With the Future Uncertain, Mills' Experimental 'Music in the Fault Zone' is Feted in Four-Day Fest

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A middle-aged Black man plays the alto saxophone on a dimly lit stage
Amidst his time teaching at Mills College, jazz musician Anthony Braxton performs with Misha Mengelberg and the ICP Orchestra in Amsterdam, Netherlands, in 1987. (Frans Schellekens/Redferns)

The festival’s name wasn’t intended to evoke the increasingly precarious status of the Bay Area’s most celebrated outpost for new music. But it’s hard not to read a double meaning into Music in the Fault Zone: Experimental Music at Mills College (1939 to the present).

A program of eight concerts that runs over four days, April 21-24, Music in the Fault Zone brings together a broad swath of the world’s most venturesome musicians, many of whom studied at Mills. Together, they'll perform works by epochal Mills-associated composers, including Pauline Oliveros, Darius Milhaud, John Cage, Lou Harrison, Roscoe Mitchell, Robert Ashley, Anthony Braxton, Terry Riley and Henry Cowell.

Presented by the Mills College Music Department and the Center for Contemporary Music, the festival showcases a priceless legacy—and one that’s at risk, as seismic forces threaten to swallow a music program that’s long served as a proving ground for the future of music the world over.

An elderly man at a string of laptops on stage.
Morton Subotnick, perhaps best known for his late-1960s album 'Silver Apples of the Moon,' co-founded the San Francisco Tape Music Center at Mills College in 1961. He is shown here in New York City in 2004. (Jack Vartoogian/Getty Images)

Acquired last year by Northeastern University, Mills is “merging” with the non-profit Boston school in a deal that’s slated for completion on July 1. Efforts by Mills alumni to halt the process haven’t gained legal traction, and much of their campaign has focused on the loss of yet another all-women undergraduate institution. (The loss of Mills leaves just under three dozen of them across the United States.)

While the graduate music program has always accepted men, women figured prominently in the Center for Contemporary Music long before they were welcomed at other music schools.

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“When I first moved to the Bay Area from Fresno in 1967, I spent a lot of time there because that’s where the action was,” says composer Charles Amirkhanian, who has collaborated with, commissioned and presented dozens of musicians associated with Mills as music director at KPFA from 1969-1992 and as founder of the new music organization and festival Other Minds.

Pauline Oliveros, who co-founded the San Francisco Tape Music Center in 1961 with composers Ramon Sender and Morton Subotnick, became director of the pioneering electronic music laboratory (later re-named the Center for Contemporary Music) when it moved to Mills in the fall of 1966, “which inspired a bunch of woman,” Amirkhanian says.

“It was a way station for people like Laurie Anderson. I remember seeing a concert she gave in the Mills cafeteria for about 10 people. We were so stunned by what she did. She couldn’t get a gig anywhere else, but Mills welcomed her. It’s sad to think such a big piece of music history is evaporating.”

Northeastern has revealed few details about what the campus will look like after the merger establishes what’s to be known as Mills College at Northeastern University and the overlapping Mills Institute, which is slated to focus on “advancing women’s leadership and to empowering BIPOC and first-generation students,” according to Northeastern.

"Mills and Northeastern are working closely together to create new programs that leverage each institution’s unique strengths," a representative from Northeastern told KQED, when asked about plans regarding the Center for Contemporary Music and its extensive, historically important archive, which contains scores of recordings and cutting-edge instruments dating back 60 years. "Mills’ world-renowned music program remains a high priority for both institutions, and so is the preservation of the program’s historical archives. "

Featuring two concerts per day with intimate afternoon sessions in Lisser Hall, followed by evening performances in the gorgeous Littlefield Concert Hall, Music in the Fault Zone conveys a proper sense of what’s at stake. The festival kicks off Thursday, April 21, with a celebration of the late Oliveros, titled “Pauline Dreams,” by her partner, the playwright, poet and sound artist Ione, joined by Anne Hege, Brenda Hutchinson and Jennifer Wilsey.

