By Marc Masters · April 12, 2021
When he started teaching at Mills College in the late 1990s, Fred Frith already had an extensive resume. He had founded British avant-rock pioneers Henry Cow and collaborated with legends such as Richard Thompson, Brian Eno, and John Zorn. Yet he still found himself intimidated by Mills’ status as a breeding ground for inventive and influential experimental musicians. As he later told the L.A. Times, “When I first got here, I was a little overwhelmed by the history.”
It’s hard to blame him. The musical legacy of Mills College is dauntingly vast. Just listing all the artists who have passed through as students and professors—figures as diverse as Terry Riley, Laurie Anderson, Phil Lesh, and Joanna Newsom—could take days. That’s why the Oakland school’s recent decision to stop accepting new pupils after 2021, and cease granting degrees after 2023, sent shockwaves through avant-garde music circles. Mills (whose undergraduates are solely women, but whose graduate program is co-ed) has birthed so much fascinating work, it’s hard to imagine what American experimental music over the past 100 years would sound like without it.
Founded in 1852, Mills College got its first burst of musical attention in the 1930s, when composers Henry Cowell and John Cage worked in the dance department. Soon after, Cowell’s student Lou Harrison became a Mills professor and heavily influenced the music program via his interest in non-Western music. Between the ‘40s and ‘70s, French composer Darius Milhaud, Italian composer Luciano Berio, and American composer Morton Subotnick all held key roles at Mills, leading students such as Steve Reich, who earned his MA there in 1966. That same year, a burgeoning collective of innovators called the San Francisco Tape Music Center joined the college, becoming the Mills Tape Music Center, with Pauline Oliveros as its inaugural director. Later renamed the Center for Contemporary Music (CCM), its directors have included iconoclasts Robert Ashley, David Behrman, and Maggie Payne, while its faculty has boasted jazz greats Anthony Braxton and Roscoe Mitchell. The student body, too, has made recent advances in electronic music; notable alumnae include Kevin Blechdom, Blevin Blectum, and Holly Herndon. Such diversity of ideas means that music at Mills is always changing, so there’s no “Mills sound” per se. Yet many of these artists have worked together, hybridizing their singular styles into new forms. “We all cross over into each other’s areas,” said Frith, “which is unique.” So perhaps there is some kind of Mills aesthetic, if openness to all approaches can itself be an approach.
For a sense of the breadth and depth of work that Mills has inspired, here’s a chronological selection of releases from Mills-associated artists.
Before the San Francisco Tape Music Center arrived at Mills, they commissioned synthesizer inventor Don Buchla to create a modular synth specifically for them. In her year-long stint as director, Oliveros dedicated much of her time to this instrument, combining it with her tape delay system to compose “Beautiful Soop” in 1966 and “Alien Bog” in 1967. Both are filled with otherworldly sounds, with the latter inspired in part by noises from the frog pond that sat just outside Oliveros’ window at Mills.
David Behrman, Paul DeMarinis, Fern Friedman, Terri Hanlon, Anne Klingensmith
Behrman was director of the CCM when he and Paul Demarinis spearheaded the conceptual piece She’s More Wild…, recorded in 1981 in the CCM studio. Centered on a text written by Fern Friedman and Terri Hanlon, the performance features dramatic and sometimes absurd spoken word (at one point voiced by future CCM director, Maggi Payne). Touching on themes loosely associated with California and the West, the words were accompanied by instruments created by Berhman and DeMarinis (including his circuit-bent Speak & Spell, a child’s learning toy morphed into raucous word clatter). Unpredictable and inimitable, this record sounds like nothing else in Mills’ orbit, yet it feels oddly like the score to a lost CCM biopic.
“Blue” Gene Tyranny and Peter Gordon
Robert Nathan Sheff (aka “Blue” Gene Tyranny) was a professor at Mills when he and Peter Gordon—a former Mills graduate student—led a series of concerts in 1976, the last of which is documented on this 2019 archival album. Disillusioned with new classical music, Tyranny and Gordon were gravitating toward rock, something they had roots in (Tyranny was a member of Iggy Pop’s pre-Stooges band, The Prime Movers), hence the title Trust in Rock and the heavy-riff structures of the songs, performed by a group that included Mills students. Yet these are far from standard rock ’n’ roll tunes, especially Tyranny’s pieces, which include two 20-minute epics whose repetitive blues-based figures feel like drunken mantras.
