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African American Faculty and Senior Staff Oral History Project

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Olly Wilson Transcript: Composer and Professor of Music at the University of California, Berkeley

Conducted by Caroline Crawford and Nadine Wilmot in 2002-2003, Regional Oral History Office, The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley, 2014.


Photo of Olly Wilson

Olly W. Wilson was born in St. Louis, Missouri in 1937. His higher education includes a B.M. degree from Washington University, St. Louis, 1959; Master of Music degree from the Univ. of Illinois 1960; and the Ph.D. degree from the Univ. of Iowa, 1964. Wilson also played jazz piano with local groups in St. Louis and was a member of several orchestras as a string bass player, including the St. Louis Philharmonic orchestra and the Cedar Rapids Symphony. He studied electronic music at the University of Illinois and has held faculty positions at Florida A & M University (1960-62, 1964-65) Oberlin Conservatory of Music (1965 -1970) and the University of California, Berkeley (from 1970 until his retirement in 2002). His compositions include chamber works, orchestral works and works for the electronic media.

Professor Wilson is the recipient of numerous awards for his creative work as a composer including awards from the Guggenheim, Koussevitzky, Rockefeller, Fromm and Lila Wallace Foundations; the National Endowment for the Arts and the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center. In 1968, he was the recipient of the Dartmouth Arts Council Prize as winner of the first international competition for electronic music for his composition Cetus.

His works have been commissioned and/or performed by the Boston, Chicago, New York Philharmonic, Moscow Philharmonic, Cleveland, St Louis, Detroit, Houston, Oakland and San Francisco symphonies as well as many others in the United States and abroad. He has been a Visiting Scholar at the University of Ghana, where he studied African music, the Fromm Composer in Residence at the American Academy in Rome and a Resident Fellow at the Rockefeller Foundation Center in Bellagio, Italy.

In 1995, in recognition of his creative work in composition, he was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters and served as Vice President for Music of the Academy from 2003 to 2006. Professor Wilson has published scholarly articles on African and African-American music and conducted numerous concerts of contemporary music. At the University of California, Berkeley, he also served as Assistant Chancellor for International Affairs from 1986 to 1990, Chair of the Music Department from 1993 to 1997 and was holder of the Jerry and Evelyn Hemmings Chambers Chair in Music from 1995 to 1998. He is currently Professor of Music Emeritus.

His recordings include Cetus for Electronic Sound; Sinfonia by the Boston Symphony; Akwan by the Baltimore Symphony; Sometimes for Tenor and Electronic Sound by William Brown; Trio for Violin, Violoncello and Piano by the Francesco Trio; and A City Called Heaven for chamber ensemble recorded by both the Boston Musica Viva and by the Thamyris Ensemble of Atlanta, Georgia.

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