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Olly Wilson

By Trevor Weston

“The role of any artist is to reinterpret human existence by means of the conscious transformation of his experience.”

– Olly Wilson, The Black American Composer, 1972

I entitled these remarks after one of Olly Wilson’s seminal orchestral works, Hold On, commissioned by the Chicago Symphony. Wilson’s composition quotes the African American spiritual of the same name—a piece that tells its performers and listeners to “keep climbing and don’t you tire.” I have always believed that this spiritual echoed Olly Wilson’s philosophical outlook. A humanist who supported and encouraged all around him, composers, scholars, friends, and family. Olly Wilson championed the best artistic and scholarly contributions to American culture. His largess touched many musicians.

It is difficult to summarize Olly Wilson’s influence on my life as a composer, scholar, and human. (I had similar difficulty distilling my father’s influence on my life a few years back.) T.J. Anderson introduced me to Olly Wilson in April 1989 at the premiere of Wilson’s A City Called Heaven, commissioned and performed by Boston Musica Viva. This concert was a mentor-to-mentor exchange triggered by my acceptance into U. C. Berkeley’s Ph.D. program in music composition. As I sat next to Olly Wilson, folowing the music with his personal score, I realized that i had entered into an artist apprenticeship with a master composer.

Composition lessons with Olly Wilson focused on the human experience. He questioned the connection or disconnect between my intention, audience reception, and extant notation. I once held a “radical” idea of starting a large orchestral work, my dissertation, without using the string section for the first fifty measures. This sparked an “Uh (uh was never a good comment), you do realize there are 50 plus musicians in the string section not doing anything? The majority of players of the orchestra are in the strings. The tradition has always used the strings as glue for the orchestra.” My take away from that lesson: the human experience is wrapped up in the writing, performing, and witnessing of a musical composition. One is not disconnected from the other.

 “The idea I strive toward as a composer is to approach music

as it is approached in traditional African cultures.”

– Olly Wilson, The Black Composer Speaks, 1972

Traditional West African cultures believe that music is a force and not a “thing.” Considering Olly Wilson’s vast musical output, one can easily hear that his music was composed as an intentional force to affect or motivate audiences. Listening to his composition Sometimes for tenor and tape, we hear Wilson’s interweaving of electronic sounds wiht live and recorded vocal performance of the spiritual, “Sometimes I feel like a Motherless Child” in a haunting and arresting tapestry. The powerful statements in the work are rooted in the Black musical tradition set in the context of Western Art music.

OIly Wilson’s compositions are demonstrations of “Black Music as an Art Form,” the title to one of his most important essays. Music of perpetual interest, Olly Wilson’s works are a powerful voice of American music. You might consider his music the fulfillment of Dvorak’s vision of an American school of composition based on American folk music. Wilson’s compositions also answer Bartok’s belief that composers should completely integrate their musical language with the purity of folk music to create a new way.

Great minds help us answer big questions. In Olly Wilson’s case, he explained through his research what makes Black music identifiable. Not defining this music by the performer but by its musical organization and characteristics that allow us to trace elements of Black music in many genres of American music. He identified six conceptual approaches to creating music that link sub-Saharan West African music to African-American music. I consider this concept the Rosetta Stone for those who are interested in analyzing Black music.

Olly Wilson did have a kind heart, a wry wit, a good sense of humor and a healthy, competitive spirit. During a class discussion on Louis Jordan, he mentioned the dances that he and his friends did to “Choo Choo Ch’Boogie.” I chuckled a bit like a doubtful nephew. This only encouraged Olly Wilson to demonstrate his dancing prowess by dancing across the stage while we listened to the recording.

I will end with words Olly Wilson wrote to describe Duke Ellington that could easily describe Wilson. This quote seems to speak to Olly Wilson’s wonderful contribution to American society.

Ellington’s (Wilson’s) music reflected a more nuanced, subtle, and complex reading of African-American culture, and, ultimately, projected a sophisticated and realistic understanding of African-American life. Duke Ellington (Olly Wilson) used his music to communicate the complexity, depth, joy, and beauty of the contemporary African-American and American experience.

Thank you Olly Wilson for all that you shared with me and all who knew you.


Read at the Academy Dinner Meeting on November 8, 2018.

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