Canon in the Smelting Pot: Olly Wilson

There's been a trend, lately, of programming concerts of music by various minorities. In America, these concerts tend to follow a kind of secular festival calendar, in the way medieval chant cycled through the year. Black History Month? A program of African-Americans. Women's History Month? Program women. And... actually, in my immediate awareness, it just kind of ends there, but Google assures me there are months for other minority histories as well. Why we can't just program music of minorities throughout the year like normal people would is beyond me, but I guess it's better than nothing.

I bring this up because I, too, have tried to program off-canon music, although being a heathen, I don't adhere to the strict lunar cycle of minority months. But I consistently bumped into a problem that I am sure is familiar. I would find an interesting composer, think to myself, "Man, I want to play their music," search for their sheet music, and... find nothing. It's like their music only exists on old 78s and in no other form. A key part of the historical record (pun intended, you're welcome) is missing.
This trend runs deep. In 1977 and '78, musicologist and researcher Eileen Southern published an interview of Olly Wilson in her music journal, The Black Perspective in Music. She was specifically discussing Wilson's musical education, from childhood through just past his doctorate, and two moments stood out to me. The first was, Wilson mentioned almost in passing that Black composers didn't get their music reviewed in papers. The second was how, after performances of his music, Wilson would often hear from admiring audience members, "That's not how I expected your music to sound."
To the first point, the repercussions are obvious. If your concerts don't get reviewed, the number of musicians who even know about your music to ask for a demo is limited to your personal social circle. Without that key media circulation, a new work gets its premier and then dies on the vine. (Aside: Mr. Wilson mentions that one of his most successful works got 8 performances in a year, to give you an idea of what "success" looks like in this job.) If the music doesn't get played, the sheet music doesn't get ordered/rented; if the sheet music doesn't make buck, publishers don't publish it. And that's IF publishers of the time had any interest in publishing the works of Black composers to begin with which, surprise! Wasn't exactly a common thing either.
To the second point, I can't help but notice that the music of some of the bigger African American names in composition (Florence Price, William Grant Still, Margaret Bonds) have a beefy segment of their works devoted to arrangements of spirituals or works which draw upon various other strands of African-American music: jazz and ragtime in particular. Hence the "I didn't expect your music to sound like that" comment. Wilson had a strong modernist streak. He didn't much like Romantic or programmatic music (he didn't tie his music to concrete images, for instance), and a number of his early works used the 12-tone method to generate musical material. You can hear elements of spirituals and jazz, yes, but he was a dyed in the wool, mid-20th century modern composer and he wasn't shy about it.
He didn't fall into a good marketing box, is what I mean. People think, "That time of year again, lets do an all Black composers concert for Black History Month," and they program all manner of musics drawing upon what is familiar Black music, perform it, and then the audience will nod and say, "Yes, this is Black music," and suddenly huge swathes of 20th century musical experimentation and technical developments are shown the door and never heard*. It's the musical version of "Well, you don't sound Black..." Would you guess that the first prize winner of the first electronic music contest was a Black man? Was Olly Wilson? Or that he established Oberlin's TIMARA, the first conservatory program in electronic music? Probably not, because when we think "electronic music," we think Varèse or Pierre Schaeffer, not Halim el-Dabh.
So what does Olly Wilson's music sound like? Well, it sounds kind of like this.
That was Wilson's work, "Voices," commissioned by the Boston Symphony Orchestra for Tanglewood's 1970 season. If you thought you heard musicians humming and whistling, you thought right! If you thought, "Wow, that's not what I was expecting it to sound like!" well... Go listen to more music, I guess? There's more out there than can be dreamed in any of our philosophies.
*Huge swathes of 20th century musical experimentation and technical developments are shown the door just as a matter of course, but that's a whole other blog.