Composer Olly Wilson, Founding Father of Electronic Music at Oberlin, Dies at 80

April 4, 2018

By Erich Burnett

Olly Wilson classroom photo from 1968
Olly Wilson, seen here with a class in 1968, taught at Oberlin from 1965-70 and helped launch the conservatory's electronic music program.
Photo credit: Oberlin College Archives

Wide-ranging influences included spirituals, jazz, serialism, and more.

In 1973, Oberlin’s newly christened Technology in Music and Related Arts Department became the first undergraduate electronic music program in the United States. Five years earlier, the groundwork for TIMARA was laid by Olly Wilson, an associate professor of composition who had been raised on a world of diverse sounds and was intent on exploring new sonic worlds of his own.

A member of the Oberlin Conservatory faculty from 1965 to 1970, Wilson taught music theory and composition courses, as well as the first known course on African American music. He is widely credited for having observed in the late 1960s that the basement of Bibbins Hall would make a fine setting for an electronic music studio. TIMARA has called that basement home since its founding.

Wilson went on to a long and varied career as a professor and administrator at the University of California, Berkeley, and he remained an active and acclaimed composer for many years. Wilson died March 12, 2018, at age 80.

“Olly Wilson was a pioneer in many wonderful capacities, and the TIMARA Department is honored to consider him the inspirational origin of our program,” says Tom Lopez ’89, an associate professor in TIMARA and former student in the program. “His open-minded and experimental approach to working with electronic media, particularly in conjunction with acoustic instruments, continues to this day in the creativity I see in our students.”

Born and raised in St. Louis, Wilson took to playing music in his school and church, where his father was a highly regarded tenor in the choir. By his early teens, the younger Wilson played piano for the choir and became proficient on the clarinet and bass. An avid jazz performer in area clubs, he once played piano as part of a house band for a young Chuck Berry. “We played, but it really didn’t make any difference because you couldn’t hear us,” Wilson later shared as part of an oral history project at Berkeley. “He just wiped us out—bang, bang, bang—on his guitar.”

Initially inspired to pursue a career as a high school band director, Wilson saw his horizons expanded as an undergraduate at Washington University in St. Louis, where he was one of seven black students offered a scholarship—an early sign that segregation was beginning to erode. He played jazz piano and classical bass, earning spots in the university’s orchestra and chamber orchestra. By his sophomore year, he realized he wanted to be a composer.

An advocate of Bartók, Hindemith, and Stravinsky early in his musical career, Wilson eventually found himself gravitating toward the twelve-tone serialism of Arnold Schoenberg, which he fully indulged throughout his graduate studies in composition at the University of Illinois, where he earned a master’s degree. In 1964, he added a PhD from the University of Iowa.

Olly Wilson photo
Olly Wilson in 1967. Photo courtesy
Oberlin College Archives

After teaching for several years at Florida A&M University, Wilson was appointed to the Oberlin faculty in the summer of 1965, the first full-time black faculty member in the conservatory’s history. He also served as advisor for the Black Student Union and brought prominent black musicians to his classes.

A prolific composer, Wilson contributed works to Oberlin’s long-standing Festival of Contemporary Music every year he was on the faculty. One such work was a choral piece called In Memoriam Martin Luther King Jr., which included fragments of speeches by King set to intermittent electronic music. It was performed by the Oberlin College Choir under Robert Fountain.

Wilson’s compositions tended to showcase wave after wave of influences, from the church music and spirituals of his childhood to the jazz, blues, and traditional African sounds he embraced throughout his adult life. Increasingly, he became enamored of pairing acoustic instruments with electronically produced sounds.

In 1967, Wilson and numerous other faculty composers who shared an interest in electronic music sought funding to purchase equipment and support research. They earned a grant from the National Science Foundation that by 1969 yielded a collection including computers, testing instruments, Moog and ARP synthesizers, a mixer, and a patch bay. The ARP continues to be used by Oberlin TIMARA students today.

In 1968, Wilson won first prize at the International Electronic Music Competition at Dartmouth College, the first competition ever devoted to electronic music.

Wilson himself was among the first composers to create in Bibbins’ basement studios, according to his own notes from the 1969 composition Piano Piece, written for prepared piano and stereo tape. “Piano Piece … is a musical essay in which I attempted to create a musical dialogue between an acoustic piano and electronic sound,” he wrote. “The electronic portion of this composition was realized at the then-new Electronic Music Studio at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music, and, to my knowledge, is the first piece completed in that studio."

Wilson’s signed and dated score to Piano Piece resides in the Oberlin Conservatory Library. Piano Piece appeared on the 2008 Centaur recording Music from the TIMARA Studios.

By 1970, Wilson left Oberlin for Berkeley, where he taught for 22 years while assuming administrative duties including department chair, faculty assistant for Affirmative Action, assistant chancellor for international affairs, and associate dean of the graduate division.

A Guggenheim Fellowship—one of two Wilson earned over the course of his career—afforded him the opportunity to study the roots of African American music in West Africa in 1971-72. This experience and others helped raise Wilson’s awareness of international affairs and ignited his advocacy of educational opportunities for students from Third World countries. He led initiatives to promote international exchanges with China and create opportunities for black South African students to study at Berkeley.

Wilson returned to Oberlin multiple times, including as composer in residence at the Teachers Performance Institute in July 1971, as part of a weeklong symposium on black American composers in 1981, and for the retirement of longtime TIMARA professor Gary Lee Nelson in 2007.

“The university is the 20th century patron of the arts for composers,” he told The Oakland Tribune in 1989. “This means, of course, that one is also a teacher. Some composers don’t like the university. They find it stultifying. On the other hand, people like me thrive on the university. I like ideas. I love teaching and being stimulated by intellectual ideas. For me, the university is a very exciting place.”

Wilson was honored in 1974 by the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the National Institute of Arts and Letters. He earned a Rome Prize in 2008.

In 1983, Wilson’s Voices was performed by the Cleveland Orchestra in a concert at Severance Hall in honor of Dr. King. Even in retirement, Wilson remained a well-received composer whose works were performed by orchestras throughout the world. Among his commissions were pieces for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the New York Philharmonic.

Upon hearing of Wilson’s death, faculty and students in the TIMARA Department created a memorial in his honor outside the studios’ main entrance: a computer set up to play music he had written.

Wilson is survived by his wife, Elouise Woods Wilson; a son and daughter; and six grandchildren.

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