‘He would get high before teaching’: how Mills College gave birth to music’s boldest minds

Fuelled by psychedelic counterculture, the Californian university has nurtured Steve Reich, Laurie Anderson and more – and caused riots at its concerts. But can it survive?


In the late 1960s, Morton Subotnick’s groundbreaking electronic work Silver Apples of the Moon was both a bestselling classical record and an underground nightclub sensation, since acknowledged as an influence by Frank Zappa and Four Tet alike. But back in 1958, the very first big public presentation of his work did not go quite so smoothly. He’d written a piece for two people playing a single piano and Subotnick was convinced it was “really fresh”. The audience less so. By the third movement they were already growing restless. The players on stage practically had to stare them down. At the end, the crowd rose in a fury, screaming at the stage. The pianists ran for their lives.

Subotnick had just graduated from Mills College in Oakland, California, and his former lecturer, the exiled French composer Darius Milhaud, had helped to arrange the concert. Feeling sick to his stomach, Subotnick spies Milhaud in his seat with tears in his eyes and apologises for what he presumes to be his teacher’s disappointment. “No, my dear,” Milhaud reassures him. “Those are tears of joy. It reminds me of the old days.”

Originally founded as the Young Ladies Seminary in 1852, the liberal arts institution had once been home to innovation, experimentation, and sly subversion. And it has been since, nurturing some of the US’s most daring musicians: Steve Reich, Laurie Anderson, Holly Herndon and the Grateful Dead’s Phil Lesh are among the alumni; John Cage, Terry Riley and – the screams having subsided – Subotnick among the faculty. But that legacy is under threat: in March last year, the college announced that due to “declining enrolment and budget deficits”, it would cease to enrol new students.

Since then, a possible reprieve has come in the shape of a proposed merger with the much larger Northeastern University in Boston, but Mills’ future remains uncertain. The current chair of music, David Bernstein, tells me that he is “trying to talk to the right people … But it’s a steep climb. We’ll have to see.”

In the meantime, Bernstein is putting together four days of concerts this week entitled Music in the Fault Zone to celebrate the college’s radical history, featuring music by everyone from current faculty members such as Zeena Parkins and Maggi Payne, back through notable emeriti such as Subotnick, Milhaud, Cage and Roscoe Mitchell. “It seemed to be a good time to raise awareness of what’s going on at Mills,” says Bernstein. “And the best way is with the music.”

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It was the autumn of 1940 when Cage first started canvassing for the establishment of a centre for experimental music at Mills. Hired as an accompanist in the college’s dance department earlier that year, the 28-year-old composer wrote to everyone from famed conductor Leopold Stokowski to Walt Disney in order to drum up support for a new kind of music studio “in which there are no obligations or prohibitions, in which nothing is even predictable”. But despite enthusiasm on the part of the college, led at that time by the visionary peace and women’s rights activist Aurelia Henry Reinhardt, Cage’s appeals would ultimately come to naught. At least at first.

Almost a quarter century later in 1962, and across the bay from Mills, Subotnick founded the San Francisco Tape Music Center with Pauline Oliveros and fellow Mills alum Ramon Sender, and it became an important hub for countercultural music. Avant garde works for coloured lights and tropical fish were played to audiences sprawled on beanbags; it hosted the premiere of Terry Riley’s landmark minimalist work In C; the Center’s three-day long Trips festival was a great hippy jamboree which saw thousands of tabs of LSD distributed to a DayGlo-painted crowd dancing to the Grateful Dead. It was also where California native Donald Buchla developed one of the world’s first modular synthesisers, a pioneering electronic instrument which would bring a futuristic swirl of sound to new age meditation tapes and Coke ads alike.

Beset by financial problems, however, the Center’s founders applied to The Rockefeller Foundation to keep the wolf from the door. The application was successful, but it came with a proviso: that a “responsible fiscal agent” come in as a partner. Hence a move to Mills in 1966, with Oliveros as the first director. “Mills was very slow in deciding whether I should stay or not,” Oliveros (who died in 2016) told me a decade ago, and she soon left for another university. Bernstein sees those early days as inauspicious, Mills rubbing uneasily against the “alternative essence of the Tape Center”, but that all changed with the arrival of Robert Ashley.

A debonair midwesterner with a penchant for silk scarves whose half-spoken “TV operas” of the 70s and 80s would transform the genre, Ashley brought a new spirit. Composer , who took her MFA there in 1970 before joining the faculty a year later, fondly recalls the “wonderful camaraderie” that Ashley insisted upon. “He was always intent on developing a sense of community,” she says. “It was all about personal responsibility and collaboration – both within and across disciplines.”

That sensibility has persisted long after Ashley’s departure in 1981 – Roscoe Mitchell of the jazz unit Art Ensemble of Chicago, who joined the Mills faculty in 2007, sees Ashley as a “giant influence” – but Ashley was not always the most orthodox of educators. Acclaimed composer Sarah Davachi, a more recent graduate, was told by one of her teachers at Mills “that public speaking made Ashley very anxious, so before he taught a class he would go out on to the balcony of the Moog studio and get high to calm himself down”.

Roscoe Mitchell’s own tenure came amid increasing financial difficulty and tension: an attempt to oust him was met with a huge public outcry and he was finally reinstated, only to resign his post a year later. “I was ready to go after that,” Mitchell tells me. “It felt almost like being a rat on a sinking ship or something.”

Today, Mills is even more precarious. “There are so many unknowns,” Payne says, but she hopes they’ll be able to “continue with what the whole idea has been all these years: experimentation and collaboration. At a lot of schools, if you don’t compose in the manner that the professor is composing in then you might be in trouble. But at Mills, if you do try to mimic us, then you’re in trouble. It’s got to come from you.”

Davachi thinks back to her lecturer Alvin Lucier, who made cornerstones of American avant garde composition such as I Am Sitting in a Room, and who gave her “the greatest compliment I have ever received”. She was lugging two pairs of huge speaker cabinets to her car and Lucier, she recalls, “was sitting there, wrapped in a blanket,” waiting to deliver a lecture. As the loudspeakers strained in her arms, she quickly explained her project, a piece for pipe organ and electronics requiring mathematically tuned notes in between the pitches of a piano keyboard. “Wow,” Lucier responded just like Milhaud before him, “that sounds just like what we used to do in the old days.” Hopefully there will be a future generation for Davachi to be amazed by, too.

• The Music in the Fault Zone concert series begins 21 April at Mills College