“The arts, music in particular for Olly and for us, are a vital tool for expanding our consciousness and understanding each other, to achieve that better, more equitable world.” — Larry and Arlene Dunn
I’m not entirely sure what the new music community did to deserve the Dunns, but if possible we should figure it out so we can do a lot more of it. Larry and Arlene have been a present force for good at performances and events across the country since their love affair with new music began almost a decade ago. I’m thankful to Claire Chase and International Contemporary Ensemble (plus the many other Chicago ensembles) who welcomed them as eager listeners. As time has passed, Larry and Arlene’s involvement in the new music community has included music journalism, commissioning, presenting, philanthropy, and now recorded composition/performance. Their project Olly Wilson: Remixed was recently released on New Focus Recordings. It is a spoken text + fixed media work for two (or two groups of) voices and a diffused soundscape being released by the Dunns, with their collaborator Kirk Pearson, to raise money for freelance music artists who are suddenly deprived of their livelihood by the pandemic. 100% of the proceeds from this release will be donated to the New Music Solidarity Fund.
Let’s find out more…
Can you describe your recording project “Olly Wilson: Remixed”? What are you excited for listeners to hear on your album?
We’re thrilled that listeners will be able to hear the brilliance of Olly Wilson’s words within a sonic tapestry crafted from threads of his music and speaking voice. Olly Wilson: Remixed is a spoken text + fixed media work for two voices and soundscape. We created the work by extracting snippets of text from the treasure trove of Olly’s writings and transcripts of his interviews and rearranging them into four movements: I. Black Music as an Art Form, II. Musical Electrons, III. In Oberlin, and IV. Composing While Black. We recruited our friend Kirk Pearson of Dogbotic audio lab to develop the soundscape, which he built from microsamples of Olly’s recorded music and his speaking voice.
We are particularly excited to introduce Olly Wilson to listeners who do not already know of him. And even for those familiar with his music, we hope they can gain a new appreciation of him as a deep political thinker and insightful musicologist, especially regarding African and African American culture and music.
How did you become acquainted with the work of Olly Wilson, and how did the idea for the project first begin? Will you also tell us how your collaboration with Kirk Pearson came about?
We’ve been on a voyage of discovery with Olly Wilson and his work since 2014, and we hope that folks will want to come on that voyage with us. First, we heard Josh Rubin of International Contemporary Ensemble perform Olly’s composition Echoes (for clarinet and electronics) on his album There Never is No Light. We were entranced and intrigued. Then, during Black History Month in 2018, we heard a lecture, “The Black History of Oberlin Conservatory,” by Fredara Hadley, an Oberlin Conservatory professor at the time (she now teaches at Juilliard). We learned that Olly was the first African American professor at the conservatory and that he offered Oberlin’s first courses in African and African American music and culture in the mid-60s, at a time when campuses across the country were just beginning to respond to demands from Black students for serious scholarship on their history and culture.
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 TIMARA’s 50th anniversary. Tom told us that, in the fall of 1969, Olly taught the very first class in electronic music at Oberlin Conservatory (or any conservatory of music, for that matter). And that course was the genesis of TIMARA. Tom was especially excited about the Kaleidosonic Music Festival, planned for mid-November. He said it would be one big, long, sonic collage of ensembles, groups, and individual musicians. He wondered if we wanted to take part? “You mean perform?” we asked. His enthusiastic response was “Yes!” And that’s how Olly Wilson: Remixed began.
We started hunting down and reading all of Olly’s writings we could find. And there was plenty. In parallel we were listening to all the recordings of his music. We settled on the idea that the best way we could memorialize Olly Wilson − the man, the composer, the scholar, the deep cultural/political thinker − was to create a sort of epic poem from his own works. As the movements came together, we started a cycle of rehearsing, rearranging, rehearsing, refining, rehearsing . . . we realized we needed something more, something to enliven our recitation with a kind of soundtrack. Of course, we had no idea how to do that, but we knew Kirk Pearson did. He was quick to say yes. As he started to delve into Olly’s writings and music, he described the process as eye-opening and inspiring.
Did this project begin prior to COVID-19, and if so, how has your collaboration changed as a result? Were there any specific challenges that had to be overcome?
The project started last May, long before any of us ever heard of COVID-19. But the pandemic did bring a clarity of purpose to the final phase of the project, which was to release a studio recording of Olly Wilson: Remixed. As the virus spread around the world and across the country, music concerts and all kinds of public events were suddenly cancelled. We were devastated, not just for the music events we would miss, but for the artists themselves. So many composers and performers are freelance artists who mostly rely on contracted performances for their livelihood, and suddenly it was all taken away. When Claire Chase contacted us about contributing to the New Music Solidarity Fund before it went public, we gladly jumped in. And that gave us the spark to turn the release of Olly Wilson: Remixed into a fundraiser for the fund. The challenge was to meet the urgency of the moment by releasing the recording and launching the associated fundraiser on Facebook as quickly as possible. Fortunately, Dan Lippel, International Contemporary Ensemble guitarist and head of New Focus Recordings, enthusiastically stepped in to help get the recording up on Bandcamp on April 20 (Larry’s birthday!). And we launched the fundraiser that same day.
