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“He’s high before teaching”: how Mills College gave birth to the boldest minds of music | Experimental music


I.In the late 1960s, Morton Subotnik’s groundbreaking electronic work Silver apples of the moon was both a classic bestseller and an underground sensation in a nightclub, having been recognized as the influence of Frank Zappa and Four Tet. But back in 1958, the first major public presentation of his work was not so smooth. He wrote a play for two people playing the same piano, and Subbotnik was convinced it was “really fresh”. The audience is smaller. By the third movement they were already becoming restless. The players on stage almost had to look them down. Eventually the crowd rose in fury, shouting on stage. The pianists ran for their lives.

Subbotnik has just graduated from Mills College in Auckland, California, and his former teacher, French composer in exile Darius Millo, helped organize the concert. Feeling sick to his stomach, Subbotnik spies on Mio in his place with tears in his eyes and apologizes for what he considers his teacher’s disappointment. “No, my dear,” Millo reassures him. “These are tears of joy. It reminds me of the old days. “

Originally founded as a seminary for young women in 1852, the humanities school was once home to innovation, experimentation and cunning blasting. And that has been the case ever since, bringing up some of the boldest musicians in the United States: Steve Reich, Lori Anderson, among alumni Holly Herndon and Phil Lesch of Grateful Dead; John Cage, Terry Riley and – cries have subsided – the Sabbath among teachers. But this legacy is under threat: in March last year, the college announced that it was suspending the admission of new students due to “reduced enrollment and budget deficits”.

The San Francisco Tape Music Center in the 1960s.  Left: Tony Martin, Bill Maginis, Ramon Sander, Morton Subbotnik and Pauline Oliveras.
The San Francisco Tape Music Center in the 1960s. Left: Tony Martin, Bill Maginis, Ramon Sander, Morton Subbotnik and Pauline Oliveras. Photo: provided by the CCM Archives, Mills College

Since then, a possible delay has come in the form of a proposed merger with the much larger Northeastern University in Boston, but Mills ’future remains uncertain. The current Department of Music David Bernstein tells me that he is “trying to talk to the right people … But it’s a steep climb. We will have to see. “

Meanwhile this week Bernstein is collecting four days of concerts called Music in the fault zone to celebrate the college’s radical history with music by everyone from current faculty members such as Zina Parkins and Maggie Payne, to such well-known honorees as Subbotnik, Mio, Cage and Roscoe Mitchell. “It seemed like a good time to raise awareness of what was going on in Mills,” Bernstein says. “And the best way is music.”

It was the fall of 1940 when Cage first began campaigning to establish an experimental music center in Mills. Earlier that year, the 28-year-old composer was hired as an accompanist for the college’s dance department and wrote to everyone, from renowned conductor Leopold Stakowski to Walt Disney, to enlist the support of a new music studio, ”. But despite enthusiasm from the college, which at the time was led by the then-visionary peace and women’s rights activist Aurelia Henry Reinhardt, Cage’s appeals eventually came to naught. At least at first.

Almost a quarter of a century later, in 1962, across the bay from Mills, Subbotnik founded the San Francisco Tape Music Center with Pauline Oliveras and his colleague, Mills graduate Ramon Sander, and he became an important center for countercultural music. Avant-garde works for colored lights and tropical fish were played in front of an audience scattered on sacks of beans; here was the premiere of Terry Rileyiconic minimalist work in C; The three-day Trips Festival at the Center was a beautiful hippie barn where thousands of LSD tabs were handed out to a crowd painted DayGlo dancing to the Grateful Dead. It was also the place where California-born Donald Buckle developed one of the world’s first modular synthesizers, a groundbreaking electronic instrument that brought a futuristic whirlwind of sound to modern-day meditation tapes and Coca-Cola advertising.

Robert Ashley performs That Morning Thing, circa 1969.
Robert Ashley performed That Morning Thing, circa 1969. Photo: provided by the CCM Archives, Mills College

However, charged due to financial problems, the founders of the Center turned to the Rockefeller Foundation to keep the wolf from the door. The application was successful, but with the proviso: “responsible fiscal agent” will enter as a partner. From here in 1966 he moved to Mills, and Oliveras became the first director. “Mills was very slow in deciding whether to stay or not,” Oliveras (who died in 2016) told me ten years ago, and she soon moved to another university. Bernstein finds these first days unfavorable, and Mills is anxiously rubbing against the “alternative essence of the Center’s tape,” but things have changed with the advent Robert Ashley.

A brave resident of the Midwest with a penchant for silk scarves, whose half-talk “teleoperas” of the 70s and 80s will change the genre, Ashley brought a new spirit. The composer, who received her Foreign Office there in 1970, before entering the faculty a year later, fondly recalls the “wonderful company” that Ashley insisted on. “It has always been aimed at developing a sense of community,” she says. “It was all about personal responsibility and cooperation – both within and between disciplines.”

This sensitivity persisted long after Ashley’s departure in 1981 – Roscoe Mitchell of the Jazz Department of the Art Ensemble of Chicago, who joined Mills in 2007, saw Ashley’s “giant influence” – but Ashley was not always the most orthodox of educators. Recognized composer Sarah Givera more recent graduate, one of her teachers at Mills said, “Ashley’s public appearances were very alarming, so before leading the class, he went out on the balcony of Moog’s studio and went up to calm down.”

Roscoe Mitchell’s own tenure came amid growing financial difficulties and tensions: an attempt to overthrow him was met with a huge public response, and he was finally reinstated, only to resign a year later. “I was ready to go after that,” Mitchell tells me. “It was like being a rat on a sinking ship or something.”

Sarah Giver.
Sarah Giver. Photo: Wild Bakhto

Today, Mills even more volatile. “There are so many unknowns,” Payne says, but she hopes they can continue what the whole idea has been all these years: experimentation and collaboration. In many schools, if you don’t write the way the professor writes, you may have problems. But in Mills, if you to do try to imitate us, then you’re in trouble. It has to come from you. ”

The giver remembers his teacher Alvin Lucie, who made the cornerstone of an American avant-garde composition such as I Am Sitting in a Room, and who made her “the greatest compliment I’ve ever received”. She dragged two pairs of huge cabinets with speakers into her car, and Lucie, she recalls, “sat there curled up in a blanket,” waiting to give a lecture. As the speakers tensed in her arms, she quickly explained her project, a play for organ and electronics that required mathematically tuned notes between the heights of the piano keyboard heights. “Wow,” Lucie replied, as did Mio to him, “it sounds like what we used to do in the old days.” I hope that the future generation will appear in Davacha, which will also be surprised.

The Music in the fault zone The concert series begins April 21 at Mills College

The caption to the photo was changed on April 21, 2022. Zina Parkins is a Mills teacher, not a student.

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