Our Journey to Olly Wilson: Remixed and Beyond
Our own journey with Olly Wilson began in 2014. We were entranced by the music and intrigued by the man, who clearly carried a special spirit. As a “Special COVID-19 Pandemic Release,” 100% of the proceeds from the sale of our recording Olly Wilson: Remixed will be donated to the New Music Solidarity Fund.
Today, April 20, 2020, is Larry’s 71st birthday, which we are celebrating by releasing our recording project Olly Wilson: Remixed on New Focus Recordings. As a “Special COVID-19 Pandemic Release,” 100% of the proceeds from the sale of this recording will be donated to the New Music Solidarity Fund (NMSF), which has just set a new stretch goal to reach a total of $500,000 by May 15. The New Music Solidarity Fund was organized by 14 leading artists in the global new music field to raise money for freelance music artists who are suddenly deprived of their livelihood by the pandemic. The fund is administered through New Music USA, and has already issued 530 emergency relief grants. But the financial needs far outweigh the more than $300,000 already raised.
Today, we also started a coordinated Facebook birthday fundraiser to benefit the NMSF. We are listing this release at a low $4.00, and people who contribute any amount to the parallel Facebook fundraiser will receive a download code to get the album. This way, nearly anyone inclined to give is able to do so. But we urge you to pay whatever you can comfortably afford. This pandemic has suddenly deprived so many independent music artists of their livelihood. Providing them some emergency financial relief seems like the least we ought to do, in return for the countless years they have invested in their craft to bring such joy into our lives.
You might be asking, how is it that Arlene and Larry Dunn are releasing a recording? What is it? Olly Wilson: Remixed is a passion project, an homage to composer and musicologist Olly Wilson (1937-2018), an Oberlin Conservatory professor from 1965 to 1970, in celebration of the 50th anniversary of the advent of electronic music at Oberlin, for which he was directly responsible.
Our own journey with Olly Wilson began in 2014, when International Contemporary Ensemble clarinetist Joshua Rubin included Wilson’s composition Echoes (for clarinet and electronics) on his album There Never is No Light. Josh has told us “I first performed Wilson’s music while I was a student at Oberlin. Then I had the honor of working with him directly in 2013, when I was recording Echoes for my album. He helped me find the materials I needed to perform and record the work, and to help shape my performance to his vision of the piece.” Josh continued: “My entire album’s inspiration came from the palette of sounds and ideas that originate from Echoes.” Josh’s recording sparked our first concentrated listening to Olly Wilson’s music. We were entranced by the music and intrigued by the man, who clearly carried a special spirit.
In February 2018, we attended a lecture by Fredara Hadley, then a Visiting Assistant Professor of Ethnomusicology at Oberlin, who now teaches at Juilliard. Her lecture, “The Black History of Oberlin Conservatory,” focused on the substantial contributions of African American students and faculty throughout the Conservatory’s history. Among these, of course, was Olly Wilson, the first African American faculty member at the conservatory. We learned that, in addition to his teaching in the standard curriculum of the day, Wilson offered Oberlin’s first courses in African and African American music and culture, a signal achievement at a time when campuses across the country were just beginning to grapple with the far-reaching tentacles of racism.
This pandemic has suddenly deprived so many independent music artists of their livelihood.
Larry & Arlene Dunn
Olly Wilson offered Oberlin’s first courses in African and African American music and culture at a time when campuses across the country were just beginning to grapple with the far-reaching tentacles of racism.
Larry & Arlene Dunn
We extracted phrases from Olly Wilson’s written works and then organized them into affinity groups.
Larry & Arlene Dunn
We hope that launching this recording as a fundraising tool will inspire in others a generosity of spirit and hope for the future.
In May 2019, we met with Tom Lopez, department chair of Oberlin TIMARA (Technology in Music and Related Arts) to talk about plans to celebrate the program’s 50th anniversary. We received another revelation: in the fall of 1969, Olly Wilson taught the first class in electronic music at Oberlin Conservatory (or any conservatory of music). That moment was the germination of today’s TIMARA program. As Tom unfurled the plans to celebrate TIMARA’s 50th anniversary, one particular event stood out: the Kaleidosonic Music Festival, planned for November 16, “an epic celebration of music at Oberlin. It will include musicians and ensembles from the Conservatory, the College, and the community,” as Tom described. “It will be many hours long with non-stop music — one big, long, sonic collage of ensembles, groups, and individual musicians,” he enthused. The rest came rapid fire, something like this:
Tom: Would we like to perform in Kaleidosonic?
