For Margaret Lyon, a recipient of the B.A. and M.A. degrees from Mills College, the Ph. D. from U. C. Berkeley, a faculty member at Mills beginning in 1939, and its Music Department head from 1955 to 1979.
"There was a dancer there, Marian van Tuyl--from the school of Martha Graham. John Cage and Lou Harrison were writing for her...that's more or less where Cage really got his start." Arthur Berger1
"Ashley moved to California to become director of the Mills College Center for Contemporary Music in 1969. The center had been founded in San Francisco in the early sixties and was the real fount of this sort of experimental music in the country." John Rockwell: All American Music2
"Cole Gage, in Sonic Transports: New Frontiers in Our Music, establishes Cage as his freedom coordinate, Harry Partch as his technical coordinate, and Ives, Rudyar, and Ashley as landmarks. Having outlined his universe, he then locates his favorite new musicians within it: Glenn Branca, Fred Frith, "Blue" Gene Tyranny and the Residents." Kyle Gann3
The Mills Seminary for young ladies opened in 1850. To promote refinement, it made attendance at chapel compulsory, instituted courses in French and Music and moved from Benecia to new quarters cloistered by the Oakland hills. It was accredited as a College in 1894 and began admitting male post-graduates in 1926, swelling its enrollment to 600 students. That this enlightened convent would become America's leading center of new music during the second half of the twentieth century was inconceivable. That it, in fact, did is impossible to dispute.
Two generations earlier Paris, led by Satie and Stravinsky, had produced neoclassicism, the world's mainstream style beginning in the twenties. In 1950, neoclassicism was replaced by serialism, a process invented in 1913 by Vienna-born Arnold Schoenberg. By 1975 serialism had been supplanted by minimalism, a repetitive music initiated by Terry Riley's In C in November 1964 (at the San Francisco Tape Center, an electronic music studio co-directed by Mills alumni Morton Subotnick and Ramon Sender) and codified by It's Gonna Rain, a piece written two months later by graduate Steve Reich.
From that point on, the direction of American music has been prescribed to the largest extent by composers associated with Mills College. Fulfilling several serialist tendencies and discarding the rest, minimalism rehabilitated consonance and pulse and made concert-hall fare as accessible as it had been during the time of Haydn, who once had to be guarded from public adulation by a squadron of twelve mounted policemen.
Stockhausen showed its influence. So did popular music groups like U2 in Ireland, Tangerine Dream in Germany, and the Mothers of Invention in the United States. The Who performed a piece named Baba O'Reilly and The New Grove Dictionary of American Music called Reich one of the most imitated composers in the second half of the twentieth century.
When minimalism's impact lessened in the late eighties, it was followed by an eclectic music pioneered by Mills graduate William Bolcom and a de facto minimalism (using speech as its primary sound source) developed by Robert Ashley, a Mills faculty member from 1969 to 1981. In November 1992 the New York Times described Bolcom as "America's leading post-modernist composer." In August 1987 The Village Voice said that "the musician whose music most feels post-modern...is Robert Ashley.")
... Indeed, however much minimalism realized the tendencies of serialism to achieve stasis and undergo permutation, it continued to elaborate an American experimental style which had first appeared around 1915 in the piano pieces written by Henry Cowell in a Menlo Park shanty and was thereafter evolved by Cowell himself and his disciples John Cage and Lou Harrison.
All three taught at Mills for short periods (though Harrison returned for an extended time in the eighties). But because each of them took up significant aspects of the new aesthetic during those periods, the campus became the music's first real platform. (Cowell started teaching at Mills in the summer of 1933 and did his first large percussion piece, Ostinato Pianissimo, in 1934. His first indeterminate piece, the Mosaic Quartet, was written in 1935. Cage put together a percussion ensemble in 1938--the year he joined the Mills summer session faculty--and experimented with musique concr‚te in 1939. Harrison's first work for percussion, Canticle No. l, was composed for the Dance Department in 1939.) The College had bargained for considerably less: Cage, for instance, had been hired to provide accompaniments for Bonnie Bird's visiting Seattle dance group and a Mills troupe led by Marian Van Tuyl. To do so, he made use of percussion instruments which lent themselves to keeping time and were easily played by him, the dancers, and passersby. Thereafter--in his 1940 Mills concert--he exchanged a triangle for a can filled with birdshot (which invoked pure noise) and the dancers for displays of light (which removed his work from the realm of accompaniment). The process which transformed world music in the second half of the twentieth century began right there, at the moment the exchanges were made.
What marked the new American experimentalism, (distinguishing it from the works of Charles Ives, for example), was its interest in transethnicity and dada, traits pioneered by Darius Milhaud, a French composer who used a percussion orchestra in 1915, counterpointed slow and fast motion in his 1919 ballet Le Boeuf sur le toit, wrote a shimmy in 1920, invented a chance process in 1921, used electronics in 1922, and took up teaching duties at Mills in September of 1940, two months after Cage had left.
Sometime thereafter, Leland Smith, one of Milhaud's first Mills students, became a leading figure in the use of technology. His classmate, Pete Rugolo, won an Emmy Award. Graduates William Bolcom and Richard Wernick won Pulitzer Prizes. So did Leon Kirchner, who joined the faculty in 1952. Dave Brubeck was voted the world's most popular jazz player. One critic called ex-student clarinetist Bill Smith the greatest jazz soloist since Charlie Parker. Others said faculty saxophonist Anthony Braxton was. Tom Constanten and Phil Lesh became past and present members of a celebrated rock and roll group called the Grateful Dead.
When an article by John Rockwell in the July 27, 1980 New York Times listed the fifteen most significant compositions of the sixties, a fourth of them proved to be works by College graduates or former staff members--Riley, Reich, Oliveros, and Berio. Of the ten pieces he called the greatest works of the seventies, three were written by Mills-related composers--Behrman, Reich, and Ashley.