Music Monday: Wilson: Expansions III

When asked in a 1991 interview with Bruce Duffie if his music was in some way specifically African-American, Olly Wilson Jr responded that “because [his] experience has been an African-American experience” his music necessarily reflects that, “[b]ut that is a very, very complicated kind of thing” and “there may not be discernible aspects of that music that you say, ‘Aha, that’s clearly from African American tradition.’”. So those seeing his name on a program of African-American composers and hoping for a jazz- or gospel-infused escapade are bound for disappointment. Wilson was born in 1937 in St Louis, Missouri, where his father sang in their church’s choir, and it was at his father’s insistence that Wilson began taking piano lessons at the age of seven. While his piano studies tended towards jazz playing, he also took up the contrabass and played in several orchestras and chamber ensembles during his college career.

In 1965, after earning degrees from Washington University of St Louis (where he was one of only ten black students) and the Universities of Illinois and Iowa, Wilson took a position on the faculty of Oberlin conservatory, where he founded their Technology in Music and Related Arts program, the first electronic music program at an American conservatory. After visiting West Africa on a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1971 to study the languages and musical traditions there, he took a position on the faculty at UC Berkeley, where he taught until retiring in 2002. He still lives in Berkeley with his wife, and is still actively composing today.

Little seems to have been written about Expansions III, or at least little that’s available online. It was written in 1993 for a consortium of youth orchestras, including the Boston Youth Symphony Orchestras, which I had the pleasure of playing in for several years in high school, tho obviously well after this piece’s origin. It crops up occasionally on orchestral programs here and there, but it could hardly be described as a staple of the repertoire, which is a pity, because it’s a striking and powerful piece.

Sere, astringent brass and percussion lines set the piece in motion over a bed of inert, listless strings. The feeling is one of pent-up energy seeking and probing for a way out, with repeated fragments — most notably a bright trumpet clarion call — being persistently cut off before they can really get going. Eventually, the stable bed of supporting strings decays, and the brass and percussion break out into a tumult of dissonant counterpoint. The strings then re-enter playing the brass lines from the beginning, now with the vibraphone adding delicate spangles. The motion is difficult and fragmentary, but the music gradually, agonizingly ascends, as tho climbing some tortuous mountain. The climax of this ascent comes with a repeated volley of massive brass chords, chords that ultimately subdue the orchestra into the calmer, more introverted middle section.

Only two lines are present for almost all of this section, both in the strings, but despite the sparseness of the texture, there’s still a keen sense of undulating motion, of an organic unfolding that, even if it doesn’t have one firm specific destination in mind, cannot remain still or stagnant. This ponderous unwinding at last settles into a single slowly oscillating line, repeating a simple melodic figure with increasing insistence as other instruments accumulate in a halo around it. Soon, tho, this halo takes on a life of its own with pointed brass interjections, and the music from the opening soon bursts forth with renewed vigor.

Now, however, the palette is expanded, with all the choirs of the orchestra joining in the fray. Persistent held notes litter the landscape, bright streaks of sound that seem to hem in the twitchy, fragmented fanfare-y figures. The orchestra coheres briefly around a rising figure in the lower voices, but this, too, splinters and decays before the piece ends with a decisive crunch from the brass.