A&L: Sure, but what?
Tom: Anything you like.
A&L: How about a text or spoken word piece about Olly Wilson?
Tom: That would be perfect!
And thus, Olly Wilson: Remixed was born. The objective of doing a spoken word piece was clear enough, but the content and substance was far from it. Soon we immersed ourselves in the hunt for all his recorded music and all his writings we could find. We quickly realized that not only was Olly Wilson a highly inventive composer, but he was a profound thinker, especially regarding the aesthetics and politics of African and African American music and culture, and he was a persuasive writer. A concept for the piece began to congeal, as we found certain works that resonated most strongly with us. Our touchstones in his music included Echoes, of course, Cetus, for which he won the first-ever international prize for electronic music in 1968, Sometimes (for tenor and electronics), and his stirring song cycle Of Visions and Truth. His written works (and transcribed interviews) that became central to Olly Wilson: Remixed include Black Music as an Art Form, The Black-American Composer, an address to an Oberlin College assembly called How Long — Not Long!, and a series of interviews with the Regional Oral History Office at The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley.
To create our script, we extracted phrases from Wilson’s written works and then organized them into affinity groups. These groups ultimately morphed into the four movements of Olly Wilson: Remixed. The first movement, Black Music as an Art Form addresses Wilson’s refutation to the broadly held notion that there was nothing unique or distinctive about Black music that sets it apart from any other music. Next, Musical Electrons presents Wilson’s thoughts about the use of technology and electronics in the creation and performance of music. The third movement, In Oberlin portrays life in the town and the college through Wilson’s eyes. Finally, Composing While Black exposes the systemic racism that relentlessly impedes the work of an African American artist in a deeply white field like classical music, concluding with poet Claude McKay’s defiant “If We Must Die.”
As the movements came together, we started a cycle of rehearsing, rearranging, rehearsing, refining, rehearsing . . . We started to think our recitation alone was too dry, and we ought to add an Olly Wilson-inspired soundscape. We, of course, knew nothing about how to do that, but we knew someone who did: Kirk Pearson, a 2017 Oberlin grad whose work in TIMARA we had come to admire when he was a student. We contacted Kirk at his Dogbotic studio, in Berkeley, CA. He was quick to say yes. Reflecting back on the moment, Kirk says:
Olly Wilson holds a mythic status at Oberlin, but the full weight of his accomplishments weren’t clear to me until I got involved in this project. I have to admit that, despite studying in the TIMARA department, essentially Wilson’s creation, I hadn’t read any of his articles nor spent significant time with his music. To call this process eye-opening is putting it lightly. I was shocked at just how political and prophetic many of Wilson’s writings were. Wilson’s creative process was a politically indelible act in and of itself. We learn from his example that the subtle acts of sonic modulation, the generation of synthetic sound, and the splicing of tape are powerful tools for composers to reimagine, even refute, history.
Kirk dove into reading our score and the original sources to ground himself in the project while also auditioning most of Wilson’s recordings to absorb their essence. Step by step, he put shape to a soundscape attuned to the aesthetic of each movement. Kirk relates a bit of the process he employed:
The profundity of tape composition grounds much of Wilson’s electronic work, much as it forms the soundscape of Olly Wilson: Remixed. I snipped thousands of micro samples of Wilson’s music and voice, creatively mutating them through five decades worth of analog studio techniques−tape machines, Buchla modulars, vocoders, and a homemade ten-foot Slinky reverb, and more. Working with the sonic artifacts of this great composer was humbling, and I am hoping this piece helps generate interest in Wilson’s work among successive new generations of electronic trailblazers.
