The Littlefield Concert Hall at Mills College in Oakland on March 24, 2021. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)
Right in the middle of Oakland, a densely populated large urban city, sits Mills College. Originally a finishing school, the oldest women’s college on the West Coast moved to its current location in 1875. It sports architecture from notables like Bernard Maybeck and Julia Morgan and over time has grown into an identity rooted in inclusivity, social activism and female leadership. But many people don’t even know it’s there.
Bay Curious listener Sara Russell describes Mills as “an oasis of nature, architecture, art, history, activism, social impact and education.” She wants to know more about the school’s music program, which has produced dozens of famous musicians, including jazz legend Dave Brubeck and singer-songwriter Joanna Newsom.
A Music Program of Possibility
“The music program at Mills is legendary,” says Gabe Meline, KQED’s Arts senior editor. “Some big names came out of there.”
People like Dave Brubeck, Roscoe Mitchell, Anthony Braxton, Steve Reich, Lou Harrison and Terry Riley all graduated from or taught at Mills. Meline says for most people these aren’t household names, but in certain circles they are revered for pushing the definition of jazz and for pioneering minimalism.
“I mean, I think the best word to sum up Mills’ approach to teaching music is possibility,” Meline said. “Students were just encouraged to do whatever to explore their imaginations.”
“They developed modern electronic composition in a way that is revered in serious music circles all around the world,” Meline said.
The Experimental Makes Its Way Into the Mainstream
Decades later, as music production has migrated onto laptops, Meline hears echoes of the work done by Mills graduates in artists like Radiohead, Wilco, Tame Impala, Playboi Carti, Kanye West and even Justin Bieber.
“There was a big hit song a few years ago by Justin Bieber, “Where Are You Now?,” that had this squeaky little kind of dolphin sound,” Meline said. “And that sound could be traced back absolutely to people pushing and pulling tape through old tape players at Mills.”
Mills composers were a little too experimental for many mainstream listeners of their time, but music has progressed since they were first experimenting in the ’50s. Each generation builds on the work of the one before, and over time sounds that seemed completely new have become commonplace.
An Uncertain Future
Now the Mills music program is in jeopardy along with the rest of the college. Like many niche liberal arts schools, Mills has been struggling financially for years.
“We were shocked in 2019 when we learned that Mills was selling a Shakespeare “First Folio,” which is essentially the first collected edition of Shakespeare’s plays,” Meline said. “It’s from 1623. They sold one at Christie’s for $10 million, which was a big sign that something was seriously amiss financially and that Mills needed money.”
Mills College President Elizabeth Hillman announced in March 2021 that Mills College would stop admitting new students after the fall semester, and would likely stop granting degrees in 2023. Then, in June, she announced that the college is in negotiations with Northeastern University to become a satellite campus.
“We realized that all of this stuff is going on behind the scenes and the key core constituencies are not being consulted,” said David Bernstein, faculty chair of the music department after the original closure announcement. He and other faculty members have been fighting to be included in conversations about the college’s future.
Much of the press coverage about the music department has focused on its archive, which he says includes an incredible collection of artifacts documenting the pioneering musical history of Mills students and famous composers who have come together to play on campus.
“It’s a documentation of the experimental music tradition at Mills College,” Bernstein said. “All kinds of incredible treasures. It’s a documentation of artistic activity at an institution that was a cauldron for all of these innovative ideas and different people working with one another.”
Bernstein understands how impressive the archive is — he’s used it in his research. But he’s more concerned about preserving the future of the program.
“There’s so much more institutionally that towers above the importance of the archive,” he said. “Yes, it has cultural significance, but actually the department itself is much more important than the archives. I don’t know that there are many places in the world that do what we do.”
He has been working to marshal the music program’s illustrious alumni to defend the Center for Contemporary Music and the department as a whole. He hopes that with more of the stakeholders involved, the Mills community can find a solution that allows the historic college to continue to exist in some form.
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