Is Music Over at Mills College?

Even the concert hall at Mills College is different.

Looming at the back of the stage is a huge, bright mural of a forest opening onto a deep blue lake. The ceiling is painted in geometric patterns and vivid colors. Frescos of Gregorian chant scores flank the stage.

We are not in sedate, monochromatic Carnegie Hall. No, Littlefield Concert Hall at Mills, in Oakland, is a vibrant, even eccentric place, where it is clear from the surroundings that music outside the mainstream is not simply tolerated, but celebrated. “There was a real atmosphere of comfort and support for whatever it is that you wanted to do,” composer David Rosenboom, who led the music program at Mills in the 1980s, said in an interview.

Now that program and the electronics-focused Center for Contemporary Music, together among the most distinguished havens for experimental work in America over the past century, are facing possible closure. On March 17, the college, founded in 1852, announced that ongoing financial problems, exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic, would mean the end of its history as a degree-granting institution made up of an undergraduate women’s college and several coeducational graduate programs.

Pending approval by its board of trustees, the school’s final degrees are likely to be conferred in 2023. The statement announcing the proposed closure alluded to plans for a “Mills Institute” on the 135-acre campus, but the focus of such an institute—and whether it would include the arts—is unclear.

For composers and musicians, the potential loss of the Mills program has come as a startling blow, even though the college’s finances have been shaky for years.

“I long feared this might be the worst-case scenario, but I am still devastated by the news,” said harpist and composer Zeena Parkins, who teaches there.

It has been an astonishing run. The school’s faculty over the years has been practically an index of maverick artists, including Darius Milhaud, at Mills for three decades beginning during World War II; Luciano Berio, who came at Milhaud’s invitation; Lou Harrison, who built an American version of the Indonesian gamelan percussion orchestra; “deep listening” pioneer Pauline Oliveros; Robert Ashley, an innovator in opera; Terry Riley, a progenitor of minimalism; influential composer and improviser Anthony Braxton; James Fei, a saxophonist and clarinetist who works with electronic sounds; and Maggi Payne, a longtime director of the Center for Contemporary Music, Mills’ laboratory for electronic work since the 1960s, when Oliveros was its first leader.

Among the alumni are Dave Brubeck, Steve Reich, John Bischoff, William Winant and Laetitia Sonami; several former students ended up returning to teach after graduating.

“What Mills College had was unique,” said Riley, who taught there from 1971 to 1981. “I have never in my travels encountered another institution like it.”

Mills’ defining feature was its sense of community.

Despite all the famous names involved, the overriding impression was that music is not created by lone geniuses, but by people working together.

Fred Frith, whose career has included avant-garde rock and idiosyncratic improvisations and who retired from Mills in 2018 after many years there, said, “Music is essentially a collaborative activity, and if I’m going to teach improvisation or composition without real hands-on involvement, then we’re all going to miss out on something.”

In the first half of the 20th century, when composers like John Cage became associated with the school, Mills developed a reputation for nonconformity.

Performances ran the gamut from traditional instruments to obscure electronics to vacuum cleaners, clock coils and other found objects. Riley recounted an early performance of “In C,” his open-ended classic from 1964, at which the audience was dancing in the aisles. Laetitia Sonami recalled taking singing lessons with master Indian vocalist Pandit Pran Nath, guru to Riley and others.

At that time, the program was practically public access.

“In the 1970s, Mills was still like a community group,” said composer Chris Brown, a former director of the Center for Contemporary Music. “It still had the idea that community members could come and use the studios.”

Robert Ashley, a guiding presence from 1969 to 1981, helped foster that spirit. Though the radically open sensibility faded as the years went by, Mills maintained a commitment to access through frequent performances in and around Oakland, many of them free.

“One of the amazing things about Mills is the rich musical community that it creates through the entire Bay Area,” said composer Sarah Davachi, who graduated in 2012.

As the personal computer revolution was taking hold in nearby Silicon Valley, experiments with home-brew electronics and microcomputers, like those of David Behrman, were common at Mills, where technology had long been at home through the Center for Contemporary Music. Serendipitous moments abounded: As a student in the ’70s, John Bischoff remembers running into David Tudor, renowned as a collaborator with Cage, in the hallway and being asked to assist with recording Tudor’s work “Microphone.” Winant said he found an original instrument built by composer and inveterate inventor Harry Partch hidden under the stage in the concert hall.

