Mills College Music Department Turns the Wheels of Progress 

The Oakland school celebrates its renovated concert hall and distinguished music department with a new festival.

It began with a single riser, draped in black, on a half-lit stage. Atop it sat a desk chair with plain blue cushions, such as you might find in a library or school lab. Surrounding the chair were a laptop computer, an audio processor, and a large black concert accordion. As audience members filed in, the arrangement awaited Mills College composer-in-residence Pauline Oliveros, an internationally acclaimed composer and performer of contemporary music who was set to play the inaugural note in Mills' newly renovated concert hall.

To celebrate the grand reopening of the 450-seat venue and showcase the achievements of its renowned music department, Mills organized Giving Free Play to the Imagination, a six-concert series spanning February, March, and April. Built in 1928, the Spanish Colonial-style concert hall features include a vibrant, multicolored mural above the stage (a natural landscape on six panels that fold away to reveal a choir loft), mythological frescoes around the room depicting various stages of life, and hand-painted geometric ceiling tiles. Dark wood throughout and chandeliers of wrought-iron and mica, dispersing a burnt orange glow, complete the visual array.

An eighteen-month, $11 million renovation and restoration process removed eighty years of dirt and grime from the artwork, including repair where necessary. It also installed new and improved acoustic panels along the walls, a state-of-the art sound system, a larger stage, and new seating, all while accounting for both seismic and accessibility retrofitting.

"Isn't this an amazing space?" exclaimed college president Janet Holmgren from the lone lectern that now shared the stage with Oliveros' still-patient accordion. Well-mannered but enthusiastic applause answered from a full house of faculty, staff, students, and music lovers both local and visiting. Tickets for opening night had sold out a month before, leaving eager parties in recent weeks clamoring for tickets or even a spot on the waiting list. The occasion also motivated many to arrive in formal attire: suits, gowns, and designer hats were more rule than exception.

Of course, the unveiling of the music department's stunning structural centerpiece — newly named the Jeannik Méquet Littlefield Concert Hall after the alumna and Bay Area arts patron, who contributed $4 million to the cause — was only half the appeal of the opening night gala. Going back to the 1930s, Mills has a rich tradition in the realms of experimental, avant-garde, and improvisational music — often collectively referred to as contemporary or new music — and counts many leading innovators among its extended family, including John Cage, Dave Brubeck, Phil Lesh, the Kronos Quartet, Fred Frith, Laurie Anderson, Joanna Newsom, Steve Reich, and Deerhoof's Greg Saunier. As the work of these pioneers in their various fields has resounded far beyond its source, Mills has developed an international reputation as an incubator of contemporary music — a sort of ground zero for musical open-mindedness. The evening's program was designed to showcase some of that breadth of vision.

When the lights finally went down and Oliveros commenced her performance, it became clear that the concert was less a new beginning than the continuation of a long and storied history. The sharp notes and sound clusters wrestled from the body of her accordion and gracefully flung through the room were not isolated or alone, as new and adventurous as they seemed, but intimately tied to past works like Desert Ambulance, an experimental piece composed for Oliveros by Ramon Sender in 1964. She would revive it in her distinct improvisational and exploratory style on the same stage with the same accordion the very next afternoon.

Oliveros' 25-minute performance was paired with illustrations by pioneering visual composer Tony Martin, projected onto a huge screen (also new) hanging behind her. Next, the stage was set for a performance by concert pianist Joseph Kubera. His piece — daring, challenging, and full of contrast; shaped by extreme time signatures like eleven-eight and seventeen-eight; and full of split-second shifts between quiet and loud and crashing and quiet again — sounded utterly contemporary. But it was again rooted in a rich, inescapable past. The work, titled 8/8/88, was written by legendary composer Roscoe Mitchell, who has been at the forefront of international contemporary music and avant-garde jazz for four decades and would be featured in the Mills Music Festival's February 27 concert. Since 2007, Mitchell has taught composition, performance, and improvisation at the college.

A brief intermission was followed by the night's most anticipated performance: a world premiere, written for the occasion and dedicated to Margaret Lyon, chair of the Mills Music Department from 1955 to 1979. The man responsible was revolutionary musician and composer Terry Riley, who has been credited with launching the minimalist movement through his 1964 work In C. Compared to Kubera's piece, For Margaret was more sonorous and sustaining, a melodic and harmonic piece built upon repeated phrasing and subtle improvisation. The effect was as organic and natural as it was mechanistic and ordered, like a well-tuned hive of bees.

The final two performances came from former Kronos Quartet cellist Joan Jeanrenaud, who realized an ageless drive toward innovation through contemporary tools. She used pedals and switches to capture, loop, and layer certain sections, then generated delays and echoes of sounds she'd produced by bowing and plucking the strings. The solemn timbre of her cello interacted with the precise, cold effects of the electronics to create an elegant image of cutting-edge music.

These five pieces illuminated the entirety of Mills' place in American experimental music: past, present, and even future. By design, each step along the way, each phase and iteration, is new and different, but it is also a conversation with an earlier innovation. "It's like putting a ball on an incline plane and giving it a little push and it just starts to snowball," said former department head and current faculty member David Bernstein, who helped to organize the festival. As much as it may outwardly spurn tradition, experimental music exists in a continuum where limits are continually pushed forward and outcomes are as contextual as they are unpredictable. "The stuff that was thought of as being really experimental isn't being considered as outrageous as it was forty years ago," said Bernstein.

Future concerts in the series, such as the next day's more left-field program celebrating Mills' electronics-based Center for Contemporary Music, would provide the very contrast experimental music requires to define itself. This, in a sense, is Mills' mission: to constantly reassess what "new music" means. Those who choose to accept it must challenge preconceived notions of music, noise, and the vast ground between them. This charge to explore the outer limits of personal expression binds current faculty and students with icons of the past. "That's how Mills is," said Bernstein. "The goal is to let the imagination fly." Imagination soared at the festival's opening night, and it should continue to long into the invisible, fertile future.

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