Maggi Payne strides through the Center for Contemporary Music at Mills College, an 88-year-old structure in the Spanish Colonial style, and recalls how the stairwell once made a wonderful echo chamber. And then, around the corner, how performance artist Jim Pomeroy installed two towering cylinders in the concert hall foyer in 1979; reversed commercial vacuums, mounted upon ladders, blew air across the rims while water rushed from one to the other through a valve. One rose in pitch while the other fell, and it was “intensely loud — it beat like crazy on the octaves,” remembers Payne, 70 with a shock of frizzy long hair. “And there was too much water, so we all got sprayed.”
After touring the Littlefield Concert Hall -- a 450-seat auditorium encircled by earthy frescoes and geometric ceiling tiles laid at rhythmic intervals -- the CCM co-director and decades-long campus fixture leads me to the door of her shoebox office and accidentally triggers a deafening alarm. “Welcome to Mills,” she shouts over the scree. “You want oscillators? We’ve got ‘em.”
The Center for Contemporary Music (CCM), established as the Mills Tape Music Center at Oakland’s historic liberal arts college 50 years ago, is a small institution with an outsized impact on the vanguard of 20th century music, boasting luminaries such as Robert Ashley, Steve Reich, Terry Riley, Pauline Oliveros, and Laurie Anderson among its graduates and faculty.
But CCM's esteemed pedigree cultivated over the last half-century belies a freewheeling atmosphere, where professors often work with students as peers and collaborators both on and off campus. This writer once chanced upon William Winant, the celebrated percussionist and Mills mainstay, leading an ensemble through Reich’s Drumming in an underground West Oakland venue. See, also, professor John Bischoff on YouTube playing San Francisco’s long-running, clandestine noise series Godwaffle Noise Pancakes. And last year, Pauline Oliveros collaborated with the Thingamajigs Performance Ensemble, led by former students of hers, on a site-specific piece at Mario Ciampi’s imposing brutalist structure in Berkeley.
The department’s pre-history -- CCM emerged in 1966 from the San Francisco Tape Music Center, the countercultural collective that commissioned the late Donald Buchla’s eponymous, groundbreaking synthesizer -- still colors a pedagogical emphasis on interdisciplinary collaboration, hands-on engineering, and aesthetic risk.
And CCM remains integral to the Bay Area experimental music community, in recent years launching alumni into the murky regional underground, further fields of academia, and critical acclaim alike. Graduates include Zachary James Watkins, guitarist in the idiom-resistant improvisational duo Black Spirituals; Madalyn Merkey, whose impressionistic, computer-music emulation of Oakland’s topography, Valley Girl, appeared in 2014; and Alexandra Buschman and Danishta Rivero of Las Sucias, who noisily retool reggaetón on this year’s riveting, deeply feminist ¡Salte del Medio!.
“The conceptual approach to music by many of the faculty was quite influential,” says Holly Herndon, who graduated in 2010 and continued studying at Stanford University while touring internationally in support of her lauded recordings for indie heavyweight 4AD, among other labels. Herndon’s music -- ravishing and abstract patchworks of corroding beats and peculiarly affecting samples and voice -- interrogates hallmarks of the digital age, such as surveillance and data mining. “It was less about the complexity or perfection of the musical idea and more about the conceptual idea, which is a more art-school than conservatory approach.”
Herndon remembers how, in a class with CCM co-director Chris Brown, students composed under austere conditions -- the first week, allotted only an input and output. “I used a broken boom box with a contact mic in its input, which created a crackling feedback and moan when I hovered over the speaker,” she says. “So it was a good exercise to try to create an interesting form, or narrative arc, as well as a performance of a piece of music with this limited palette. It helped people get over writing anxiety, and also this stumbling of needing the perfect setup, which I think can paralyze electronic musicians.”
Oliveros, 84, a composer-philosopher known for promoting a philosophical practice called Deep Listening, teaches via Skype and similarly challenges students with unusual scenarios. In the class just before we speak, for example, her students were oriented in the virtual world Second Life, taught by a guest lecturer how to make their avatars stroll, jump, and create sounds. Oliveros’ 1979 ensemble work "Rock Piece" directs participants to steadily clack two rocks, only without synchronizing to or rhythmically subdividing the pulse of other players. It turns out, she says, that the exercise transposes nicely to virtual reality.
“Next week, we’ll meet in Second Life and everyone will perform their own pieces,” Oliveros tells me. “It’s difficult to remain ahead of the curve, technologically, but Mills has done very well, especially considering the limitations as far as funding. Everyone is very resourceful and that, I think, is more important than anything — more than having the latest gadget.”
Indeed, a 50-year-old synthesizer looms prominently in the Mills mythology.
In 1961, Morton Subotnick and Ramon Sender founded a studio and venue called San Francisco Tape Music Center. (Oliveros, away for the founding, also played a central role.) A community organization that prized autonomy, inter-disciplinary experimentation, and public access, the Tape Music Center “avoided the sorts of orthodoxies that characterized the larger, more affluent studios,” writes David Bernstein, presently head of Mills’ music department, in a book on the center. “The facilities were modest; this led the composers to invent new sounds from everyday objects.”
In 1963, the Tape Music Center commissioned Donald Buchla to create what would become the “Buchla Box,” a voltage-control synthesizer enabled with sequencing and free of constricting, piano-like keyboards. Buchla, who died last month, discarded familiar interfaces and engineering terminology in favor of original, tactile controls and mystical descriptions aimed at uninhibited expression. In 1966, the Tape Music Center received a $200,000 Rockefeller Grant on the condition that it partner with an academic institution. When the center moved to Mills, Buchla’s machine came with it.
