John Bischoff
John Bischoff | Credit: Canticle

John Bischoff clearly remembers Robert Ashley coming to talk to his composition class at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music in 1969. It’s not what the experimental composer said — it was that it was unlike anything Bischoff had encountered in a class. Usually, Bischoff says, local composers would come, play their music, and show the class their scores.

“He didn’t do any of that,” Bischoff said. “He just got up and spoke for an hour straight. It just blew my mind. I can’t even remember what the ideas were, but they were so expansive.”

The next year Bischoff heard that Mills College in Oakland had opened a program in electronic music. Remembering that Ashley taught at Mills and how he’d impressed him, he decided to go to graduate school there.

Bischoff has fond memories of his time as a student at Mills and the spirit of innovation and discovery in its music program. The way of teaching and learning was unique, he says, letting students find their own way.

“I guess I should have known it was going to be unusual,” he said with a laugh. “It was daunting and exhilarating, and there was very little handholding. I didn’t know anything about synthesizers, and I found out through the wonderful generosity of [fellow student] Maggi Payne, who showed me the Buchla for about 20 minutes till I had some idea of what to do.”

Poster for Mills’ upcoming “Music in the Fault Zone”
Poster for Mills’ upcoming “Music in the Fault Zone”

Bischoff and Payne both went on to teach at Mills. They, along with dozens of other alumni and former and present faculty, will be performing in the four-day festival April 21–24, “Music in the Fault Zone: Experimental Music at Mills College (1939 to the present).

The music department chair, David Bernstein, who helped organize the concert, says this is a celebration of the richness of the legacy of the department and its continued prowess. And it’s something more. Last year, Mills’ president announced that after 169 years the college would close and then, a few months later, that it would merge with Northeastern University.

Now, with no one quite sure what the merger will mean, “Music in the Fault Zone” makes a statement, Bernstein says, showcasing how the music department is a cultural treasure, with many people associated with it described as “pioneers” — Pauline Oliveros in “Deep Listening,” Terry Riley in minimalism, John Cage in electroacoustic music and using musical instruments in a nonstandard way, Fred Frith in modern guitar, Bischoff in computer music, and Payne (who co-ran the Center for Contemporary Music, established as the Tape Music Center, for years) in electronic music.

Darius Milhaud
Darius Milhaud in 1923

Faculty members have also included French composer and conductor Darius Milhaud, who was at Mills for three decades beginning during World War II, and Lou Harrison, who built Indonesian gamelan percussion instruments.

There’s no other place like Mills, Bernstein says — and he wants the administrators at Northeastern to realize that. “We’re at a pivotal moment in the history of the college with the merger. The college has gone through a lot of instability, and people are not aware of what the future will be.”

Bernstein, who has written books about Cage, the Tape Music Center, and is working on one about Oliveros, also helped organizing the college’s 1995 festival celebrating Cage, “Here Comes Everybody.” He says that experience made him realize the music department’s global reach. “All these amazing people came from all over the world. I learned that there was this enormous community worldwide.”

Along with Frith, Riley, and composer Chris Brown, this year’s festival includes composer and multi-instrumentalist Roscoe Mitchell. Mitchell, who held the Darius Milhaud chair from 2007 to 2018, will make the trip from his home in Wisconsin for the opening night of the festival, where he will perform Milhaud’s work, as well as some of his own.

Mitchell says he loved being surrounded by all the musicians at Mills. “There were all these great minds there. Robert Ashley and Pauline Oliveros and Fred Frith and John Bischoff and Chris Brown. Sometimes a door opens, and you have to decide if you are going to walk through it.”

Sound artist and performer Laetitia Sonami, who came to the United States from France in 1975, will also perform at the “In the Fault Zone,” in a duo with composer, harpist, and current Milhaud Professor of Music Zeena Parkins, as well as in an ensemble that includes Bischoff and Payne, playing Paul DeMarinis’s version of Ashley’s work for voice and electronics, In Sara, Mencken, Christ, and Beethoven There Were Men and Women.

Sonami graduated from Mills in 1980 with a Master’s in Electronic Music and calls her experience there “eye-opening.” Like Bischoff, she says the emphasis was on figuring out things for yourself. “It was just really incredible as far as the inventiveness. They’re freethinkers, and there’s not really a school of thought you had to follow, which the French really have. It’s just people with incredible ideas.”

She’s happy to participate in what she sees as a celebration of the music department, and she’s proud to be playing alongside the musicians at the festival. She hopes the administration at Northeastern will commit to preserving the program. “They say, ‘We love you, we love you,’ but that doesn’t count. Hopefully, they come away knowing the diversity of the talent. There’s a lot of unique voices, and it’s extremely varied. Most festivals have a more limited palette, but the palette here is very wide, and that’s what makes it special.”

Bernstein agrees, mentioning that the program for the festival includes Las Sucias, a feminist noise reggaeton duo; the all-women Eclipse Quartet; and the duo IMA performing expressionistic noise music influenced by Japanese poetry.

“The legacy of Mills is not in the past,” he said. “It’s not a dusty thing — it keeps evolving.”