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Mills College and all that jazz

February 7, 2009 |  3:00 pm

Brubeck “Giving Free Play to the Imagination” is the name of the six-concert festival beginning Feb. 21 that will explore Mills College's surprisingly extensive role in the history of American experimental music. The festival will celebrate the reopening of the Oakland college’s historic concert hall and is the subject of my Critic's Notebook in Arts & Books on Sunday.

Six concerts, though, will barely scratch the surface. But happily, a number of recent CDs fill in a few more gaps in this history and also show what some of the Mills old-timers are up to.

The oldest-timer is pianist Dave Brubeck, who was inducted into the California Hall of Fame in December and who in the late '40s at Mills was encouraged by Darius Milhaud to spruce up his jazz improvisation and composition with polytonality and sophisticated counterpoint. Applying his technically advanced stuff to his cool exterior made him a decade later perhaps the most popular jazz musician.

Millslayers_2 Acrobat Music has just released “The Dave Brubeck Quartet on the Radio: Live 1956-67,” broadcasts from the Basin Street Jazz Club in New York and Chicago’s Blue Note. As these tapes reveal, Brubeck’s habit of getting in a groove and staying there in his solos was far more noticeable in his club dates than in his studio sessions. Who knew that he would prove the link between Milhaud and Terry Riley, the composer and keyboardist who later made Mills a meeting place of Minimalists.

The great Italian composer Luciano Berio was also at Mills and, for his final concert in 1965 before leaving for Juilliard, he premiered “Folk Songs.” These modern arrangements of traditional numbers from different lands were the first cracks in the wall of abstraction erected by the hard-core European avant-garde, and eventually the set brought the whole edifice down.


A lovely new recording of “Folk Songs” on Neos features Stella Doufexis, an outstanding German Greek mezzo-soprano who also appears on the disc singing Schoenberg’s “Pierrot Lunaire” with piano jazz interludes supplied by Maria Baptist, which seems like a very Mills kind of thing to do.

New World Records has been actively documenting the history of American experimental music lately.  Among its recent releases is a series of pieces by the League of Automatic Music Composers from 1978-83.  The collective came out of Mills and included John Bishoff, now an assistant professor on campus, and engineering-minded colleagues who fashioned cheap, home-made circuitry to act in inexplicable –- and inexplicably interesting -- ways.

Another New World release is a four-CD set documenting live performances by Musica Elettronica Viva over four decades.  This ensemble, which included Frederic Rzewski and Alvin Curran (who was based at Mills in the '90s), was formed by American expatriate composers in Rome in the '60s to make improvisation stranger than it had been before.  New World has also put out a variety of pieces by Larry Polansky under the collective title “The Theory of Impossible Melody.”   The composer, who had an association with Mills, is more an impossible theorist.  I find that the hard part to understand.  The electronic results sound very possible indeed.

Robert Ashley, who headed the Mills Center for Contemporary Music in the '70s, has become America’s most original –- and to my mind, hippest -- opera composer.  His latest is “Concrete,” another stream-of-consciousness take on reality and alternate realities.  It is not sung but delivered in an enthralling singsong with electronic accompaniment that sounds like the songs of whales.  There is nothing else like this.  It has been released by Lovely Music, which produces all of Ashley’s CDs.

Leon Kirchner’s four string quartets, which span 50 years, have just been recorded together for the first time.  The extensive notes to the disc on Albany Records are not so extensive as to mention Mills, where Kirchner got his start -- teaching there in the '50s after having studied with Schoenberg and before heading off to Harvard.  At least Morton Subotnick, the renowned electronic music composer who studied with Milhaud and Kirchner at Mills, is finally given a bit more credit than he usually is for his role in helping create the electronic effects Kirchner used in his 1966 Third Quartet, which won a Pulitzer Prize (in no small measure for its application of electronic sounds to a traditional ensemble).  The Orion String quartet plays all four works very well.

-- Mark Swed

Photos: From top, Dave Brubeck plays a keyboard at his induction into the 2008 California Hall of Fame at the California Museum on Dec. 15, 2008, in Sacramento; Luciano Berio, left, with Zubin Mehta in 1965. Credits: The California Museum via Getty Images (Brubeck); Paolo Sacchi / For The Times (Berio and Mehta).