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NY Times: Is the Music Over at Mills College?

 In Other Minds News

(read the full article on NY Times here)

Is the Music Over at Mills College?

A hotbed of experimental sound for nearly a century, this school in Oakland, Calif., is preparing to close its doors. ()

Fred Frith, whose career has included avant-garde rock and idiosyncratic improvisations and who retired from Mills in 2018 after many years there, said, “Music is essentially a collaborative activity, and if I’m going to teach improvisation or composition without real hands-on involvement, then we’re all going to miss out on something.”

In the first half of the 20th century, when composers like John Cage became associated with the school, Mills developed a reputation for nonconformity. Performances ran the gamut from traditional instruments to obscure electronics to vacuum cleaners, clock coils and other found objects. Riley recounted an early performance of “In C,” his open-ended classic from 1964, at which the audience was dancing in the aisles. Laetitia Sonami recalled taking singing lessons with the master Indian vocalist Pandit Pran Nath, guru to Riley and others.

At that time, the program was practically public access. “In the 1970s, Mills was still like a community group,” said the composer Chris Brown, a former director of the Center for Contemporary Music. “It still had the idea that community members could come and use the studios.”

Robert Ashley, a guiding presence from 1969 to 1981, helped foster that spirit. Though the radically open sensibility faded as the years went by, Mills maintained a commitment to access through frequent performances in and around Oakland, many of them free.

“One of the amazing things about Mills is the rich musical community that it creates through the entire Bay Area,” said the composer Sarah Davachi, who graduated in 2012.

As the personal computer revolution was taking hold in the nearby Silicon Valley, experiments with home-brew electronics and microcomputers, like those of David Behrman, were common at Mills, where technology had long been at home through the Center for Contemporary Music. Serendipitous moments abounded: As a student in the ’70s, John Bischoff remembers running into David Tudor, renowned as a collaborator with John Cage, in the hallway and being asked to assist with recording Tudor’s work “Microphone.” William Winant said he found an original instrument built by the composer and inveterate inventor Harry Partch hidden under the stage in the concert hall.

“It felt like utopia: an environment where students are encouraged, and given the support they need, to pursue any and all ideas that came to mind, free from the stifling pressures of capitalism,” said Seth Horvitz, an electronic composer who records under the name Rrose.

Students built their own instruments and sound installations, exhilarated by the freedom to do what they wanted. “We commandeered every square inch of the music studio and surrounding areas,” said the composer Ben Bracken, “putting up rogue installations in the courtyards, hallways and hidden rooms, inviting friends to perform in inflatable bubbles, screening Kenneth Anger films in the amphitheater with live studio accompaniments, Moog studio late nights that bled into morning.

“What Mills College had was unique,” said Terry Riley, who taught there from 1971 to 1981. “I have never in my travels encountered another institution like it.”Credit…Diane Gilkerson, via Mills College

But pressures on institutions of higher education around the country, which have intensified in recent decades, did not spare Mills. In 2017, as a cost-cutting measure, it began laying off some tenured faculty. The celebrated composer and multi-instrumentalist Roscoe Mitchell learned his contract was not being renewed — news that was met with an outcry from the experimental music community. (Mitchell’s contract was eventually extended, but he chose to retire.) In 2019, the college sold a rare copy of Shakespeare’s First Folio at auction for just under $10 million, and a Mozart manuscript for an undisclosed sum. But the losses continued — and then came the pandemic.
Many musicians said they were concerned about the fate of Mills’s archives. Maggi Payne said it includes over 2,000 tapes of performances, lectures and interviews, along with scores, letters and synthesizers — and hundreds of percussion instruments owned by Lou Harrison.

David Bernstein, the current chair of the music department, said the archives would be protected. “We have been working on this project for quite some time,” he said. “And yes, there are instruments at Mills of significant historical importance. We are very concerned about their fate. Most of all, they should not be stored but used by students interested in exploring new sounds and different musical cultures. And they should also be played by virtuoso performers, as they are now.”

But if Mills’s future is unclear, Roscoe Mitchell said, its legacy is not. It will live on “much longer than you and I,” he said.

“It’s history,” Mitchell said. “It’s not going to go away.”

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