Mills College, Hub for Electronic and Experimental Music Study, Is Closing

By Allison Hussey

Mills College, a small private women’s university in Oakland, California, announced this week that it will end its degree programs. The school’s unique Center for Contemporary Music was a hub for artists and composers to experiment and develop their skills, a Bay Area support center for musicians that included titans like Pauline Oliveros, Morton Subotnick, Anthony Braxton, and more. The institution cited “the economic burdens of the COVID-19 pandemic, changes in higher education, and Mills’ declining enrollment and budget deficits” as its reasoning. It will stop admitting students after the fall 2021 term and will likely confer its final degrees in 2023, according to Mills’ official statement.

Mills College established its revered Center for Contemporary Music in 1966—John Cage had floated a similar idea decades earlier during his time with Mills in the 1930s and 1940s, but there wasn’t a budget to make it happen. The Center for Contemporary Music was born out of the San Francisco Tape Music Center, which had been established independently by Mills associates Morton Subotnick and Ramon Sender five years earlier before finding a permanent home at Mills. It was also home to Don Buchla’s original Buchla 100 modular synthesizer, which the San Francisco Tape Center had commissioned from the inventor in its early days.

Pauline Oliveros, who had worked with Sender and Subotnick as a peer in establishing the San Francisco Tape Music Center, served as the director of the new institution for its first year. She later returned to the college as a professor of composition for the last two decades of her life. Mills was also a professional and creative home to composer Robert Ashley, whose work changed the shape of opera in the 20th century.

Other notable music faculty at Mills included Anthony Braxton, Dave Brubeck, Luciano Berio, Terry Riley, John Bischoff, and Roscoe Mitchell. The music program’s participants and graduates include Laurie Anderson, Steve Reich, the Grateful Dead’s Phil Lesh, Holly Herndon, Chuck Johnson, and Joanna Newsom (who had studied at Mills as an undergrad), among many others.