Mills College, a school without walls

Music Critic

For the last seven decades, Mills College, which will celebrate the renovation of its gorgeous Spanish-style concert hall with a gala concert Feb. 21, has provided a haven for a remarkable number of cutting-edge composers. No matter how academically unsuitable some might have seemed, they have flocked to its manicured sylvan campus tucked behind the intersection of two ugly freeways in a nondescript section of the Oakland foothills. And whether or not anyone has noticed, they have broken new ground.

Usually, no one has noticed. That’s why small but important pieces of the complex puzzle of 20th and 21st century music are still missing from the history books. One of those I learned about long ago from Margaret Lyon, who headed the Mills music department for a quarter of a century and with whom I studied.

Lyon, who died in 2004, was a musicologist specializing in the English Renaissance, with a passion for originality. In 1961, she hired the great Italian avant-gardist Luciano Berio to join a faculty that also boasted famed French composer Darius Milhaud. Later, she hired Minimalism’s founding father, Terry Riley, who will dedicate a new piece to her at the gala.


One day in 1965, she told me, she was teaching an undergraduate class on Bach. Her students, all women (only the graduate school is coed), were, as she put it, dim to a girl. Nothing got through to them. So she brought in a then-hit album featuring the Swingle Singers doing jazz scat renditions of Bach, and she turned it up full blast. Within seconds, in burst Berio, who was teaching a composition seminar next door. He grabbed the record off the turntable and hurried out.

The composer then dropped out of sight for a few days, leaving Lyon sick with worry that she had offended him. In fact, he was besotted -- and busy tracking down the Swingles. The group ultimately inspired his “Sinfonia,” commissioned for the 125th anniversary of the New York Philharmonic and premiered in 1968. That classic work is now seen as having ushered in musical Postmodernism.

I heard many such stories when I was a student at Mills in the 1970s, and last month, after a long absence, I returned to the campus to see how its historic 1928 hall looked and perhaps hear more stories.

Mills, which was founded in 1852 in the Bay Area community of Benicia and moved to Oakland in 1871, has a rich past. American percussion music got off the ground there in 1933 courtesy of Henry Cowell, California’s first great musical maverick. A few years later, a couple of young composers used automobile brake drums and other found percussion instruments to accompany a summer dance program run by Martha Graham. They were John Cage and Lou Harrison. The Pro Arte Quartet, from Belgium, was in residence that decade; the Budapest Quartet followed in the ‘40s.

Milhaud fled France for Mills in 1940; his pupils over the next 30 years included Dave Brubeck, Morton Subotnick and William Bolcom. Among other Mills students, Steve Reich and the Grateful Dead’s bass player, Phil Lesh, figured out their musical directions at the college. The music department was in the forefront of electronic music, improvisation and world music long before such fields became academically respectable.

Besides Riley and Harrison, Alvin Curran, Pauline Oliveros and Robert Ashley are some of the influential radical artists Mills has cultivated. The Kronos Quartet spent its formative years in residence at Mills in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s.


Now there is no escaping the Mills mob in the wider musical world. Last month, Ashley, who developed his unique operatic style of American speech-song while head of Mills’ Center for Contemporary Music (the CCM), staged his three most recent operas in New York. The Juilliard School held a weeklong California music festival; it was Mills-heavy. And Leon Kirchner, another composer who got his start at Mills, was feted at a 90th birthday concert at Columbia University.

Meanwhile, a lively new oral history of the San Francisco Tape Music Center by Mills musicologist David Bernstein has attracted attention by bringing to life the rollicking ‘60s music scene in the Bay Area -- the Tape Music Center was acquired in 1966 by Mills, which turned it into the CCM. What’s more, Mills will be inescapable at Walt Disney Concert Hall next season, when John Adams will curate a West Coast festival with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Kronos has been named the orchestra’s ensemble in residence.