“It felt like utopia: an environment where students are encouraged, and given the support they need, to pursue any and all ideas that came to mind, free from the stifling pressures of capitalism,” said Seth Horvitz, an electronic composer known as Rrose.

Students built their own instruments and sound installations, exhilarated by the freedom to do what they wanted. “We commandeered every square inch of the music studio and surrounding areas,” said composer Ben Bracken, “putting up rogue installations in the courtyards, hallways and hidden rooms, inviting friends to perform in inflatable bubbles, screening Kenneth Anger films in the amphitheater with live studio accompaniments, Moog studio late nights that bled into morning.”

But pressures on institutions of higher education around the country, which have intensified in recent decades, did not spare Mills. In 2017, as a cost-cutting measure, it began laying off some tenured faculty. Celebrated composer and multi-instrumentalist Roscoe Mitchell learned his contract was not being renewed—news that was met with an outcry from the experimental music community. (Mitchell’s contract was eventually extended, but he chose to retire.) In 2019, the college sold a rare copy of Shakespeare’s "First Folio" at auction for just under $10 million, and a Mozart manuscript for an undisclosed sum. But the losses continued—and then came the pandemic.

Many musicians said they were concerned about the fate of Mills’ archives.

Maggi Payne said it includes over 2,000 tapes of performances, lectures and interviews, along with scores, letters and synthesizers—and hundreds of percussion instruments owned by Lou Harrison. David Bernstein, who chairs the music department, said the archives would be protected.

“We have been working on this project for quite some time,” he said. “And yes, there are instruments at Mills of significant historical importance. We are very concerned about their fate. Most of all, they should not be stored but used by students interested in exploring new sounds and different musical cultures. And they should also be played by virtuoso performers, as they are now.”

But if Mills’ future is unclear, Mitchell said, its legacy is not. It will live on “much longer than you and I,” he said. “It’s history. It’s not going to go away.”


  1. I for one welcome a music-less future. Music and all forms are art are built on equal parts cultural appropriation and white supremist oppression. What are scales and music theory but patriarchal hierarchical binary thinking.

    Hear Hear to a more Inclusive and Equitable Future!

  2. Was just listening to a story on NPR about Mills. The focus of that story was their emphasis on being attractive to, I believe the term was “non binary” students.
    Sounds like the place to go if you want to get a degree in transgender studies, followed by a career of mooching off the public.

  3. Mills apparently had a major role in shaping post-war American music trends. Even I, as a casual music fan, recognize and have heard works by many of the artists cited in the article. Have you John Galt?

    It’s sad we’re losing this educational diversity. The major university near where I live has recently ended its organ performance major as an example.

  4. It’s not as if we don’t have noise in place of music routinely now, anyway, with plenty of low-brains wailing or screeching in a number of instances.

    There can even be artful poetry, too, to the sound of somewhat organized noise:

    “Don’t need no gun go a-rat-a-tat-tat/Gonna kill da [em eff] with a baseball bat”

  5. Boy oh boy!
    Er, excuse me. I meant to say “Person of indeterminate gender oh person of indeterminate gender!”

  6. Mr Galt, I always thought Fountainhead was more readable and accurately predicted many bores I encountered through life. I couldnt read AS, the book was too heavy to hold up.

    Your logic is consistent with my take on Marx’s hot mess of a life, perhaps equally imperfect with Rand, is not a valid criticism of his work.

  7. So you want people to provide their id as a condition of being allowed to talk to you?
    Just like the State of Georgia wants people to provide their id in order to vote?
    Try coming down off that high horse of yours and mingle with the masses. We won’t hurt you. I promise.

  8. This rant is more utter hogwash from the bottomless pit of Bay Area virtue signaling braindeadery. All altruism does is feed exploiters.

    The optimum strategy for social engagement, and one that almost all social species have evolved over billions of years is to employ what game theorist call “generous tit-for-tat” or “forgiving tit-for-tat”, which even the most obnoxious word-salad spewing contradictorians could say is the same thing as altruism. Altruism and whatever Rand was selling (I never read her nonfiction work) were idealistic models, and they don’t work in the real word. This is why good intentions generally pave the road to h e double l, and people like Ms. Rand end up looking like or being hypocrites.