You think of yourselves as new music superfans, what was it like to compose and perform your original work and then also begin collaborating with an electronic music composer?
When we started down the path of extracting impactful phrases from Olly Wilson’s works we were unsure how it was going to come together. We had no precise pattern or model to follow. But we were influenced by various types of performed recitations with a musical bent, like spoken word poetry, Robert Ashley’s operas, and the work of folks like the thingNY collective. We weren’t sure how this was going to happen, but we had faith in ourselves that we would pull it off.
As we built our script from the extracted phrases, it coalesced into the four movements. The first movement, Black Music as an Art Form portray’s Olly’s refutation of the idea that there was nothing unique about Black music that sets it apart from any other music. Next, Musical Electrons presents Olly’s thoughts about using technology and electronics in creating and performing music. We derived the content of the third movement, In Oberlin, primarily from interviews and a speech he gave to a college assembly just before he left Oberlin for Berkeley. The final movement, Composing While Black, presents Olly’s political views on the systemic racism that thwarts the artistry of African American artists in a classical music world dominated by hidebound white Eurocentrism. At the end, we recite poet Claude McKay’s defiant If We Must Die, which Olly set to music for the finale of his 1991 song cycle Of Visions and Truth.
Collaborating with Kirk Pearson to add an electronic soundscape to our work was an unexpected and delightful bonus. Kirk dove into reading our score and the original sources to connect to Olly Wilson in a visceral way. Step by step, he put shape to a soundscape for each of the movements, matching the text content with his sonic creations. It was so exciting for us that Kirk understood the message we were creating and was able to give them a whole new dimension with sound. Hearing this through the Kaleidosonic fifteen speaker array spread throughout Finney Chapel was simply astounding! After the live performance we got to work on creating a studio recording to release to the public. This was another exciting adventure for us, as we and Kirk were now in complete control of the end product. It was challenging to work on this with us in Ohio and Kirk was in California, but we found our way through it. We learned a lot about making recordings that we had no knowledge of before. Kirk was a fantastic partner through the whole process and we are so happy we involved him.
I am very interested in the content and message of the album, more specifically the spoken text taken directly from Olly Wilson. How do his philosophies relate to the idea of solidarity and your mission to support freelance musicians?
What we glean from Olly’s writings and much of his music, especially the works for voice, is his passionate advocacy for mainstreaming the Black experience in the American cultural, political and academic landscape. The struggle to fully achieve that objective continues to this day, and is something we are in full solidarity with. The arts, music in particular for Olly and for us, are a vital tool for expanding our consciousness and understanding each other, to achieve that better, more equitable world. Now, with this pandemic, so many of our artists are in terrible financial jeopardy. We feel we must act. As we are saying to other potential funders every day: this moment is not a time for holding back.
Where can people find and support your work, and the work of artists who are now relying on the New Music Solidarity Fund for their livelihoods? What are some other ways people can help in your mission if they feel inspired to do so?
We urge people who are on Facebook to contribute as much as they can to our fundraiser celebrating Larry’s 71st birthday. We have an ambitious $7,100 goal, $100 for each of Larry’s years on the planet. And we are matching each donation with an additional $1.00 for every $2.00 contributed. If our Facebook community can meet that $7,100 goal, the result will be a $10,650 boost to reaching the New Music Solidarity Fund’s stretch goal of $500,000 in total donations.
Everyone who contributes to the fundraiser gets a download code to retrieve a copy of Olly Wilson: Remixed from New Focus Recordings Bandcamp site. People not on Facebook, or who avoid donating there, can go straight to Bandcamp to get the recording. 100% of the proceeds will be donated directly to the New Music Solidarity Fund. We have priced the recording at a modest $4.00, so that nearly anyone who wants to give can afford to do so. But we hope people will pay as much as they can, to support our struggling artists.
Of course there are other ways people can directly support artists in need. Many artists have Patreon sites to sustain their work. And please, please buy your favorite artists’ recordings, especially through sites like Bandcamp and CD Baby that offer artists a fair deal. There are also frequent opportunities arising to hear musicians perform online, often with requests for listeners to contribute an amount similar to what they would pay for an in-person performance. For example, Experimental Sound Studio, a non-profit recording studio in Chicago, has a packed roster of diverse artists performing on The Quarantine Concerts series. They have had considerable success soliciting tax-exempt contributions from the online audience and funneling the proceeds directly to the performers. And finally, folks could arrange, and pay for, online music lessons with one of their favorite artists. We recently took some online singing lessons . . . but that’s a whole ‘nother story.