For more than 60 years, the music department at Mills College has played a crucial role in the evolution of contemporary music.
By Derk Richardson
BEN GOLDBERG LEADS his Brainchild big band, which includes members of Mr. Bungle, T.J. Kirk, Alphabet Soup, and Rova Saxophone Quartet, at Beanbender's in Berkeley. Miya Masaoka blows away the audience with a brilliant improvisation on the Japanese koto at the Asian American Jazz Festival in San Francisco. Conductor Michael Tilson Thomas leads the San Francisco Symphony in its performance of Lou Harrison's Canticle No. 3 for strummed guitar, ocarina, and percussion. Meanwhile, Terry Riley celebrates the 30th anniversary of his path breaking composition In C with an all-star ensemble; avant-garde saxophonist-composer Anthony Braxton reinvents himself as a pianist in a student-faculty rehearsal room; and John Santos and the Machete Ensemble perform the Afro-Cuban jazz arrangements of Rebeca Mauleon in an ornate concert hall built in 1928.
If asked to connect the dots among such disparate musical events, most people probably would throw up their hands in confusion, and they certainly would not reach to a small private East Bay campus for their pencils. But careful tracing of the invisible lines stretching from one artist to the next -- with Glenn Spearman, John Cage, Pandit Pran Nath, Steve Reich, Luciano Berio, and others thrown in for left turns and punctuation -- would spell out the Mills College music department.
Bridging the gap For 60 years the music program at Mills has nurtured progressive developments in contemporary music, from the percussion-rich compositions of Harrison and Cage to the operas of Harry Partch and Robert Ashley. Jazz giant Dave Brubeck and new-music composer Steve Reich both were Mills students. And since the establishment of the Center for Contemporary Music (CCM) in 1966, Mills has harbored many of the foremost innovators in electronic and computer music as well, including Morton Subotnick, Pauline Oliveros, Maggi Payne, "Blue" Gene Tyranny, Larry Polansky, David Rosenboom, Chris Brown, John Bischoff, and Alvin Curran.
Many academic institutions across the country and around the world can boast impressive numbers of big names among their faculty and graduates. What sets Mills apart is not only its prominence in the American experimentalist tradition, but also its position as an important though often overlooked hub in the Bay Area creative-music community. Unlike the chasm that separates, say, most university political science departments from grassroots organizing work and day-to-day electoral campaigns, the gap between Mills and the nightly scene at Hotel Utah, Radio Valencia, Coffeehead, or the Stork Club is merely the physical distance from those clubs to the campus, at the intersection of the MacArthur and Warren freeways.
For instance, during its first 15 years as an autonomous department, before it was integrated into the music department, the CCM served as a crucial resource for electronic musicians, providing public access to studios equipped with synthesizers and recording devices that most people could not afford to buy. The 68-year-old Mills College Concert Hall has been the site of countless memorable performances: in the past year alone the music department's concert series has presented Pauline Oliveros, Christian Wolff, the Glenn Spearman-Marco Eneidi Creative Music Orchestra, Ikue Mori, the Abel-Steinberg-Winant Trio, and a historic John Cage festival. And outside musicians often book the stage for special events, as did Larry Ochs last year for the U.S. premiere and recording of his epic composed and improvised piece, "The Secret Magritte."
More significantly, in recent years students and graduates from the advanced degree programs at Mills have exerted a vital presence in the music community at large. Some, such as Miya Masaoka and Ben Goldberg, are familiar names. Since receiving her M.A. in composition in spring 1994, Masaoka has performed regularly here and abroad, playing with Pharoah Sanders, Cecil Taylor, and Steve Coleman, and designing extraordinary projects such as live concerts with amplified beehives.
Clarinetist Goldberg has been a prime mover on the local scene for several years -- in the New Klezmer Trio, Clarinet Thing, Snorkel, and other groups. At 36, Goldberg has plugged into the Mills pipeline; he just completed his first year toward a master's in composition at the idyllic Oakland campus.
Others are on the verge of becoming equally well known in progressive jazz, avant-garde classical, and improvised music circles. Take cellist Danielle DeGruttola, who presented her master's concert, titled "Improvising the Form," in the Mills concert hall last April. For her finale she was joined on stage by improv heavyweights pianist Greg Goodman, guitarist Henry Kaiser,and percussionist Lukas Ligeti. Her public profile continues to grow larger this month as she performs in the Zen Disaster band with Kaiser, Ligeti, and guitarist Chris Muir (June 12 at Beanbender's), and with Kaiser, Goodman, and Masaoka to improvise a soundtrack to the Teinosuke Kinugasa silent film A Page of Madness (June 14 at the Pacific Film Archive).
