The only description of Olly Wilson's works in one major reference source simply declares, "Wilson draws freely upon avant-garde styles and techniques in his music, showing a predilection for unorthodox formal procedures and instrumental combinations." What this doesn't point out is that Wilson's wide-ranging style and technique are the natural result of his diverse musical background: playing jazz and orchestra music professionally, working with electronic music during a stimulating early phase of that movement, and studying African music during a 1971 Guggenheim fellowship to West Africa.
Born in St. Louis, Wilson played jazz piano in his home town, as well as bass in St. Louis orchestras. He obtained his bachelor's in music from Washington University in St. Louis in 1959, his master's from the University of Illinois in 1960, and his PhD from the University of Iowa in 1964. His composition teachers included Robert Wykes, Robert Kelley, and Phillip Bezanson. Wilson did postdoctoral study in electronic music in 1967 at the University of Illinois Studio for Experimental Music, and one year later his electronic composition Cetus garnered him a prize in the very first International Electronic Music Competition.
He went on to write not only electronic pieces, but works for chamber ensembles and orchestra as well. Commissions came from the Black Music Repertory Ensemble, New York Philharmonic, Boston Symphony, Chicago Symphony, and Boston Musica Viva.
In the 1960s Wilson taught at Florida A&M University and the Oberlin Conservatory of Music, but in 1970 he settled for the rest of his academic career into the University of California at Berkeley. He received Guggenheim fellowships to West Africa in 1971 and the American Academy in Rome in 1977; the year 1991 found him in Italy again, thanks to a residency at the Rockefeller Foundation Center in Bellagio.