    “Organisms live in the real world, not in the world of idealized models. One of the basic differences between models and reality is the fact that the real world is always more or less unpredictable (stochastic) and errors happen there with a certain probability. An individual can, by mistake or accidentally, betray its opponent or, to the contrary, cooperate in error, or its behavior can be misinterpreted in the same way by the opponent. In the real world, Tit for Tat is not an optimal strategy and can be forced out of the population by other strategies. An example of a strategy that is more successful in the unpredictable real world is “Generous Tit for Tat”, sometimes also called “Firm but Fair” (Nowak & Sigmund 1992). This strategy forgives sporadic betrayal with a certain probability (30 %), i.e. it responds by cooperation in the next round of the game. If two bearers of the Tit for Tat strategy play against one another and one of them betrays by mistake, it launches a long series of mutual punishment and both opponents fail to profit. On the contrary, if this situation occurs for two bearers of the Generous Tit for Tat strategy or one Generous Tit for Tat bearer and one Tit for Tat bearer, the mutual punishment series will be terminated quickly as soon as the Generous Tit for Tat bearer responds to the betrayal by cooperation in the next round.”

    Sapolsky delivers the goods (as usual) at about the 45 min mark, and yes a Pavlovian Strategy is a threat, sneaky cheaters are. This is why we have disdain rent-seeking behavior and rent cheats. So if you, say manipulate land-use police power to artificially distort the value of real estate in your favor, you are rightly considered a heel. And if you game the pandemic to not pay rent when you have 2 degrees and are security licensed certified world-class decker and could easily otherwise worked (or just paid for out of your pocket) and take 80% rental assistance out of the mouths of the kids of the really needy and make you landlord pay your way for a year, you are also equally a heel.

    Always forgiving is dumb, never forgiving is equally dumb. That’s why tough love works and progressivism fails. Individuals vary in the balance of tough and love – and I would not be surprise that if the aggregate tough vs love aggregated over all humanity doesn’t end up at 30% – so tough love would result in a 30% forgiveness rate. Progressivism is not only a 100% forgiveness rate by a single central entity, it usually blames or even punishes a third party – doubly letting the offender off the hook, reinforcing unsuccessful behaviors.

  9. “This is why we have disdain rent-seeking behavior and rent cheats. So if you, say manipulate land-use police power to artificially distort the value of real estate in your favor, you are rightly considered a heel.

    About time it was admitted.”

    All I do, every day, is “admit” this point on this site and SJS. Frankly its a bit of a problem, I should be doing homework or researching more markets. But it is my charitable mission to get people to see the propaganda they are being fed hurts them.

    And it is why I don’t own in CA anymore and I won’t own in the markets I operate in now once the progressive virus infects them. Actually, I have already been moving money out of “near blue” counties. “Altruistic” land-use ordinances similar to the BS in California will just lead to $1M homes wherever it spreads. I am already hearing things like “smart development”, sprawl, and TOD now on the more progressive rags.

    Bye bye, no thanks!

    And sneaky cheats are sneaky cheats, they is no grading on a curve.

    Heck, why be a sneaky cheat so cheap?

    I leave you with this:

    I think Zuckerman bests the great Mr. Perlman, but the viola part got more love from the man. The second movement is a little blurred for my tastes, perhaps the orchestra didn’t want to show up the Masters.

    Now why does anyone need to wonder about Music Study when Mozart wrote such pieces?

  10. What is with you progressives and putting words in my mouth.

    Arguing about police powers was never the point. I am fine with disagreeing with the founders’ take of them, that discussion is academic. To say they are not the law of the land when the politic wants them to be is a denial of facts. I do not complain, I point out to those laboring under the myth that thinks they have inalienable rights, don’t. No matter what they teach in HS. They have none, police powers mean mob rule, period, and your rights in this country can be taken away a whim. If the majority thinks they need your stuff, they will take it.

    The problem is the general public has no idea what to do with that police power and they generally resort to revenge instead of fully considering consequences. And this is how they get conned by rent-seekers.

    Abstaining from abusing police powers demarks left from right in my definition. Many people in the US completely believe and act in a way consistent with police powers being subordinate to inalienable rights. This is seen, among other things, with the mask, shut-down, zoning, development, capitalism, property rights, the sanctity of contracts, etc. From my perspective, it is essentially the cultural divide in the country. It is a principle to them that the government can not take away their freedom, and they resist attempts for it to do so, intentions be damned.

    So, in the markets I operate in, I can buy anywhere from $50K-$100K a door to $350K a house. And since there are plenty of units and houses, they build them like crazy. I have to charge fair rent, our lowest rents are about $500/month and it goes up from there. Good for me and good for my tenants, no one feels screwed.