Likewise Dana Reason, a 28-year-old classically trained pianist who, since finishing her first year of graduate studies at Mills, has been gigging around town with bassist Lisle Ellis (in Children of Peril and Starecase) and with Goldberg in his Brainchild. She has also recorded her own unreleased CD, Primal Identity. Reason based her move from Montreal to Oakland on the strength of the Mills music department's reputation, and she has not been disappointed. "I had known that this was not a regular music school," she says. "I'd heard you could come here and develop your own music. That's what it's about: innovation. I wanted to come to a place where the faculty understood that lots of different kinds of music exist on the planet and that there are people who want the space to develop their own voice. Mills is that kind of environment. Your job is not to come and do someone else's stuff; it's to come and figure out what is your voice. "Among the highlights of her first year Reason counts working with composer Alvin Curran ("It was a composition course, but he would listen to my improvisations as compositions"); studying piano with Julie Steinberg; learning from Chris Brown how to use the recording studio as a creative medium ("I got to try a wonderful experiment with electronics -- it was a flop, but hey, I got to do it"); interacting with such musical heroes as Pauline Oliveros, Marilyn Crispell, and Cecil Taylor; and surveying contemporary-music theorists with chair David Bernstein. "This is how cool Mills is," Reason says. "I walk into David's office and he says, 'Oh, you've gotta check out this CD!' It's this duo concert recording by [pianists] Marilyn Crispell and Irene Schweizer, and here's the chairman listening to this and tripping on it. That's pretty hip, right? That's what Mills is all about. These people are examples -- performers and composers doing what they know how to do."
Miya Masaoka expands on Reason's point. "The great thing about Mills is that there's not a lot of academic fat there," she says."The people who are on the faculty there are respected working artists, and it makes such a difference. Often people's careers in academia affect their perspective on the art, and somehow that hasn't happened at Mills. The faculty members are cutting-edge artists who are doing new and different things in their fields. It just makes everything they teach relevant and applicable to being an artist. Mills is really exceptional in that respect."
Crossing class lines
That Mills College, nestled in its sylvan setting at the foot of the Oakland hills, should be an incubator of musical radicalism strikes a seemingly dissonant chord with the patrician tenor of its origins. Founded in 1852 as the Young Ladies Seminary of Benicia, the school curriculum did include music during its earliest years. The seminary relocated to Brooklyn Park, on the outskirts of Oakland, around 1870, and by the time it was chartered as a degree-granting College for Women in 1885 it offered, according to an account by Dr. Margaret Lyon (music department chair, 1955-1979), "music instruction unmatched on the West Coast." Under Prussian emigrant Louis Lisser, a Conservatory of Music was established in 1894, but the academic and Eurocentric tone was reflected in the narrow range of instruction -- piano, voice, violin, chorus, organ, musical history and theory, and elocution.
During a recent roundtable interview in the office of the chair, David Bernstein and faculty members Maggi Payne and Chris Brown discussed the enlargement of Mills from an institution educating sophisticated young women of wealth to one hosting many of the world's most innovative musical artists. They also talked about the environment that keeps attracting top flight students.
"Things really started to take off in the 1930s," says Bernstein, a native New Yorker who arrived at Mills in 1989 with a Ph.D. from Columbia University in music theory and historical musicology. "The college became known for holding what they called Summer Sessions in the Creative Arts, which brought people like Henry Cowell and Lou Harrison to the faculty. The Pro Arte String Quartet and the Budapest String Quartet were in residence back then; John Cage was an accompanist for the dance department in 1938; and the atmosphere began to take on an aesthetic devoted to experimentalism.
"With the arrival of French composer Darius Milhaud in 1940, the budding experimentalism at Mills took deeper root and continued to blossom for the 30 years of his tenure. An activist in the Parisian avant-garde, Milhaud had experimented with indeterminacy and noise, presaging the work of the composers and students who would find a haven for their own radicalism at Mills. "Even though he was writing conservative music while he was here," Bernstein says, "he was really open-minded, and he was even interested in electronic music." Brown says, "Milhaud had a pretty wide spectrum of styles that he dabbled in. He had interests in all kinds of music from other cultures, so I'm sure he was interested in allowing a lot of that to flourish instead of stamping it out, which you may have found somewhere else."
A Chicago native, Brown migrated to the West Coast to attend UC Santa Cruz and followed his instrument-building muse to Mills as a student in the early 1980s. Over the years Mills was blessed with an equally open-minded college president, Aurelia Reinhardt, and with Milhaud's successor as music department head, Margaret Lyon, who served from 1945 to 1979.
But Brown, who performs and records with Room, the Glenn Spearman Double Trio, and the Hub, notes that geography contributed significantly to the Mills musical environment." Being on the West Coast, away from the European tradition, enabled it to foster this kind of maverick experimentalist aesthetic," he says. A liberal attitude toward new music and a Pacific Rim location conspired to give Mills its unique artistic edge, attracting and influencing innovators from all over the world.
