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Where experimental is rudimental

Mills College Weekly

Come Thursday evening and witness the transformation of musical
minds set free from chord progressions and traditional instruments.
Don’t forget to grab those dusty earplugs, and an open mind, for
what awaits you down the sleepy sycamore lined tree road at Mills
College is a cathedral of the avant-garde. The Center for
Contemporary Music is one of the world’s leading experimental music

“Thursday Night Special” is a weekly multimedia performance
event put on by CCM graduate students on-campus. A diverse mix of
people crowd in the ensemble room at the CCM, while everyone waits
anxiously for all the diverse weekly performers to set up their
instruments, props, gadgets, and computers.

Graduate student Matt Volla steps up to the front of the room
carrying a laptop computer, a common instrument among artists here.
He puts it on the desk in front of the crowd. There is an anxious

Before the audience can register what has just happened, Volla
has taken a hammer to the laptop and is systematically pounding the
machine into bits. After about three minutes of this hysterical,
yet controlled performance, he bows and titles the piece as being a
contemporary simulation of Nam June Paik’s 1962 “One for Violin
Solo.” Paik, however, smashed a violin, a common instrument of his
time compared to the widely used laptop at the CCM. Mills College
CCM has a long legacy in American experimental traditions.
Originally, the CCM was known as the “San Francisco Tape Music
Center” and was eventually brought to Mills College through a
generous grant from the Rockefeller Foundation in the mid-60’s.

The CCM’s motto during its early years was “if you’re not weird,
get out!” This motto in itself reflects the unique experience one
would have when entering the center. “We are the misfits, unusual,
unique. We don’t do things in the normal fashion. This is a
community where you can be valued,” Payne said. However, the
history of experimentation at Mills began even farther back to the
30’s and 40’s, when composers John Cage, Henry Cowell, and Lou
Harrison performed and taught at Mills. Cage is one of America’s
20th-century great musical innovators. He experimented with
prepared pianos, unusual percussion instruments, electronics, weird
notation and even silence, as well as introducing the element of
chance into the performance of his music. Cage’s dream was to
develop a center for experimentation in music. Though money was not
available at the time, CCM founders Morton Subotonick, Pauline
Oliveros, and Ramon Sender realized Cage’s dream.

“There is a growing awareness on the part of young composers all
over the country that they are not going to find the answers they
are looking for in analysis and composition seminars of the
academies,” said Subotonik in a 1969 interview with the San
Francisco Chronicle.

As technology began morphing and texturizing the palettes of
musicians worldwide, with instruments like the Moog and the Buchla
synthesizers, the CCM began leading the trend of experimentation
with electronic music in the United States. The Moog is one of the
first electronic instruments that produced sounds, and the Buchla,
designed at the San Francisco Tape Music Center, has touch
sensitive plates that produce sound and also was the first analogue
sequencer to ever be built. The CCM began developing a unique
approach to composition and defining new musical terms. Robert
Ashley, composer and iconic director of the CCM from 1969-1981,
also had a dream to interlace different mediums together in a
multimedia approach. Ashley recognized the impact of images and
began weaving together music and visual aesthetics. This thread of
utilizing technology to produce multimedia performances, and
crossing disciplines is pervasive and alive among the performances
at the CCM today.

Artists who could not find freedom from the traditional
conservative academies of the time came to the CCM to find creative
refuge in a counter-culture retreat on the hills of Oakland. John
Bischoff, current CCM Studio Coordinator and a graduate student
from 1971-73, commented on his first experience at the CCM. “I
think of an oasis, a heaven when I arrived at school. I was at the
clearest place I have ever been: among a community of artists,”
Bischoff said. Bischoff is dedicated to fostering the same spirit
and experience in others who come to CCM.

Mills professor of music David Bernstein said the CCM is only
one of a handful of institutions around the world where
instructional emphasis is on creativity, not research. Many music
institutions press the research more than helping students find
their own voice. “There is an open-minded approach,” said
Bernstein. ‘Freedom’ is another choice of words used to describe
the compositional ideology of the CCM.

“Anything people would consider new is being done here,” said
graduate student Scott Kasun. “For the general public, it is pretty
outlandish stuff.”

Today’s popular music scene is accustomed to the electronic
frequencies and drum machines that once only found an audience in
computer labs. However, the CCM still holds an edge in the music
world. Bischoff’s hopes for the future in electronic music are
optimistic. “It keeps bifurcating. Expansion and differentiating
with the use of electronics will keep going, I believe in

CCM is separated from the academies and institutions that
declare music to be conservative and traditional. CCM began as a
place of freedom and choice for composers and musicians. Today, the
motto that defined it 40 years ago is still relevant.