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Sonic Mobile

June 24, 2008

For the 12th year running, New Music Bay Area and Lifemark Group Arts sponsored the Garden of Memory, an annual celebration of the summer solstice through new music and sound installations. For four hours on Sunday, more than three dozen artists took over the labyrinthine Chapel of Chimes, a mausoleum on the edge of Oakland's Rockridge district.
It was with some trepidation that I attended. New music, a summer solstice celebration, and an upscale mausoleum — these all seem characteristic of the San Francisco Bay Area in one way or another. But they are not things I commonly associate with each other, and I found it difficult to imagine how they could (or even should) work in tandem.

My doubts were not allayed by the first sights I witnessed: a man preparing an installation of electronic sounds in a room displaying name after name of the recently deceased, conversing with a friend about their favorite homeopathic remedies. Then, in an almost satirical example of the goings-on, composer Charles Amirkhanian stood at the lectern of the chapel and performed one of his trademark "speech compositions": works that explore the rhythmic and timbral qualities of words in endless repetition. One of Sunday's works consisted of menu items from the kind of restaurants that line the affluent stretches of Piedmont Avenue.

But once I accepted the idea that (for better or worse) the mausoleum was to be viewed "aesthetically," everything oddly worked. The Chapel of Chimes is an architectural marvel, after all, and an ideal site for the sort of sound exploration that the event sought to foster. With no clear path to follow, visitors were left to wander almost aimlessly. Sometimes corridors led to sunlit fountains; at other times they ended in darkened cubbyholes.
Amazed in a Maze
Every nook and cranny was turned into an artistic laboratory. Following distant echoes down one corridor, I chanced on Vorticella, a "complex sound-generating entity" (as the group describes itself). Over Karen Stackpole's backdrop of percussion, Krys Bobrowski generated sounds from resonant water pitchers, while Brenda Hutchinson whispered, hissed, and intoned into a long metal pipe.

Another passageway led to improviser Randy Porter, who had attached a bugle to a network of tubes that split and ended in various locations. While playing the horn, Porter was able to change the path through which the sound traveled.

In one memorable interactive multimedia work, a trombonist swung his instrument erratically while a computer translated his sounds and motions into splashes of color that were projected onto a large wall.

Some performances even complemented their spaces. Among the most well-attended was the William Winart Percussion Group's performance of the second movement of Steve Reich's Drumming. While the movement's wordless chanting might seem like a cliche of New Age spirituality, the actual act of performing a piece like Drumming (as any performer of minimalism will attest) takes a kind of draining perseverance that borders on ritual.

Although the individual installations varied in interest, the real delight came in hearing them intermingle with each other. Throughout the evening, the most captivating places to pause were not the rooms or performance stations but rather the hallways connecting them. There, listeners could appreciate the sonic mobile that the Chapel of Chimes had become. In one passageway, an ascetic tonkori duet clashed marvelously with the sounds of Luciano Chessa's electric saw from down the hall. Seemingly, every installation on the second floor was haunted by the ethereal sounds of the Cornelius Cardew Choir.

In the end, the Garden of Memory was less a collection of installations than one macrocosmic installation, one in which (if I may adopt a New Age tone) the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

Noel Verzosa is a visiting assistant professor at California State University in Sacramento.