On the edge and sharply played

Times Staff Writer

Tucked away in a rustic corner of the Bay Area, Oakland’s Mills College is a small liberal arts institution for women. It can seem, on first impression, a kind of East Coast transplant. In fact, the place is pure California and, in the music world, controversial and important.

Forty years ago, Mills opened the first major academic electronic music studio in the U.S., the Center for Contemporary Music. Sunday night, the center came to REDCAT to show what it is up to these days.

When I was a Mills student in the early ‘70s (some graduate programs are open to men), the San Francisco Chronicle, deciding we were up to no good, made it a policy to boycott the college’s concert hall. Electronic music was still new, and the sounds generated by the center -- some of them, admittedly, grating and aggressive -- had never been heard before. They had no connotations. A language was being invented.

But the REDCAT program by current and former Mills composers contained music 6 years old or newer. Three of the six pieces were dated 2007. Electronic music has by now lost its novelty, and old-fashioned instrumental virtuosity proved the evening’s greatest attraction.


For instance, “Stupas,” by center Co-Director Chris Brown, contained striking, complex sonorities from piano (played by the composer) and percussion (William Winant). Chords were struck, and then their decay extended though irregular rhythms.

Electronics were gradually added to the mix, and my first reaction to a timid beep or two was that some idiot’s cellphone was ringing. Gradually, the electronics built to something more effective, but they always seemed a trivial gloss on otherwise captivating instrumental sonorities.

In her program notes, Maggi Payne, the contemporary music center’s other co-director, warned that the low-pitched frequencies and the “sizzling, hissing, crackling” sounds of her electronic score for “System Test (fire and ice)” can be presentiments of danger. They are, in fact, identical to the sounds my home amplifier is starting to make, which probably means an expensive repair.

But Payne added allure by including four dancers illuminated with glowing electronic tubes. In the darkened hall, they created an abstract yet corporeal ballet of light. It was beautiful to watch -- and thus the score was beautiful to listen to.


David Rosenboom, who was at Mills from 1979 to 1990 (and has been at CalArts since), was represented by “Zones of Coherence” for solo trumpet and live electronics. Make that solo trumpets, because Daniel Rosenboom, the composer’s son, used three different-sized instruments during the 13-minute piece. The electronics don’t add anything foreign (as in Brown’s work) but rather enhance the trumpet’s sonorities.

The younger Rosenboom is a phenomenon. Classically trained, he is involved with various ways of trying to enliven rock music through the application of sophisticated technical devices. He may get somewhere with that. If not, he has a major career waiting for him as a new-music trumpet player any time he wants it.

His speed and zinging high notes are amazing. He is a cool customer onstage, but what comes out of the mouthpiece is red hot. His father, a terrific pianist and improviser, doesn’t hesitate to push the limits of technique and endurance. “Zones of Coherence” didn’t seem particularly coherent or incoherent to me. When thrills come that fast and furious, who worries about coherence?

At times, though, I worried Sunday that electronic music has gotten to be very old news. In “Placeholder,” Mark Trayle set a laptop computer to spewing out lots of fast bleeps. The computer is talented, and it also turned sounds into patterns projected on the floor.


James Fei twirled dials and got frequencies to bump against one another.

That was thought a fun thing to do 30 years ago at Mills, when machines were crude and it was a lot harder to accomplish. But the idea back then was to turn the results into music.

John Bischoff’s “Edge Transit,” for cello, bass, piano, per- cussion and electronics, demonstrated that attractive music is still possible from old means. The piece went from plucked sounds to more sustained ones and back again. It was a poignant exercise in the finding and loss of lyricism.