"For more than 80 years, Mills musicians, professors, visiting faculty, and students have been at the forefront of contemporary music, dramatically and consistently expanding the frontiers of sound and theory." —Derk Richardson, Oakland Magazine, 2007
The legacy of musical innovation at Mills College began with the establishment of a Music Conservatory in 1894. Mills music students have since spanned the musical spectrum, from jazz great Dave Brubeck to electronic music pioneer Morton Subotnick. The list includes composers Steve Reich, Janice Giteck, and Elinor Armer; Pulitzer Prize winner Richard Wernick; computer music pioneer Leland Smith; sound artist Laetitia Sonami; composer/installation artist Paul DeMarinis; pianists Barbara Rowan and Virginia Waring; psych folk star Joanna Newsom; new music ensemble director Cheryl Seltzer; sound poet/ radio producer Charles Amirkhanian; Indian percussion virtuoso Anantha Krishnan; pianist/musicologist Dana Reason; Latin jazz keyboardist Rebeca Mauleón; drummer Ches Smith; founder of UC Berkeley’s CNMAT Richard Felciano; gamelan composer Nyoman Windha; artist/writer Julia Christensen; video/sound artist Betsey Biggs; film composer Willow Williamson; record producer Noah Georgeson; and koto player/composer Miya Masaoka.
The Mills Music Department was created by J. B. Beutler after the College moved from Benicia to Oakland in 1871. One of the earliest music graduates (in 1876) was international opera star Emma Nevada, who later performed at Mills with legendary cellist Pablo Casals. Nevada had been trained by German voice coach Alfred Kelleher, a graduate of the Royal Academy of Music in London and Beutler’s successor as director.
Mills Musical Milestones
Louis Lisser, a graduate of the Royal Academy of Arts in Berlin, begins a 30-year term as the director of the Music Department.
Conservatory of Music established.
New Grecian-style theater named in Lisser’s honor.
Henry Cowell performs his innovative piano works in Lisser Hall.
Luther B. Marchant becomes head of the Music Department, a position he holds until 1954.
Mills College Concert Hall opens to architectural acclaim with a four-concert festival presented by Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, America's foremost patroness of new music at that time.
Pro Arte String Quartet begins eight-year residency at Mills. During this period, the quartet performs American premieres of works by Milhaud and Berg (Lyric Suite) as well as quartets by Cowell, Stravinsky, Bartók, Harris, and Copland.
Henry Cowell, Lou Harrison, and John Cage participate in Summer Sessions in the Creative Arts, beginning a tradition of experimentalist music at Mills.
Mills graduate Margaret Lyon, who earned a PhD in musicology from UC Berkeley, becomes a Mills faculty member. She serves as the Music Department head from 1955 to 1979.
French composer Darius Milhaud arrives at Mills and remains on the faculty until 1971.
The Budapest String Quartet begins its association with Mills. Among the guest artists who perform with them at Mills is clarinetist Benny Goodman.
During the summer session, Milhaud (assisted by Madeleine Milhaud and the Budapest Quartet), along with artist Fernand Léger and author André Maurois, presents a series of lectures; John Cage performs in a concert of percussion music, assisted by dancer Marian Van Tuyl.
Dave Brubeck, returning from four years of military service in World War II, enrolls as a graduate student and studies with Milhaud. He later becomes renowned for the Dave Brubeck Quartet, one of the best-loved jazz groups of all time.
At the invitation of Drama Professor Arch Lauterer, composer Harry Partch visits Mills and presents his theater piece Oedipus. The performance includes Mills students playing Partch’s extraordinary instruments. Partch lives in Lisser Hall from July 1951 to February 1953.
Composer Leon Kirchner becomes the Luther B. Marchant Professor. Kirchner leaves Mills to join the music department at Harvard University in 1961.
Groundbreaking electronic music composers Ramon Sender, Pauline Oliveros, and Morton Subotnick form the San Francisco Tape Music Center.
Italian composer Luciano Berio teaches at Mills. Cathy Berberian’s performance of Circles and other works by Berio at a Mills concert is named one of the major new music events of the year by critic Alfred Frankenstein. In the 1963–64 academic year, Mills commissions Berio’s Folk Songs; during this intense period of teaching, he starts work on Laborintus II.
Berio and 12 Mills students (including Tom Constanten and Grateful Dead’s Phil Lesh) perform John Cage’s Winter Music on 13 pianos in the Concert Hall.
Milhaud, Berio, and Subotnick establish the Mills Performing Group with the support of a three-year grant from the Rockefeller Foundation.
Steve Reich receives an MA in composition from Mills. In 1965, he composes his seminal tape piece It’s Gonna Rain.
The San Francisco Tape Music Center, also funded by the Rockefeller Foundation, relocates to Mills and becomes the Mills Tape Music Center with Pauline Oliveros as its director.
Anthony Gnazzo becomes the director of the Mills Tape Music Center with David Tudor as lecturer and performing artist.