In 1975 the college endowed the Darius Milhaud Chair in Composition; the chair has been filled by Lou Harrison, Iannis Xenakis, Anthony Braxton, and Alvin Curran, among others. In the early '90s an artist-in-residence program was made possible by a gift from Mills trustee Dodie Rosekrans; it has brought such musicians as Maryanne Amacher, George Lewis, and Christian Wolff to the campus.
Exploring the future
Perhaps the single greatest milestone in the history of music at Mills was the 1966 establishment of the CCM, founded in 1961 as the Tape Music Center by Ramon Sender and Morton Subotnick. When it relocated from its bohemian, do-it-yourself digs on Divisadero Street in San Francisco to the Mills College campus -- aided by a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation -- the CCM became an international focus of electronic music, emphasizing composition and performance rather than pure research. Pauline Oliveros was the center's first director, preceding Anthony Gnazzo, Robert Ashley, David Behrman, David Rosenboom, and currently, codirectors Chris Brown and Maggi Payne.
Today the CCM is decked out with state-of-the-art digital-recording and processing equipment, but it still houses an antique Moog and even one of that instrument's predecessors, the first analog synthesizer, invented by Don Buchla.
While the gear can be impressive, it is the broad aesthetic that attracts an annual enrollment of 25 to 30 graduate students (and an equal number of undergraduate music majors) each year. "They know they'll have a chance to do things here that they might not be able to do other places," Brown says, "and that they'll be encouraged to follow their own direction."
Miya Masaoka confirms that she was drawn to Mills for just such reasons. "Of all the institutions offering higher degrees in music," she says, "it's one of the few that recognizes non-Western musical instruments being deployed in different ways within various contexts, and one of the handful of institutions that really recognize improvisation as having some kind of role in contemporary music."
Bernstein, who is compiling an oral history of music at Mills with Payne, adds that even in the 1940s, Darius Milhaud believed that young musicians needed to "find their own voice" instead of cloning themselves in the image of their mentors -- an attitude that Payne notes was "pretty unusual for an old master." Consequently, there is no formal aesthetic or strict "school" of music at Mills; rather, it's a collegial gathering of individuals pursuing their own muses in what Lou Harrison calls "the model of Thomas Jefferson's academical community."
"A lot them come here to study art, to be artists -- and that's really a risk in this day and age," Bernstein says of Mills music students. "I'm impressed by that. They come here, and they're going to go out and try to be artists and not just try to get a gig teaching at an institution."
Like other members Mills faculty, Maggi Payne has been able to do both. After completing her first master's at the University of Illinois at Champagne-Urbana, Payne asked composer Gordon Mumma where she should continue her studies. "He said, 'You just have to go to Mills, that's it,' " Payne says. That was in 1970. Two years later Payne received Mills's first M.F.A. in electronic music and recording media, and she has taught at the college ever since. But she has also performed and installed her video- and electronic-music compositions throughout the United States and has worked extensively as a recording engineer, most recently recording Julie Steinberg's performances of John Cage's sonatas and interludes.
Today Mills offers three master's degrees -- in composition, electronic music and recording media, and performance and literature. The fact that fellowships are rare does not deter most applicants. "They will go for freedom over money every time," Payne says.
That was the case with Ben Goldberg. "A musician's life can be pretty stressful," the clarinetist says. "Just the basic anxiety of wondering how you're going to pay the rent next month wears on you. Of course paying for school doesn't help that at all. But for me Mills is like a sanctuary. Just the physical campus itself is incredibly beautiful; you go through those gates and it just feels like you can breathe freely for a moment.""From the perspective of a musician's life in general -- booking the gig, trying to organize the rehearsal, writing the music, practicing instruments -- sometimes it's hard to find time for reflection," Goldberg continues, "which actually is very important in an artist's life, particularly if you're trying to progress. Now I'm taking classes dealing with topics that are important to me but in ways that were relatively unfamiliar before. It feels like a privilege to be invited to think and talk about certain aspects of music with Christian Wolff, Chris Brown, and David Bernstein --these are guys who really know what they're talking about. I was looking for school to be kind of an ally, and now it's more a part of my musical world."
Today Michael Tilson Thomas introduces Davies Symphony Hall audiences to the compositions of Milhaud, Harrison, and Henry Cowell, finally granting formal acknowledgment to the significant developments that have taken place at Mills. Meanwhile Goldberg and his small circle of colleagues, who double as students and working musicians, as well as such faculty members as William Winant and Glenn Spearman, are adding their own insights and innovations to the legacy, deconstructing the concept of the academic ivory tower, and enhancing the conversation between Mills and the rest of the musical world.
New frontiers: The core team at Mills College's Center for Contemporary Music (clockwise from top left): David Bernstein, Maggi Payne, David Madole, John Bischoff, and Chris Brown. GUARDIAN PHOTO BY MARK MADEO