    Then public mismanagement and lack of personal safety drive progressives to conservative enclaves, in no time they start passing restrictive land-use laws that make real estate prices go up. It is a very odd and interesting dynamic.

    Believing and operating as if police powers are subordinate to inalienable rights is enough for me, but be there no doubt, once progressives move to these markets and tip it to 51% DNC, they pass laws based on these “police powers” that constrain supply / inflate demand. Those laws inevitably result in higher real estate prices.

    These real estate price distortions are due neither to landlords nor believers in inalienable rights, these land-use laws are driven completely by progressive authoritarian majorities.

  11. smh… either you have serious reading comprehension issues or you just write stuff without knowing anything you are talking about.

    “Just understand this, if DUE PROCESS is followed and EMANATE DOMAIN is practiced, yes they can take away anything they want. That is in the U.S. Constitution you wrote:”

    Fifth Amendment

    “No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a grand jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the militia, when in actual service in time of war or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offense to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.”

    Eminent Domain is not police power, it is an explicit clause in the fifth amendment.

    The Constitution does not say Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness, it says life, liberty, or property.

    Police powers are not in the constitution, they are implied. Being generous and allowing for casting the Preamble as the home of police power is still an implication, not an explicit clause.

    All land-use ordinances are police powers, a local municipality can basically do what it wants with code and zoning. There is no due process, there is the ballot box. And much of the racism of the country’s history was hidden in these land-use police powers, by dumping value destroying assets (among other dirty tricks) in minority neighborhoods while building value adding assets in majority neighborhoods. Police power is majority rule, not right based, so whitey can racism without constraint. The problem in authoritarian progressive areas is they invariably engage in theoretic ordinance creep which leads to a negative impact on supply. UGB, CEQA, Inclusionary Fees, Park Fees, Licensure, etc are all examples of such abused police powers justified with theoretical evidence and no common sense.

    Other police powers are rent control which is an infringement on private property rights. It is expressly deemed a police power by the court – not due process. The claim is it is an temporary emergency remedy to some unfortunate set of events that local jurisdictions have the right to enact, as long as its neither physical nor permanent. The RC laws in NY explicitly sunset if vacancy rates stay above 5% for 6 months or so. Interestingly, that has happened during COVID and we will see if they sunset or not. I believe the MV had similar thresholds they also let slip.

    Article 1 Section 10

    “No State shall enter into any Treaty, Alliance, or Confederation; grant Letters of Marque and Reprisal; coin Money; emit Bills of Credit; make any Thing but gold and silver Coin a Tender in Payment of Debts; pass any Bill of Attainder, ex post facto Law, or Law impairing the Obligation of Contracts, or grant any Title of Nobility.”

    Causa justa is a police power which impairs the obligation of a contract. Once they passed this law any 1-year lease or month-to-month lease, which had been mutually/contractually agreed upon between landlord and tenant, is nullified and the owner must grant a life estate to the tenant with price controls (not in the original contract) only to be terminated by very specific conditions again not set in the original contract. Not due process, and no one ever claimed it was.

    Eviction Moratoriums are another police power which impairs the obligation of a contract. Because your contract says you have to pay rent or quit. There is no due process at all.

    The due process is after the fact, the liability the state could be under on any of these “powers” are loses the owner could prove where the fault of these ordinances. But since RC/CJ plus the misuse of land-use police powers invariably leads to supply constraints, the owner of a RC/CJ property generally sees their market valuations go up. Unless there are external economic factors which the city could point to as the real cause of the loss, in that case the city would be off the hook. I am not aware of any land-use or other police powers to ever be given due diligence, even red-lining and other covenants, so there may not be any due diligence at all.

    The city could be liable for damages on the eviction moratorium if an owner can prove they are forced to take the 80% concession. The state played a nice trick here, as taking the 80% essentially waives the state of their culpability in the loss, because the owner was not forced to do so. That is why they continuously say, “this is not an excuse to not pay rent” and they were quick to shut Peralez up when he came out and said the moratorium was a trap, which it is, and they should just cancel rent. What they should have done was let the tenants choose to pay 100% back and not gotten so cute. Now there will be pain from this, as some very poor people will not get the 80% paid off and they will owe 75% of $10000+ and no the eviction court has to be very careful not to punish the landlord for not taking it, no matter what propaganda is spread. Eviction courts are not a kind place, people must be understand this.

    Other police powers could be if the fancy of the progressives gives rise:

    Evicting you from your unit to make room for a single mother of three or a “status” immigrant due to greater vulnerability or lack of access to equitable educational resources.

