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African American Pioneers of Electronic Music Part 1: Olly Wilson

My Book: Electronic and Experimental Music, sixth edition, Routledge 2020.

My Podcast: The Holmes Archive of Electronic Music


This episode is the first in an occasional series marking the accomplishments of African American innovators in electronic music. For this episode, we reach back to the vintage days of what I like to call “institutional electronic music studios” to celebrate the work of composer Olly Wilson. His work was not widely recorded. These vintage vinyl tracks from the archive may be the first time many listeners have heard his electronic music.



Wilson played jazz piano as a teen and later double bass, then went to university to study composition where he earned a Ph.D. in 1964 from the University of Iowa. In 1967 he studied electronic music as the famous center for experimental music at the University of Illinois. He was a recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1971 which he used to study traditional West African music at the University of Ghana. He built a career of university teaching at several schools but most notably the University of California, Berkeley where he was from 1970 to 2002.


Electronic music only made up a small fraction of Wilson’s output as a composer. The tracks I’m playing here include two approaches that Wilson used to this medium. The first is music composed wholly on tape using prerecorded electroacoustic sounds. Of the compositions that follow, Cetus and Sometimes were created like this. He also composed for live performance involving instrumentalists accompanied by a tape. The three works Akwan, Echoes, and Piano Piece for Piano and Electronic Sounds used this approach. As you can imagine, the timing of the tape with a live performance is a tricky business. Even more so when the blending of the sounds is so vital to the music’s impact, and these examples of Wilson’s are some of the most remarkable of this kind. They required careful planning and expert use of the studio. Not to mention exquisite judgment and creativity in creating the electronic sounds.


It is striking how Wilson’s electronic output contrasted with other works being produced in academia at the time. He composed during a time when electronic music was restricted to the institutions of learning that could afford to have studios. Access to these studios was guarded, much of the output was academic and formal, all the product of a Western tradition in classical music composition that only embraced electronic sounds as a bauble to decorate the playing of instrumental ensembles.


Wilson took a different path. He raised the importance of the electronic sounds to be equal to that of the instruments and voices. He passionately co-mingled ensemble parts and even soloists with tape sounds. Wilson’s music was relatable, truly reachable by anyone listening.


Here is an outline of the five works that I will play. They are presented in the order in which they were created. These five electronic works span Wilson’s outputs from 1967 to 1977. His early tape composition, Cetus, was realized at the University of Illinois in 1967. Wilson’s other tape pieces were realized at the studio of the University of California at Berkeley.


First, we’ll hear Cetus for which Wilson won the inaugural electronic music competition at Dartmouth College. This competition evaluated hundreds of compositions from around the world. Wilson had just completed study at the electronic music center of the University of Illinois.


Next is Piano Piece for Piano and Electronic Sound. Wilson created the electronic realization at the University of California at Berkeley studio. The pianist was Natalie Hinderas. You can hear that Wilson is not afraid to use distorted electronic sounds, particularly at the beginning of this piece. You can hear that Wilson composed a piano piece that required the pianist to use all of the dynamic ranges of the piano. The tape part was created to complement and follow the same path as the piano.


The third work is from 1975 and was perhaps Wilson’s most elaborate composition for orchestra and tape. The title, Akwan, is taken from the West African language of the Akan people of Ghana and means, “roads, pathways, opportunities, or directions.” This large-scale work serves as a kind of conversation between the soloist/orchestra and the electronic sounds.


The fourth work is Echoes from 1977. This was written by Wilson for clarinetist Phillip Rehfeldt, who is heard in this performance. Note the close-know interplay of the clarinet and electronic sound. This was a performance piece for which the clarinet was amplified, and the tape sounds were projected on a 4-channel speaker system. Like the Piano Piece heard earlier, there is a focused effort to create a dialog or interplay between the musician and the electronic sound.


Finally, we’ll hear Olly Wilson’s Sometimes from 1977. This tape work was written for the tenor William A. Brown who is featured in this recording. Wilson pre-recorded Wilson and then processed his voice in the studio and added electronic sounds to create a moving interpretation of the Black spiritual “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child.”


Playlist

1. Olly Wilson, “Cetus” from Electronic Music IV (1967 Turnabout). Composer, electronic realization on tape, Olly Wilson. Realized in the studio for Experimental Music of the University of Illinois. Wilson was the winner of the First International Electronic Music Competition, Dartmouth College, April 5, 1968. The competition was judged by composers Milton Babbitt, Vladimir Ussachevsky, and George Balch Wilson. The winner was awarded a $500 prize. 9:15.


2. Olly Wilson, “Piano Piece for Piano And Electronic Sound” from Natalie Hinderas Plays Music By Black Composers (1971 Desto). Composer, electronic realization on tape, Olly Wilson; piano, Natalie Hinderas. Electronic sound realized at the Electronic Music Studio of the University of California at Berkeley. No apologetic electronics here. Wilson deftly blends a full range of electronic sounds, from loud and rumbling to delicately wavering, with a piano piece that moves through many of the dynamics of the piano. 10:56.


3. Olly Wilson, “Akwan, For Piano, Electric Piano, Amplified Strings and Orchestra” from Black Composer’s Series, Akwan/Squares/Visions of Ishwara (1975 Columbia Masterworks). Composer, electronic realization on tape, Olly Wilson; Piano, Electric Piano, Richard Bunger; Baltimore Symphony Orchestra conducted by Paul Freeman. Electronic sound realized at the Electronic Music Studio of the University of California at Berkeley. The word “akwan” comes fromt the Akwan language of West Africa. It means “roads, pathways, opportunities, or directions” (from the liner notes). This large-scale work serves as a kind of conversation between the soloist/orchestra and the electronic sounds. 16.26.


4. Olly Wilson, “Echoes” from American Contemporary, Fantasy/4 Preludes/Echoes/Automobile (1977 CRI). Composer, electronic realization on tape, Olly Wilson; clarinet, Phillip Rehfeldt. Electronic sound realized at the Electronic Music Studio of the University of California at Berkeley. Close integration and interplay of clarinet and tape sounds. This was a performance piece for which the clarinet was amplified, and the tape sounds were projected on a 4-channel speaker system. 10:37.


5. Olly Wilson, “Sometimes” from Other Voices (1977 CRI). Composer, electronic realization on tape, Olly Wilson; tenor, William A Brown. Electronic sound realized at the Electronic Music Studio of the University of California at Berkeley. Based on the Black spiritual “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child,” this work evolves through a variety of roles for the voice and tape. Opening with highly modified sounds and distorted electronics (yes, those are beautiful and purposeful distortions you hear as part of the original tape!) the tenor is next featured as a soloist, then the elements are combined and mixed in various combinations for the rest of the work. 17:24.


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