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Fault Zone Performance

To those without musical inclination, it might have looked like child’s play. He plucked at four rows of bodiless guitar necks hand crafted into small harp-like instruments, feet shifting between various switches and pedals. She stood behind a medley of bells, bowls, gongs, drums and tambourines, her body swaying like a dancer as she tapped and thumped away.

Nava Dunkelman with her array of instruments that she played with Fred Frith. (Terrapin Frazier)
Nava Dunkelman with her array of instruments that she played with Fred Frith. (Terrapin Frazier)

Within moments of Nava Dunkelman and Professor of Music Fred Frith’s performance, even the untrained ear would recognize their seemingly sporadic movements as deliberate and the ostensibly cacophonous symphony as musical collaboration.

Dunkelman and Frith were performing a genre known as “experimental improvisation” as part of the Live Music Series at Mills, which features new work by students and faculty of the music department. They preformed on Nov. 13 in the Art Museum.

“It’s almost like conversation through music,” Dunkelman said. “We play from nothing. We just listen to each other.”

Image of Professor of Music Fred Firth. (
Image of Professor of Music Fred Firth. (

Without looking up from their instruments, Dunkelman and Frith created melodies and perfect harmonies, playing off each other in a musical dialogue.

“I find improvisation fun because it’s my most comfortable language,” Dunkelman said. “I really enjoy playing with other people because I can feel their personality.”

Dunkelman, a 2013 graduate from Mills, and Frith, who has been teaching at Mills since 1999, have been performing together for about a year, including playing at The Stone, an experimental music performance space in New York. Wednesday was the first time Dunkelman had performed with Frith while he played his modified guitars. Dunkelman said that until recently Frith had primarily played piano in their performances.

At Wednesday’s performance, however, a piano was one of the few instruments not present. Chopsticks, bicycle chains, tom toms, elephant bells, violin bows, a rainstick, and a sprawl of other items made up Dunkelman and Frith’s adventurous collection of instruments.

At one point, Dunkelman slid a violin bow across the edge of a small bowl to create a high hum while Frith wove a chopstick between the strings of a guitar neck and snapped the stick against the strings to create a melodic reverberation. For approximately 30 minutes, Dunkelman and Frith carried on, their music fluctuating in mood and intensity.

The audience, ranging from shaggy hipsters to professional personnel, all seemed to appreciate the performance.

“I really love how they played off each other,” said Anne Allison, a Mills graduate who works at the audio/visual department. “They listened to each other in a really thoughtful manner.”

Robert Burnette, a member of the greater Oakland community, came to Mills specifically for Frith and Dunkelman’s performance.

“I expect very sophisticated experimental music to come from Mills,” Burnette said. “It’s definitely not pop music, it’s not music you can dance to. So it’s a very intellectual kind of music. It’s getting out of the normal range of thinking.”

Following Dunkelman and Frith’s performance, fellow Professor of Music David Bernstein lectured on the nine decades of music and performance history at Mills. Bernstein’s presentation, “American Experimentalism at Mills College from the 1920’s to the Present”, was featured as part of “Experiments in the Fault Zone”, an exhibition of important moments and artists in Mills history.

“It was wonderful to hear the music from Dunkelman and Frith, but it was also tremendous to hear the rich history of music and dance at Mills College,” Mills Provost Dr. Kimberley Phillips said after the event. “It’s a very vibrant history, one that we can be proud of.”

“Experiments in the Fault Zone” will run in the Mills Art Museum through Dec. 8.

Museum hours and a schedule of upcoming events can be found at