BY Joseph Akel in Reviews | 03 JAN 14
Featured in
Issue 160

Experiments in the Fault Zone

BY Joseph Akel in Reviews | 03 JAN 14

Left to right: Darius Milhaud, Fernand Léger and André Maurois in the Mills College Art Museum, 1941

It was fitting that ‘Experiments in the Fault Zone’ made a titular reference to the seismic fissures that crisscross the Bay Area. The show offered a jam-packed survey of the school’s groundbreaking history of avant-garde experimentation in the arts. A multimedia affair with a curatorial bent towards the archival, the exhibition exhaustively underscored Mills’s status as an active site of creative irruption.

Founded in 1852, Mills was one of the nation’s first centres of higher learning for women. Much like Black Mountain College, Mills’s cloistered population and relatively hidden Oakland locale quickly became a hotbed of avant-garde activity. Chronologically documenting the development of the school’s creative atmosphere, ‘Experiments in the Fault Zone’ took as its curatorial cue the 1938 arrival of dance visionary, Marian Van Tuyl. Van Tuyl gathered around her a dazzling cohort of art-world luminaries, among them John Cage, Mills’s composer-in-residence from 1938–41. Evidence of their collaboration includes the experimental dance film Horror Dream (1947), choreographed by Van Tuyl to Cage’s earlier composition, The Imaginary Landscape No. 1 (1939). Muted pianos, plunked cymbals and variable tempos accompany Tuyl’s choreographed enactment of musical chairs, fabric being folded and seated women fidgeting. The overall sense is one of frenetic energy held tenuously in check by measured gestures.

At roughly the same time, under the guidance of the college’s then president, Aurelia Henry Reinhardt, Mills began its Summer Sessions in Creative Arts, drawing the attention of the international arts community to the college’s Oakland-cum-Arcadia outpost. Art historian Alfred Neumeyer was among those who travelled west and, in turn, summoned his European contacts to California. Among the works exhibited from this period was Lázló Moholy-Nagy’s CH XI (1939) – an abstract oil painting of sinuous loops bisected by bars of faded blues and reds, which calls to mind amoebae viewed under a microscope.

With the arrival in 1940 of French composer Darius Milhaud, Mills’s international reputation for vanguard musical composition was largely solidified, and it is in many ways this medium for which the institution has exerted lasting influence. One of the seminal moments for the college was the relocation in 1966 of the San Francisco Tape Music Center (SFTMC) – later renamed the Center for Contemporary Music (CCM) – to the Mills campus. Originally founded in 1961 by electronic music pioneers Morton Subotnick, Pauline Oliveros and Ramon Sender, the SFTMC would become a nexus for radical advances in musical theory and practice. And, thanks to various listening stations grouped chronologically throughout the exhibition, the overriding sense of ‘Experiments in the Fault Zone’ invoked a campus that was and remains a hive of sonic experimentation.

During the 1960s, the campus population comprised a dynamic group of technical and compositional innovators, notable among them Don Buchla, inventor of the first modular analogue synthesizer – the Electric Music Box – a contemporary of the Moog. Evidence of the synthesizer’s early use in composition can be heard in Lowell Cross’s Three Etudes for Norman O. Brown (1965), a trippy mix of spasmodic synth pulses, evoking dissonance in the deft play between generated echoes and bass reverberations. The alternating sonar-plucking and scrubbing of Subotnick’s Silver Apples of the Moon, Parts A and B (1967) – also utilizing Buchla’s modular unit – demonstrates the artist’s interest in the play with altered pitch and tape-modulated sound. Meanwhile, Black is the Colour (USA) (1964), part of Italian composer Luciano Berio’s 11-part suite, Folk Songs (1964), skews traditional folk melodies in its play with atonality and vocal harmonies.

Between the late 1970s and the ’90s, Mills and the CCM established itself as a leading space for musical innovation, luring a diverse set of composers, among them Iannis Xenakis and Fred Frith, to the institution. During this period, artists also increasingly utilized instruments and techniques from non-Western cultures. As with the Abel Steinberg Winant Trio’s Varied Trio (1991), the chiming metal clangs of the Indonesian gamelan are central, while in The Park (Privacy Rules) (1983), Robert Ashley’s hypnotic narration is accompanied by the soft thumps of a tabla drum and improvised melodic lines of a solo piano.

Shown as a wall projection close to the end of the exhibition, choreographer June Watanabe’s piece, 5/15/45 The Last Dance (2001), combined the highly stylized structures of Japanese Noh dance with avant-garde jazz. Transposing individuation upon a legacy of seclusion, the performance derived its subject matter from the artist’s childhood experience in a Japanese internment camp. The generative collision of genres in Watanabe’s piece, like many works in ‘Experiments in the Fault Zone’, underscores an ongoing artistic tradition at Mills that is nothing short of earthshaking.

Joseph Akel is a writer based in New York and San Francisco, USA. He is currently a PhD candidate in the Rhetoric Department of the University of California, Berkeley.