During her introductory speech, Mills College President Janet L. Holmgren disputed the notion that academically produced music is inherently dry. Sitting here, watching the rain pour down upon Oakland, and reminiscing about the sounds I heard last night from Pauline Oliveros, Roscoe Mitchell, Terry Riley, and Joan Jeanrenaud, I have to agree with her contention.
Oliveros started the concert off, playing the first notes within the renovated, restored, and vastly improved Littlefield Concert Hall. Her piece Sound.Light.Migrations was delightfully spacey and minimal. Her characteristic accordion playing was enhanced by something called "expanded instrument system" which she controlled by use of her laptop. Sounds within the piece ranged from pointillist single notes to fast clusters, all of them ringing around the acoustically amazing space of the hall. Towards the end, she brought the listener back to earth by using beautiful, sonorous chords, a kind of soft earth landing from the outer reaches of space. Sound.Light.Migrations also featured visuals by Tony Martin, a genuine pioneer in the field of light show art. His work was often as minimal as the sounds, with a large screen that remained mostly black, while white and green squiggles undulated on the margins, sometimes leaving blurred trails in their wake.
Next up on the program was Roscoe Mitchell's piece 8/8/88, composed for and performed by pianist Joseph Kubera. 8/8/88 was filled with dense, spiky chords, often played in advanced time signatures. Roscoe's Jazz background could be heard within the rooted left hand bass lines, which at times had an almost Ragtime feel. The melodies in the piece were rich and fascinating, often blue-colored on Disaster Amnesiac's closed eye lids.
After a brief intermission, Terry Riley took the stage to a rapturous applause, and proceeded to play his brand new work, For Margaret. Riley's use of Raga technique within solo keyboard playing has been a work in progress for four decades, and it still sounds fresh, innovative, and real. Beginning with a more Western melodic motif, he slowly segued into a very Indian modal approach, achieving his always meditative and tranced-out Minimalist. Mid-way through the piece he added vocal chant a la his mentor Pandit Pran Nath; Riley's approach radiates pure LOVE, and his use of vocals gave a real air of sanctification to the work. The piece ended the way it began, with simple melodic motifs. Standing ovations ensued.
Last up was former Kronos Quartet cellist Joan Jeanrenaud. She played two works, Vermont Rules and Strange Toys. Both pieces utilized looped cello phrases, over which Jeanrenaud played various techniques, ranging from purely Classical in sound to Avant-Garde, Jazz, and Rock. Her control of the cello is breathtaking; she makes the instrument sing, weep, squeal, any sound she wants is there for her to use. It's not enough to say she's just a virtuoso, though. Her sheer musicality and inventiveness are key within her compositions, and take them, and the listener, higher than mere displays of technique ever could.
The Mills Music Festival 2009's slogan reads "Giving Free Play to the Imagination". All of the opening night's featured composers/artists made this statement come alive on the stage and within the ears and minds of the listeners. There was nothing dry about this concert at all.