizens from the early days of San Francisco are buried here, including Warren Bechtel (founder of the Becthel company), Anthony Chabot (of Chabot Space and Science Center), J. A. Folger (yes, like the coffee), Domingo Ghirardelli (yes, like the chocolates), the Hill Brothers (yes, like the coffee, again), the founder of Kaiser Permanente health care (TIL that he was actually a shipbuilder who formed KP for his workers), the guy who invented the tradition of standing and removing your hat during the national anthem (!!!)3, Mac Dre, Julia Morgan (reason this article exists), the guy who provided the golden spike that connected the transcontinental railroad and tons more. Many of these people have massive crypts in one area of the cemetary dubbed “Millionaire’s Row”. Worth a visit! Except if you have to write a 10 page paper about a random grave in the cemetary for an anthropology class, not that I am speaking from personal experience or anything. 

  2. Note that Chapel of the Chimes is a columbarium as it preserves ashes whereas a mausoleum preserves full bodies. The more you know! 

  3. If you want to view living sports history in the Bay, the guy who invented “The Wave” is Krazy George Henderson. He leads all the chants for the San Jose Earthquakes to this day. He lives up to the name