Karlheinz Stockhausen visits Mills for a performance of Telemusik and Mikrophonie 1. The same year, Berio and Dennis Russell Davies conduct the former’s Laborintus II at Mills.
Anthony Gnazzo and Lowell Cross become co-directors of the Mills Tape Music Center, which is renamed the Center for Contemporary Music.
Mills faculty and students perform John Cage’s Variations VI with David Tudor in January .
Robert Ashley and Bill Maroldo become co-directors of the Center for Contemporary Music.
Lou Harrison and William Colvig build the gamelan Si Darius, and, shortly afterwards, the gamelan Si Madeleine. Students at Mills continue to play and perform on these instruments to this day.
Composer Terry Riley, one of the founders of the m inimalist movement, begins his 11 years as Luther B. Marchant Professor at Mills.
Pandit Pran Nath, a renowned specialist in Hindustani classical vocal music, becomes visiting professor of music at Mills.
David Behrman joins Ashley as co-director of the Center for Contemporary Music. Behrman—along with Mills students Paul DeMarinis, Rich Gold, Frankie Mann, and John Bischoff—begins using primitive microcomputers (the KIM-1) to make live electronic music.
Bischoff, Tim Perkis, and Jim Horton form the League of Automatic Music Composers, the first computer network “band.”
David Rosenboom, known for his research in musical interfaces with the human nervous system, joins the Mills faculty. In collaboration with Rosenboom, Don Buchla develops the Buchla Touché—one of the first digital synthesizers—years before similar instruments were commercially available.
Kronos Quartet—David Harrington, John Sherba, Hank Dutt, and Joan Jeanrenaud—begin a two-year residency.
The College creates the Darius Milhaud Chair in Composition in recognition of Milhaud's lasting influence on music at Mills. In future years, this position will be held by Lou Harrison, Iannis Xenakis, Kenneth Gaburo, Anthony Braxton, Alvin Curran, Pauline Oliveros, Jöelle Léandre, Annie Gosfield, Hilda Paredes, and Roscoe Mitchell.
In an article published in the New York Times on July 27, music critic John Rockwell lists the 15 most significant works of the 1960s. Four of these are compositions by former Mills faculty or students (Reich, Riley, Oliveros, and Berio). Rockwell’s list of the 10 most influential works of the 1970s includes two former Mills faculty members (Behrman and Ashley) and a former graduate student (Reich).
The acclaimed Abel-Steinberg-Winant Trio begins a long association with Mills.
Internationally acclaimed percussionist William Winant continues to make a lasting impact as a teacher of generations of Mills percussion students.
David Rosenboom becomes director of the Center for Contemporary Music.
Rosenboom, along with Larry Polansky and Phil Burk, creates HMSL (Hierarchical Music Specification Language), a music programming language widely used by educational institutions and individuals around the world.
Mills graduates Chris Brown, John Bischoff, Mark Trayle, and Phil Stone, along with Scott Gresham-Lancaster and Tim Perkis, form the pioneering computer network music ensemble The Hub.
Maggi Payne and Chris Brown become co-directors of the Center for Contemporary Music.
Maryanne Amacher becomes the first Rosekrans Artist-in-Residence, a position created by Mills Trustee Dodie Rosekrans. Frederic Rzewski, Christian Wolff, Annea Lockwood, Fred Frith, and Amy Denio hold this residency in subsequent years.
Lou Harrison becomes the first Jean Macduff Vaux Composer-in-Residence. Composers who have since held this prestigious residency include Gordon Mumma, José Maceda, Bun-Ching Lam, Cecil Taylor, Meredith Monk, Terry Riley, James Tenney, Maggie Nichols, Helmut Lachennmann, and Muhal Richard Abrams.
Fred Frith, known for his work in the seminal English art rock band Henry Cow (as well as Art Bears, Massacre, Skeleton Crew, and countless collaborations with the likes of Brian Eno, Evelyn Glennie, Zeena Parkins, and John Zorn), joins the Mills faculty as Luther B. Marchant Chair.
Paul DeMarinis is the first David Tudor Composer-in-Residence, a position later held by Maryanne Amacher, Steina Vasulka, Trimpin, Ron Kuivila, Jon Rose, Laetitia Sonami, and Keith Rowe.
The Mills Performing Group is re-established by an endowment funded by Mills Trustee Lauren Speeth.
Roscoe Mitchell, a founding member of the Art Ensemble of Chicago and influential member of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, is appointed Darius Milhaud Chair in Composition.
The Mills College Concert Hall undergoes an 18-month renovation and reopens with a six-concert music festival celebrating the past, present, and future of contemporary music. Headliners include Muhal Richard Abrams, Arditti Quartet, John Bischoff, Chris Brown, James Fei, Fred Frith, Joan Jeanrenaud, Joseph Kubera, Tony Martin, Roscoe Mitchell, Pauline Oliveros, Nicole Paiement, Maggi Payne, Terry Riley, and William Winant.