Renowned as an innovative composer and musician, UC Berkeley professor emeritus of music Olly Wilson, died March 12 at 80 years old and will be remembered by colleagues and friends for his many talents and advocacy work on campus.
Wilson first joined the UC Berkeley department of music in 1970 after teaching at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music. At Oberlin, Wilson was instrumental in the creation of an electronic studio in the music school’s basement. Today, that studio houses a program known as Technology in Music and Related Arts, or TIMARA, according to department chair Peter Swendsen.
“As I understand the story, Olly arrived in the mid-’60s and went down to the basement and said, ‘We could put a studio down here.’ That was the lightning-striking moment,” Swendsen said. “And our location now is in that very basement.”
Once he arrived at UC Berkeley, Wilson became known as both a leader and creative scholar within the music department. Splitting his teaching time between the subjects of African American studies and music composition, Wilson was widely respected by his colleagues for both his work in music and his elegance and integrity as an administrator.
“Olly was a very powerful personality. And when Olly spoke, people listened,” said John Roberts, a campus emeritus head of the Jean Gray Hargrove Music Library.
Outside of the academic setting, Wilson had an illustrious career as a composer and performer. Several of his pieces were commissioned by the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, according to Tania León, a composer and former mentee of Wilson’s.
Wilson was also the recipient of several Guggenheim Fellowships and was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1995.
In addition, Wilson’s legacy includes advocacy work for the Black community on campus. He served in the chancellor’s office as an administrator responsible for addressing equity and affirmative action during the 1970s and ’80s, according to campus professor emerita Bonnie Wade. Wade added that Wilson was instrumental in diversifying the curriculum in the music department.
“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,” Roberts added. “He had a real leadership role and was a role model that drew students to Berkeley.”
As for his personal hobbies, Wilson was an avid football fan, according to Wade.
“He loved football. He was a season ticket holder for the stadium,” Wade said. “Olly was a Bear Backer of the most serious stripe.”
Wilson is remembered by his colleagues as both a respected leader and a strong supporter for students and faculty at the music department.
“Any students today who didn’t have the chance to work with him, to meet him and to study with him really missed a great opportunity,” Roberts said.