Currently teaching instrument building at Mills College, Daniel Schmidt has married the tradition of Javanese gamelan to American minimalism since the 1970s. He created his own gamelan instrument in the early part of that decade, and formed a group to play it that he called the Berkeley Gamelan. Taken from his cassette archives, In My Arms, Many Flowers features recordings from 1978 through 1982, including one in which Schmidt uses an early digital sampler owned by Pauline Oliveros. Thoughtful and hypnotic, Schmidt’s pieces take gamelan as a launching point toward uncharted sonic territory.
Starting as a student at Mills in 1972, Payne later joined the faculty and eventually co-directed the CCM from 1992 to 2018. Ahh-Ahh was composed in the mid-’80s, in collaboration with video artist Ed Tannenbaum, who Payne says wanted sounds of water, snakes, and whips. Filled with buzzes, repetitions, and fading sounds, Payne’s pieces certainly evoke an outdoor scene. But they’re also, by turns, internal—like listening to your own nervous system—and out of this world.
Percussionist William Winant’s career has taken him all over the place: he was in Steve Reich’s early ensembles; toured with avant-pop band Oingo Boingo; collaborated with Roscoe Mitchell and John Zorn; and has taught at Mills since 1982. Five American Percussion Pieces was recorded between 1976 and 2013, covering works by American composers, including two by Lou Harrison. Each track is a reverent but blood-filled exploration of tones and rhythms, peaking in the waves of James Tenney’s ironically-titled “Having Never Written a Note for Percussion.”
Fred Frith and Chris Brown
Master composers, improvisers, and instrumentalists, Frith and Brown held long tenures at Mills until both retired in 2018. Cutter Heads was recorded in the early ’00s at Mills’ Concert Hall, and finds Frith’s guitars and Brown’s piano alternately swerving around each other and coagulating into shared frequencies. Particularly interesting are the pieces in which Frith slashes at his acoustic guitar, flitting around Brown’s impulsive chords like a bee circling a flower.
Studying under Oliveros, Payne, and Frith, Gregg Kowalsky received an MFA from Mills in 2005. A year later, after recovering from heart surgery, he released his debut album Through the Cardial Window on Chicago label Kranky. Blending prepared guitar drones with less conventional techniques (at one point he runs a recording of a Mills ensemble through a guitar pickup), Kowalsky creates meditative songs that feel both laser-focused and infinitely deep.
After some time in Berlin surrounded by electronic club music, Holly Herndon journeyed to Mills to study in 2008. There, she immersed herself in software-based soundcraft, beginning work on her debut album Movement not long before graduating. Released in 2012, the album reflects her dance music past and her academic curiosity, mixing beats and blips with swirling abstractions often driven by the sound of her own voice. On one piece, “Breathe,” she literally works with her own exhales, cutting and rearranging them into shards of sound and echo.
Over the past decade, Sarah Davachi has made a wealth of interesting electro-acoustic music along the edges of drone, ambience, and classical. You can hear the seeds of that work in her first release, 2013’s The Untuning of the Sky, some of which was recorded at Mills College while she completed an MFA. Using Buchla, Serge, ARP, and Mellotron synths, Davachi concocts dense soundworlds that hang in the air yet constantly move forward.
Cellist and composer Tomeka Reid started at Mills in 2019, just before she released her second album, Old New, as a bandleader. In some ways, it plays like a duo album, as Reid’s cello and Mary Halvorson’s guitar cross paths and trade jabs. Backed by bassist Jason Roebke and drummer Tomas Fujiwara, Reid and Halvorson run through breathless figures with precision and adrenaline, diving into improvisations before returning with vigor to Reid’s sharp themes.
Ana Roxanne’s second album, Because of a Flower, came out in 2020, but the first two tracks were composed when she attended Mills in the early 2010s. “Untitled” is a short voice-only piece whose overlapping words set the album’s scene; “A Study in Vastness” mixes floating tones with lofty, wordless singing. Other portions of the album continue the analog-synth explorations that Roxanne began at Mills, and every moment of this and her first release, ~ ~ ~, demonstrate the kind of probing vision that her alma mater is known for supporting.