Last Wednesday my husband and I took our three-year-old daughter Eleanor to her first concert. We went to the annual Garden of Memory Summer Solstice Concert in Oakland, California. Conceived by Sarah Cahill and hosted by the group Bay Area New Music, this 15-year-old walk-through event takes place in the columbarium/chapel compound Chapel of the Chimes, designed by famed architect Julia Morgan. Amidst the Byzantine hallways and alcoves where thousands of urns are housed, dozens of musicians played throughout the evening.
There was no rule as to whom or where you listened. Audience members were given a map detailing where performers were interspersed throughout the facility. From there one could roam at will, stopping to listen whenever the mood struck. There was no hierarchy as to who were the headliners and who were the young ensembles. And there was no stylistic bent. That afternoon, one could experience everything from Terry Riley on piano to the experimental electronics of Sylvia Mattheus to the post-minimalist rhythms of the student ensemble Oogog.
Our kid was in heaven. First she went into the chapel, where she sat and moved to the pulse of Oogog. Fifteen minutes later, she wandered up a stairway where she found Sylvia performing in an alcove. Just as I was settling in to listen, she left the room to follow the sound of drumming from William Winant’s ensemble. As I followed her explorations she turned a corner and zipped towards Dan Plonsey’s improvisations on wind instruments. A-ha! Goldmine. Not only was there music, but there were also markers thrown upon a canvas—an open invitation to the audience to improvise with visuals as Dan improvised with sound.
Normally such actions by a child in a concert would have the parents alarmed that their offspring was wreaking serious havoc on the audience’s listening experience. But in this situation, the children’s reactions were supposed to be part of the experience. We were one of dozens of families there with their little ones. From toddlers to teens to grandparents, all family members were welcomed. There were no stares at crying babies, no hissing to shush up one’s talk. In fact, in several of the performances audience members became active participants as they would congregate, clap, dance, or sing along.
As a new parent, this environment was a godsend. As a composer, this experience was thought-provoking. It got me to thinking about my own music, and how much context colors one’s experience. In particular, my brass piece for the Meridian Arts Ensemble came to mind. The work, Weave, is a pulsating, tightly grafted post-minimalist ride from start to finish, written as part of the Common Sense Composers Collective collaboration with Meridian. However, you would not quite think that if you had been at the piece’s premiere in a Manhattan church. Even though the space had excellent acoustics, the austere ambience lent an air of properness that one would not normally associate with the music of our motley crew. People loved the show, but they were also respectful in their listening in a way I found perplexing. The smallest rustle was quickly hushed as listeners sat erect, perhaps aware of their self-composure.
Fast forward to last Wednesday. After a mere hour, Eleanor was totally wired and we were totally exhausted. But, at the Garden of Memory, all reactions were okay. Even though we were in a sanctuary, a sacred space, there was never a feeling of needing to present oneself in a certain listening mode. You didn’t feel bad if you were tired. You could take a break. You did not have to sneak out or make excuses. The environment was such that you could soak in as much or as little as you wanted and participate at your will. So, after a little while, we corralled our child and left to get dinner, leaving the rest of the audience and performers to celebrate the solstice as only the Bay Area can do.