Olly Wilson, Acclaimed Composer and Musicologist, Dies at 80

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Olly Wilson (Courtesy of UC Berkeley)

Olly Wilson, an esteemed musicologist and composer who experimented with African styles and electronic instruments within traditional western classical works, has died. He was 80.

A longtime professor at UC Berkeley — and, previously, Oberlin College in Ohio — Wilson was an acclaimed composer who won several awards, including two Guggenheim Fellowships and the Rome Prize. Besides a notable scholar of African music, Wilson was also an early adopter of electronic music. He opened a studio focused on the burgeoning genre at Oberlin's Conservatory of Music in the 1960s. It would become the Technology in Music and Related Arts program, or TIMARA, the first program of its kind at a conservatory.

“Olly was very important for the department, for the campus, and for the study of African American music more broadly, in addition to his significant impact as a composer and professor of composition,” UC Berkeley music professor Ben Brinner told the school's public affairs department.

Born in St. Louis in 1937, Wilson started his music career as pianist, playing jazz and other genres in bars around town as a teenager. At one early gig, Wilson and his bandmates backed a then-unknown Chuck Berry, who was on his way to changing the musical landscape with songs like "Johnny B. Goode."


“We considered that silly music because we were jazz aficionados,” Wilson later said about the show.

Wilson went on to attend several universities, finally earning his Ph.D. from University of Iowa in 1964. Three years later, Wilson composed "Cetus" while he was studying at the University of Illinois Studio for Experimental Music. The work would win a prize at the first International Electronic Music Competition.

A prolific composer, Wilson received commissions from the New York Philharmonic, the Black Music Repertory Ensemble, and the Chicago Symphony for his work. His most notable pieces include "Of Visions and Truth," "Sinfonia," and "In Memoriam Martin Luther King, Jr."

Wilson joined the music department at UC Berkeley in 1970 and stayed there over 30 years, retiring as a professor emeritus in 2002. He was head of the department from 1993 and 1997, and early in his tenure he served in the chancellor’s office, leading administrative efforts to address equity. Colleagues later credited Wilson for expanding the music department's curriculum.

“He was one of the most important African American composers of what we would loosely call classical music, as opposed to jazz or pop music,” UC Berkeley's John Roberts told the Daily Cal.

Wilson's daughter Dawn Wilson says her father died on March 12 due to complications from dementia. A memorial to Wilson is scheduled for March 30 at the Claremont Hotel.