Monday, March 26, 2018

New York Times: Olly Wilson, 80, Dies; Composer Meshed African and Western Music

The jazz drummer Max Roach, left, greeted the alto saxophonist Ornette Coleman as Olly Wilson looked on during an induction ceremony at the American Academy of Arts and Letters in Manhattan in 1997. Credit Ozier Muhammad/The New York Times

The New York Times    

March 23, 2018

By Richard Sandomir

 Olly Wilson, an adventurous composer who integrated African, African-American and electronic rhythms, riffs and sounds into Western classical music conventions, died on March 12 in Oakland, Calif. He was 80.

His daughter, Dawn Wilson, said the cause was complications of dementia.

Mr. Wilson, a longtime professor at the University of California, Berkeley, grew up listening to jazz and spirituals. He studied African music in Ghana under one of his two Guggenheim Fellowships, opened an electronic music studio at the Conservatory of Music at Oberlin College in Ohio, where he had formerly taught, and wrote academic papers, including a major essay on the art of black music.

“I see him very much as a musician, composer and a scholar — these things are hard to separate with him,” Ryan Skinner, a musicology professor at Ohio State University, said in a telephone interview. “His music is, in many ways, the resounding of his scholarship.”

In his composition “Sometimes,” Mr. Wilson used the call-and-response tradition of African-American churchgoers to create a dialogue between a tenor singing “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child” and a tape that included a distorted recording of that sorrowful spiritual.

In his review of the New York Philharmonic’s performance of “Sometimes” in 1977, Donal Henahan of The New York Times wrote that the tenor William Brown “handled its vocally excruciating demands to gripping effect,” and that the “sibilants, gurgles and moans” from the tape “produce an almost suffocating mood of isolation and sadness.” 

Mr. Wilson, whose music was played by orchestras around the world, aligned himself with an African-American musical heritage that includes Frank Johnson, a 19th-century bugler, bandleader and composer; Harry Burleigh, a composer and baritone soloist; and the contemporary composer T. J. Anderson. His other influences, he said, ranged from Igor Stravinsky and Edgard Varèse to Charlie Parker and Miles Davis.

“Music is experience consciously transformed, and because my experience has been an African-American experience, I think it expresses that,” he told Bruce Duffie, a radio producer and interviewer in 1997, when asked if he were conveying African-American ideas in his pieces.

In the early 1990s, Mr. Wilson wrote a viola concerto for Marcus Thompson that had an improvisatory feel, with riffs associated with a jazz saxophone or trumpet and a bluesy middle section. Mr. Thompson said in a telephone interview that, compared with other viola concertos, Mr. Wilson’s was special “because he writes from a completely different medium; he’s a jazz player who’s written all sorts of chamber music.”

The work, titled “Viola Concerto,” had its long-delayed premiere in 2012 with the Rochester Philharmonic. Stuart Low, of The Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, called the work “searing and haunting.”

Olly Woodrow Wilson Jr. was born in St. Louis on Sept. 7, 1937. His father was a butler and a cook; his mother, the former Alma Grace Peoples, was a domestic. Theirs was the second African-American family in their neighborhood.      

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