    Allowing a childless couple to keep ownership but not possession of their home to make room for a single mother of three or a “status” immigrant due to greater vulnerability or lack of access to equitable educational resources.

    Both seem plausible to me and are what home owners are asking for when they watch the state run roughshod over landlords.

    “RENT SEEKERS are CONNIG the people, really?”

    Do you even know what rent-seeking is? Of course home-owner lobby groups who push for open space, anti-sprawl legislation, inclusionary fees are rent-seekers. These “welfare for the rich” tricks are all rent-seeking. It’s called regulatory capture. All of the inflated prices in California are a result of the abuse of land-use police powers, frequently with large players manipulating things behind the scenes. California is mostly empty space and could easily build homes and infrastructure to make housing affordable, it just won’t because “sprawl.” But it will never be Paris, it will be Houston.

    And I have written many screeds on these sites attempting to educate mom-and-pop landlords that the CAA lobbying arm is far more interested in maintaining a favorable environment for their large corporate investors with their new, high density properties while dumping all the “equity” ordinances on small, old ones that independent landlords can afford to own.

    The CAA is not the friend of a small, independent landlords and neither is Costa Hawkins. Its a gift to large corporate landlords. Frankly repealing it would help small landlords. Single homes would have their tenants evicted before the ink was dry and those homes sold to owner-occupied for $1M+, likely duplexes too. Demand for ARUs would skyrocket and very few if any “welcomed” tenants would be able to live in SFH residential neighborhoods that have good schools and clean streets.

    You have no idea what Costa Hawkins is or you wouldn’t say it was supposed to build more units, because there is no way to say how many units would have been built in its absence. Plenty of units have been built since it passed, and almost none would be built if is got rescinded. No way does anyone with a brain build a new multi $100Ms property that is rent controlled day one without massive tax credits from the US government. They call them LIHTCs and they wouldn’t get built otherwise.

    Ellis Act is a niche play that has nothing to do with San Jose, last I checked there has been one Ellis Act project. It’s a condo conversion scheme mostly for San Francisco and other boutique markets and requires decades of RC/CPI to make the spreads in rental valuation to owner valuation worth the squeeze.

    You talk a lot of BS, but you don’t what much about this subject…

    As far as claiming you know what fictional character or group I am or not, you have no idea what you are talking about there either.

  12. Mr Galt,

    I saw the Fountainhead with Cooper, it was pretty good. I am not really enamored with the Roark types I have met and I have known many. They are usually burdened by their intellectual pride and have massive blind spots. I have always consider Roger Enright as someone more admirable. Independent, successful but very aware that he has no real talent but could recognize, appreciate, and help talent manifest into product.

    btw I also always thought Willy Lowman’s neighbor, Charley, carried the real message in Travelling Salesman, that is, its better to model your life on him, Willy and those like him are fools.

    Both always stuck in my mind as worthy, what would Roger do or What would Charley do?

  13. I hope the Mountain View Tenant Activists win all the revenge legislation they dream of, for the sake of the MV home owners. You will just be adding a zero to their home valuation as you cheer on your “victories”. All their victories up to now have really helped make Mountain View affordable, right? I sincerely hope they repeal Costa Hawkins, wow, that will be something to behold.

    Its like you can type words but not understand what you are typing. You wonder aloud why your unit is worth $600,000 and not $100,000 when you call for regulations that will only artificially increase its value further. Then argue when the constitution was “finished”, when all I have ever said is there is no Constitution anymore, just pockets of populations that believe in an idealize formation of it and those that don’t, the Court being the one that believes in it least.

    I really think trying to educate you is not helping you and its no wonder you’re broke and stealing rent. You simply can’t think straight without getting defensive about your prior contradictions and misunderstandings and can’t see how you contribute to your own and others demise and poverty.

    Sad really.

  14. The HOME OWNERS were the key in getting CSFRA passed. In fact, a big group of them help vote it in.


    and its not that they care two cents about you, actually owners hate renters and they hate landlords more, so intelligent owners poison pill rentals to cap and erode them.

    rentals in the neighborhood lower valuations, tenants lower school rankings, they want tenants in San Jose, or maybe taking bart home somewhere else

    first you carry on how evil home owners are then you claim theyre your allies

    loss aversion is the psyche’s governing dynamic, owners are bent on valuations going up, everything else is rationalization and virtue signalling


    you are blind in a way I really have no words for

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