Is music over at Mills College?

Even Mills College’s concert hall is different.

Looming behind the stage is a huge, bright mural of forest opening over a deep blue lake. The roof is painted in geometric patterns and vivid colors. Gregorian chanting scores of frescos flanked the stage.

We are not in Sednet, the monochromatic Carnegie Hall. No, at Littlefield Concert Hall Mills, in Oakland, California, is a vibrant, even eccentric place, where it is clear from the surroundings that music outside the mainstream is not simply tolerated, but celebrated.

“There was a real atmosphere of comfort and support for whatever you wanted to do,” said composer David Rosenbom, who led the concert at Mills in 1980.

He now faces a possible end to the electronics-focused Center for Contemporary Music between the program and the most prestigious havan for experimental work in America in the last century. The college was established in 1852 on 17 March. Announced Financial problems arising from the coronovirus epidemic would mean the end of its history as a degree-granting institution, made up of an undergraduate women’s college and several co-graduate programs.

Pending approval by its Board of Trustees, the school is expected to be awarded its final degree in 2023. The proposed closure for the “Mills Institute” plan on the 135-acre campus has been announced, but the focus of such an institution – and whether it will involve art – is unclear.

For musicians and composers, the potential loss of the Mills program has come as a shocking setback, even though the college’s finances are volatile for the year. “I’m afraid it may be the worst case scenario, but I’m still devastated by the news,” said zenaist and musician Xena Parkins, who teaches there.

It has been a surprise run. For three decades beginning during World War II, the school’s faculty at Mills is practically an index of Maverick artists, including Derrick Milhoud; Leliano Berio, who came at the invitation of the millhood; Lu harrison, Which produced an American version of the Indonesian Gamelan Percussion Orchestra; “Deep listening” pioneer Pauline Oliveros; Robert Ashley, an innovator in opera; Terry Riley, Ancestor of Minimalism; Impressive musician and improvisation Anthony Braxton; James Fee, a saxophonist and clarinetist who works with electronic sounds; And Maggie Payne, a longtime director of the Center for Contemporary Music, has been Mills’s laboratory for electronic work since the 1960s, when Oliveros was its first leader.

Among alumni are Dave Brubeck, Steve Reich, John Bischoff, William Winant and Letitia Sonmi; Many alumni returned to teach after graduation.

“Was Mills College unique,” said Riley, who taught there from 1971 to 1981. “I have never encountered any other institution like this in my travels.”

Mills’ defining feature was his own understanding of the community. Despite the inclusion of all the well-known names, the notion was influenced that the music is not composed by genius alone, but by people working together.

Fred Frith, whose career includes avant-garde rock and idiosyncratic improvisations and who retired from Mills in 2018, said, “Music is essentially a collaborative activity, and if I’m going to teach improvisation or composition without real hands I am – Then participation, then we are going to remember everything.

In the first half of the 20th century, when musicians such as John Cage became associated with the school, Mills developed a reputation for nonconformity. The display drove the gamut from traditional appliances to electronic cleaners to vacuum cleaners, clock coils, and other found objects. Riley misses his opening performance “In C,” His open-ended classic from 1964, on which the audience danced in the streets. Letitia Sonmi remembers taking singing lessons with the master Indian singer Pandit Pran Nath, Relay to Guru and others.

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

The presence of Robert Ashley, a guide from 1969 to 1981, fueled that sentiment. Although the fundamentally open sensibility faded as the years passed, Mills maintained his reach through frequent appearances in Oakland and many areas around it.

“One of the amazing things about Mills is the rich music community that makes it all over the Bay Area,” said musician Sarah DeVacci, who graduated in 2012.

As the personal computer revolution took hold in nearby Silicon Valley, experiments with home-brown electronics and microcomputers such as David Behrman were common at Mills, where technology had long been at home through the Center for Contemporary Music. Critical Moments Were Over: As a student in the ’70s, John Bischoff remembers running into David Tudor, famous as an ally of John Cage, in the hallway and assisting in recording Tudor’s work Being asked to do.Microphone“William Winant stated that he had found an original instrument created by the composer and discovered by inventor Harry Parch hidden under the stage in the concert hall.

“It seems like utopia: an environment where students are encouraged, and given the support they need to pursue any and all ideas that are free from the rigorous pressures of capitalism , “Said Seth Horwitz, an electronic musician who created the record. The name emerged.

The students built their own instruments and sound installations, enthusiastic by the freedom to do what they wanted. “We commanded every square inch of the music studio and the surrounding areas,” said composer Ben Bracken, inviting friends to perform in inflatable bubbles, setting up rogue installations in the courtyards, hallways and hidden rooms, Screened Kenegar Anger films at the Amphitheater. With the live studio accompaniment, Mog Studio is a late night bleed in the morning. “

But the pressure on institutions of higher education across the country, which have intensified in recent decades, did not leave the mills. In 2017, as a cost-cutting measure, it began closing some tenured faculty. Renowned musician and multi-instrumentalist Roscoe Michel learned that he was not being renewed – news that met the experimental music community the day he arrived. (Mitchell’s contract was eventually extended, but he opted to retire.) In 2019, the college sold a rare copy of Shakespeare’s First Folio for just $ 10 million, and a Mozart manuscript for an undisclosed sum. But the damage continued – and then came epidemics.

Many musicians said they were concerned about the fate of Mills’ archives. Maggie Payne said it included more than 2,000 tapes of performances, lectures and interviews with scores, letters and synthesizers – and hundreds of percussion instruments owned by Lou Harrison.

The current chairman of the music department, David Bernstein, said the archives would be protected. “We’ve been working on this project for a long time,” he said. “And yes, Mills has tools of significant historical importance. We are very worried about his fate. Most of all, they should not be stored, but are used by students interested in discovering new sounds and different musical cultures. And they should also be played by virtuous artists, as they are right now. “

But if Mills’ future is unclear, Roscoe Mitchell said, it does not have a legacy. It will stay on “more time than you and I”.

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

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