A young woman with glasses sits at a tape machine; An African-American woman in her 60s or 70s smiles at the camera, wearing a black and blue patterned shirt.
Pauline Oliveros (left) was a professor at Mills College and director of what came to be called its Center for Contemporary Music; Oliveros’ partner Ione (right) will perform a tribute to Oliveros with Anne Hege, Brenda Hutchinson and Jennifer Wilsey on April 21 as part of 'Music in the Fault Zone.' (Oliveros Courtesy the CCM Archive, Mills College; Ione courtesy the artist)

The opening-night program also includes the ambient Americana of Saariselka, a project by Mills graduates Marielle Jakobson and Chuck Johnson; Gamelan Encinal performing works by John Cage, Lou Harrison and Daniel Schmidt; and a closing set by feminist noise reggaeton duo Las Sucias featuring Mills alumni Danishta Rivero and Alexandra Buschman. Like all Fault Zone concerts, it will be available for viewing via livestream.

Thursday's evening concert includes Opera Parallèle's Nicole Paiement conducting “La création du monde” and “L'homme et son désir” by French composer Darius Milhaud, who taught at Mills from 1940-71 after fleeing the Nazis (among his many students was the future jazz star Dave Brubeck).

The other half of Thursday's program features works by Art Ensemble of Chicago co-founder Roscoe Mitchell, whose influence still reverberates widely in the Bay Area after his 12-year stint as a Mills professor holding the Darius Milhaud Chair of Composition. Pianist Sarah Cahill and violinist Kate Stenberg perform the world premiere of Mitchell’s “Cards in 3D Colors,” and Steed Cowart conducts “Distant Radio Transmission” for improvisers and orchestra along with “Sustain and Run” for orchestra and solo improvisers (including Mitchell himself).

Longtime Mills College professor Roscoe Mitchell. (Ken Weiss)

The sheer density of musicians and composers brought together on the festival's stage echoes the creative frisson sparked at Mills over the decades, as adventurous musicians regularly flew into each other’s orbit. For percussionist William Winant, going to work in the Mills music building was a daily sojourn into the unknown. For some four decades, the his studio door stayed open to sonic adventures with protean artists who'd then go on to compose music for him.

On Friday night at Fault Zone, as part of an improvisational trio with James Fei and David Rosenboom, Winant performs the music of the legendary composer/multi-instrumentalist Anthony Braxton, who taught at Mills from 1985 to 1990. Saturday evening’s concert concludes with a duo improvisation featuring Winant and French bass virtuoso Joëlle Léandre, who served as Milhaud Professor for several years in the aughts.

“That was one of the incredible things, I never knew who would be across the hall,” Winant said. “Roscoe, Braxton, Lou Harrison, Joëlle Léandre.

"She would hear me practicing for hour after hour, and she would be doing her thing. We got to be good friends. When she was invited to come play the festival she asked to do a duo with me, and I was very touched. She’s one of the great artists of all time, one of the best bassists I’ve ever heard.”

Winant performs in two different settings Saturday. The concert opens with a work by David Behrman performed by a trio with Winant, computer music pioneer John Bischoff, and harpist Zeena Parkins, the current Darius Milhaud Chair in Composition. The final concert concludes with a performance by the William Winant Percussion Ensemble playing music by John Cage, Lou Harrison, and Steed Cowart.

The future of music at Mills is uncertain at best. Winant worries that Fault Lines will bring down the boom upon an astonishing legacy.

A white man plays a variety of drums as a seated audience looks on.
William Winant performs as part of 'Music in the Fault Zone' at Mills on April 24. (Courtesy of the artist)

“I have a feeling it’s the end of an era,” he said. “It would be good if Northeastern keeps the program going, but I’m not sure if they’re aware of the incredible history over the last 100 years, in terms of supporting innovative and creative music. For a small little college, it’s incredible. And it continues in the 21st century. Mills is still producing amazing students all the time.”

'Music In the Fault Zone' runs April 21–24 at Mills College in Oakland. Details here

Correction: A previous version of this article classified Northeastern University as a for-profit college. It is a 501(c)(3), a non-profit university, and not a for-profit college. KQED regrets the error.

Watch a KQED 'Spark' episode about Pauline Oliveros from 2004 below:

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