When he started teaching at Mills College in the late 1990s, Fred Frith already had an extensive resume. He had founded British avant-rock pioneers Henry Cow and collaborated with legends such as Richard Thompson, Brian Eno, and John Zorn. Yet he still found himself intimidated by Mills’ status as a breeding ground for inventive and influential experimental musicians. As he later told the L.A. Times, “When I first got here, I was a little overwhelmed by the history.”
It’s hard to blame him. The musical legacy of Mills College is dauntingly vast. Just listing all the artists who have passed through as students and professors—figures as diverse as Terry Riley, Laurie Anderson, Phil Lesh, and Joanna Newsom—could take days. That’s why the Oakland school’s recent decision to stop accepting new pupils after 2021, and cease granting degrees after 2023, sent shockwaves through avant-garde music circles. Mills (whose undergraduates are solely women, but whose graduate program is co-ed) has birthed so much fascinating work, it’s hard to imagine what American experimental music over the past 100 years would sound like without it.