Plugged into electronics

Showing me around the ever-expanding campus, Bernstein, who has taught at Mills for two decades and is following up his Tape Music Center history with one of Mills, claimed the college “is even experimental in the way that it appreciates the past.” That, at any rate, is the approach he has taken in helping put together a six-concert festival to mark the reopening of the hall, newly renamed the Jeannik Méquet Littlefield Concert Hall after the longtime Northern California philanthropist. Many important 20th century pieces premiered there (including Berio’s “Folk Songs”), and much weirdness has occurred.

One concert in the festival will look at Milhaud’s Brazilian connection (although his jazz connection, his connection with the early 20th century Parisian avant-garde or his American years would have been equally apt themes for this prolific and underappreciated composer). But most of the work will be new and experimental, much of it featuring electronics and/or improvisation.

That brings us to Fred Frith, the 59-year-old-British art rocker -- a founder of the ‘70s band Henry Cow and a longtime collaborator with Brian Eno -- who became head of the music department at the beginning of the current term. He was hired 10 years ago as a professor of improvisation, a subject just beginning to gain currency in traditional music schools but a way of life at Mills since the late ‘40s, when Milhaud encouraged Brubeck to apply his formal training to jazz.


For some time now, barriers between traditional composition and improvisation have been nonexistent at Mills, Frith said. “The fact is, all the professors at Mills deal with improvisation and composition. We all also do electronics. We all cross over into each other’s area, which is unique.”

Consider David Harrington, the first violinist and founder of Kronos. For him, Mills meant meeting Riley, who began turning his improvisational style into what is now a significant body of fully composed work for the quartet. Harrington said recently from his San Francisco studio that Kronos is rehearsing a major new Riley quartet, which it will perform at Disney Hall next season. Fondly reminiscing about Kronos’ residency at Mills, he said the group got there about the time Elvis died and bade farewell five years later with an only-at-Mills event that featured a musical robot called Elvik singing James Brown’s “Sex Machine” to the accompaniment of the four string players.

Frith, though, cautioned against becoming too caught up in Mills’ past. “When I first got here, I was a little overwhelmed by the history,” he said, seated at an antique table in his Spanish-style office, where a large bust of Milhaud occupied one corner. “It tended to be thrust on the students how privileged they were to be in an institution where all these famous people had been, and that was sometimes not psychologically helpful.”

Then again, someone has to tell them. “I have never lived in an urban area with so little coverage of new music,” Frith complained. “There is more interest from European newspapers than from our own media.”

Call it: ‘sound art’

There is certainly no escaping history in the renovated hall, with its striking mythological murals glowing as if newly painted. But I don’t recall students or composers ever paying the murals much heed when I was there, and that may still be the case. During my visit, a composition class was in progress. A young man came onstage with a suitcase, pulled out various electronic components and began wiring them up and making peculiar noises as if he were, yet again, reinventing music.


That, of course, is the school’s real tradition. For all the decades of adventures in technology, the CCM studios are as funky as ever, full of old furniture and aging equipment. The ideas are what’s new. Oliveros, a founder of the San Francisco Tape Music Center and the first director of the CCM, is teaching again at Mills, but now over the Internet from upstate New York. In so doing, she’s helping develop a form of online network music, which looks to be the next big thing in electronic music and improvisation.

Even more radical is that Mills is accepting a generation of rebellious composers who adamantly object to being called composers. “They’ve grown up with computers,” Frith explained. “They don’t think of what they produce as music, and they are quite vociferous about that.”

In part, Frith figures, they are trying to lose the baggage of the all-male, old conservatory model -- even as they carry their equipment in old suitcases. “Sound art” is a politically acceptable term for what they do.

Frith said he’s written music for 40 years and has no problem thinking of himself as a composer. But he appeared both bemused and intrigued by this new development. “Mills has always accommodated anything,” he said. As far as he’s concerned, “they can call themselves anything they want as long as they’re doing strong, personal, creative work in whatever medium they want to do it in.”

Ironically, now that this vociferously anti-history crowd has one of the loveliest and oldest halls in the West lovingly restored, the traditional media just might take notice. But if not, Frith noted, these young anti-composers are capable of reinventing the media too.