And there it remains. “I’ll explain filters,” Payne says, standing in front of the Buchla with a fistful of colorful patch cables like a Day-Glo bouquet. Conjuring sound from the modular array, she says, “Okay, so you can build your own storm,” and gestures toward the fluttering sine wave on a spectrometer. The signal grows dense and saturated. Payne smiles and, eliciting a skittish, pattering rhythm, adds, “I always joke that this is the sound of your upstairs neighbor.”
Like many prospective students, Payne arrived at Mills after exhausting a more traditional, conservatory route. She’d taken up flute as a child and studied at Northwestern University, Yale (“It was boring, so I bailed”), and finally Champaign Urbana in Illinois, which boasted a Moog module. “I was already into extended techniques on the flute and especially spatialization, but I’d hit a wall,” she says. “And then Gordon Mumma said I should go to Mills and study with Bob Ashley.
“When I got here, [then CCM co-director] William Maraldo opened the door to this Buchla room and said, ‘Go for it. You’ll be teaching this next week.’” After graduating in 1972, she accepted an offer to join the staff. “My whole upbringing was contests. You had to be first chair. Here, I could compete with myself.” Deadpan, Payne adds, “It also seemed like a good idea to have a female composer teaching at a women’s college.”
(Graduate programs at Mills are co-ed; in 1990, the board of trustees decided to admit male undergraduates but reversed course after sustained student protest.)
The Mills Tape Music Center, as it was originally known, inherited more than its predecessor’s equipment. Oliveros was the first director, and Payne still keeps a vintage rate sheet for rentals (“Buchla Synthesizer with 2-track recorder, technical assistance included” came at a friendly $2.50/hour) that illustrates how Mills carried forward the center’s original emphasis on public access.
“I could light candles and stay all night,” Suzanne Ciani tells me. The 70-year-old artist first encountered the Buchla, an instrument she’d use as a celebrated composer and sound designer in the ensuing decades, through CCM’s rental program in 1969 (although, she concedes, no one ever seemed to collect money). “I did my first commercials there, for Macy’s, and my first electronic piece, Kodashim. I wasn’t aware at the time that this poetry of sound would become my trademark. I was after the sound of cold, the sound of hot. I’d say, 'Gee, what does a fur coat sound like?'" she says. "I learned there was another mode of communication through electronics; it was so new and undefined then that I could define things in an emotional way.
“Of course,” she continues, “I remember bringing an electronic piece to my composition program over at Berkeley and they basically kicked me out. In the 1960s, there was no other institutional support for this stuff.”
Robert Ashley, who led CCM in the 1970s, is renowned for his singular, expanded operas for television such as Perfect Lives, and his video portrait series of composers, Music with Roots in the Aether. “Inter-disciplinary” and “multimedia,” crucial to the original mandate of Tape Music Center, today ring like somewhat quaint phrases, but Ashley’s bizarre collisions of screenwriting and composition, video art and anthropology remain brazen transgressions of formal and genre boundaries.
Ashley’s colleagues at Mills helped realize much of his bracingly original work. Paul DeMarinis and “Blue” Gene Tyranny, esteemed composers in their own right, co-wrote, performed on, and engineered Ashley titles recorded at CCM such as In Sara, Mencken, Christ and Beethoven There Were Men and Women; Private Parts; and Automatic Writing. Payne approvingly notes that Ashley was fond of saying, “If you’re not weird, get out.”
Payne describes the production of the Music with Roots in the Aether installment focused on the composer David Behrman, a CCM co-director and close collaborator of Ashley’s: they rose before dawn, for the soft light, and met at Tiburon before heading to Angel Island. There, they piled into pickup trucks and headed to the peak. Philip Makanna, the videographer, shot out of a helicopter that flew beneath the Golden Gate Bridge, curved over the marina, and, after his camera found Behrman and Ashley at a picnic table, touched down atop the island. Payne, tasked with engineering sound, improvised a windscreen with her parachute and fended off intruding radio signals.
“Your experience of music is so private, if you want it to be,” Behrman says in the video to Ashley, who responds, “Well, that would go along with the idea that everyone is the center of the universe.”
The arrivals of Behrman and David Rosenboom, the composer and electronic instrument builder, pivoted CCM towards the forefront of digital synthesis and computer music. They looked to collapse the differences between composition, programming, and engineering — empowering artists to invent tools as well as use them.
“Mills was really transformative for me in this area,” Herndon tells me. “I learned [multimedia programming language] Max/MSP, how to make my own hardware, and how to write for multichannel systems. So, being taught new skills was a big part of knowing what was possible.”
“We knew how to build, how to solder, but David [Behrman] knew computers,” Payne says. “And that influenced a whole swathe of people.” In 1977, Behrman convened Payne, playing flute, and bassoonist Arthur Stidfole to explore the interactive potential of a microcomputer. “It was our first time playing together, and we were told what notes would trigger what electronic effect,” Payne recalls. “It was so beautiful and sophisticated.”
Behrman’s later reflection on the session, which yielded the title track to his album On the Other Ocean, reveals a resonant, enduring sense of play and possibility that continues to animate the Center for Contemporary Music.
“Various enthusiasms contributed to the making of On the Other Ocean," read his album liner notes, "for pure tunings and simple ratios; for homemade electronics with its mysterious knobs, its lexan enclosures with the screw-holes drilled not quite in the right places and its hand-wired circuit boards inside; for idiosyncratic brews of electronic timbres that were not trying to imitate the sounds of the real world.”
For arts stories you won't read anywhere else, come to KQED's Arts and Culture desk.