Premiering Olly Wilson: Remixed at the Kaleidosonic Festival in November at Oberlin’s historic Finney Chapel was an exhilarating and unique experience. It was totally chaotic, and yet also cleanly orchestrated. More than 50 separate performances were scheduled, from 7:30 to midnight, ranging from individuals to over 50 people, including marching bands, a children’s choir, the Oberlin College choir, the OSteel Band, a jazz ensemble, even bagpipes. Notable guests included composer and accordionist Peter Flint (a 1992 Oberlin grad) and experimental noise music luminary Aaron Dilloway (an Oberlin resident). Most performances were slated to last only five minutes and would bleed into each other at the beginning and end.
When we arrived at our call time, the basement of Finney was abuzz with activity−people warming up, finding a place for their coats, and talking excitedly with friends and cohorts. Soon we were being led up the tortuous path to the organ loft where we would perform our first and second movements. The MC gave us our cue as our friends in the Northern Ohio Youth Orchestra (NOYO) Lab Group were wrapping up their set. We stood, turned on our music stand lights, heard Kirk’s intro, and started reciting. It was scintillating. Hundreds of people in the audience and we were the only ones performing! After completing the first movement we turned off our lights and exited to wait in a tiny, dim area behind the organ. Before emerging 25 minutes later to perform our second movement, that organ would be booming, and we wanted to protect our ears.
We performed our third and fourth movements on the floor in front of the stage, adjacent to NOYO Lab Group. By design, Kaleidosonic was full of chatter and people coming and going. But we knew people were listening, when we heard laughter at some humorous moments during our In Oberlin movement. When the time finally came, we were thrilled to hear Kirk’s arresting soundscape introduction to our fourth movement, which contains some of the most assertive and impactful text. We were sure we had succeeded when we heard loud applause at the end, and Tom Lopez agrees: “Arlene and Larry made great use of the performance space in this fully immersive event. It was very powerful to hear Olly Wilson’s words repeated in the very chapel where he gave his assembly address on racial injustice in April 1970.”
From the beginning of Kirk’s involvement in the project, we had discussed making a studio recording of Olly Wilson: Remixed. With the Kaleidosonic premiere still ringing in our ears, we descended into the TIMARA lab the following day for Kirk to record our vocal tracks. Life interrupted the process for a spell, as Larry had major surgery on his neck the very next day, followed by months of recovery. Sometime in February, Larry was well on the way to recovery and Kirk had first-cut mixes of each movement ready for us to review. A multi-step cycle of reviews and notes and revisions brought us very close to ready as March arrived. As we started to grapple with how and where we might release Olly Wilson: Remixed to the world, it turned out the word had its own plans.
Suddenly an unremitting COVID-19 pandemic was spreading across the globe, disrupting life as we know it in country after country, with a virulent outbreak sure to hit the U.S. On March 12, we decided to voluntarily stay at home except going out for food and other essentials. By March 22, the state of Ohio rolled out a stay-at-home order, just as our own community entered a “hard closure” precautionary quarantine. Across the country, music concerts, and public events of all kinds, were suddenly cancelled for the foreseeable future, wreaking havoc on musicians everywhere, especially freelance artists whose entire livelihoods depend on contracted concert appearances.
That same Sunday, March 22, Claire Chase contacted us about contributing to a new initiative she and 13 other leading artists were organizing to help funnel emergency relief grants to suddenly out-of-work musicians. inspired our release plan: to launch Olly Wilson: Remixed as a fundraising tool, with 100% of the proceeds donated to the NMSF. When we contacted Dan Lippel about launching the project on New Focus Recordings, he enthusiastically agreed, and we started marching in sync towards our April 20 release date.
We harbor no illusions that our campaign is going to fully mitigate the financial crisis for freelance musicians, much less the broad and deep economic damage of this pandemic. But we hope that it will inspire in others a generosity of spirit and hope for the future. Or, has Kirk has put it:
My studio, which sits less than a mile away from UC Berkeley, the locus of the last thirty years of Olly Wilson’s illustrious career, now boasts a framed quote from the man himself: “I am optimistic about the whole future of music.” We could all benefit from a bit of optimism right now. Wilson’s sentiment, perhaps more than ever, is a reminder of the resilience of the creative arts. While a global pandemic has uprooted our traditional institutions for making music, I have no doubt that the creative world will adapt and continue to thrive. Music will live on, and with it, our ability to call our histories into question and make a better future.
Thank you Olly Wilson. We, too, are optimistic about the whole future of music.