Joseph Ott (1929-1990):  A Brief Biography and Survey of His Career

Joseph Ott was born in Atlantic City, New Jersey on July 7, 1929 to Joseph and Elizabeth Ott of Pleasantville, New Jersey.  His father was a carpenter and ship builder and his mother took on textile piece-work at home to supplement the family income.  He was the middle of three children and also had a much younger adopted sister.  No one in his family owned or played a musical instrument.

Ott became interested in music in his teen years and was encouraged by his high school music teacher, Benjimen Censullo.  He began to study trumpet and music theory at 16, taking private lessons with Frank Merrick in Atlantic City from 1946-1948 and left high school to play trumpet professionally.  In 1947 he joined Wilson Humber and his Orchestra where he played second trumpet and did some arranging.   From 1948-1951 he studied trumpet privately with Harold Rehrig of the Philadelphia Orchestra and composition with Dr. William Happich of the University of Pennsylvania.  He played lead trumpet for Ray Palmer and his Orchestra from 1950 until he was drafted by the Army in 1951.

The Army recognized Ott’s musical ability and sent him to the US Army Band School in Fort Dix, New Jersey where he received a diploma.  In 1952 he attended and received a diploma from the US Army Band School in Dachau, Germany and was assigned to teach trumpet, music theory and to conduct at the US Army Band School in Munich, Germany.  While in Germany, he studied composition with Dr. Hans Sachsse of the Munich Hochscule fur Musik.  His weekly lessons, sometimes lasting up to six hours, consisted of analysis of musical scores, instruction in compositional techniques and counterpoint, and critique of the music he had written between lessons.  He also began studying piano privately under Dr. Rudolph Erb in Munich.

In 1953, Ott left the Army and studied piano privately under Dr. Water Ihrke at the University of Connecticut.  Ott attended the University of Connecticut in Storrs, Connecticut from 1954-59 where he studied music and painting under the GI Bill.  It was one of the few Universities that would accept a GED.  He received several summer scholarships during this time.  In the summer of 1957 he attended the Connecticut College School of Dance to study the composition of music for the dance under Louis Horst of the Julliard School of Music and again attended the Connecticut College School of Dance to study the composition of music for the dance in 1958.  In 1959 he moved to Dayton, Ohio, where he fulfilled a one year post as dance accompanist for the Dayton Civic Ballet in Dayton, OH.  In 1960 Ott completed his Bachelor of Arts degree in music composition at the University of Connecticut.  From 1960-1963 Ott filled the Music Director post in the Dance Department at George Washington University in Washington D.C. and was a piano studio lecturer from 1962 to 1963.

In 1963 Ott won first prize in the “Citta di Trieste” International Competition for Symphonic Composition for his work, Premise for Orchestra.  He was the first American to win this award which included a monetary prize, a medal and the title “Maestro”.  Premise for Orchestra was performed by the Trieste Philharmonic, Trieste, Italy, with a conductor from La Scala.  The prize allowed Ott to live in Italy and Germany for about four months during this year.

Upon his return, Ott began graduate studies at the University of California in Los Angeles, California and studied composition with Roy Harris in 1963.  During this time he taught piano, counterpoint, ear training and accompanying as a teaching assistant at U.C.L.A and became a composer and publisher member of ASCAP.  In 1965 he received a Master of Arts degree in composition from U.C.L.A.

From California, Ott went to Milton, Wisconsin where he was Assistant Professor and Composer in Residence at Milton College from 1965-1971.  During this time he received three grants from the American Music Center , won first prize in four of six categories in the 1968 Wisconsin Composers Contest, and attended Bennington Composers’ Conference in Bennington, Vermont in 1968, 1969, and 1970  He completed several courses towards a doctoral degree at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, Wisconsin, and acted as Composer in Residence for the St. Paul Institute for Advanced Study and Performance in 1968 and Assistant to the Executive Director of the Bennington Composers Conference in 1970 and 1971. 

It was also during this time that Ott began to experiment with chance elements, graphic notation and electronic and tape composition. The score for Slide Piece No. 3, commissioned by Ellsworth_Snyder in 1971, consisted of instructions and photographic slides to be projected randomly on to screens giving performers visual cues to perform certain aleatory concepts such as filling in words that come to mind. Other compositions include electronic tape and contrived environmental situations in addition to random choices made by the participant. Ott's Five Environmental Projects incorporates lights, colors and changing physical environment with electronic music. Another piece, The Sum of the Parts: Some of the Parts Ott combined electronic music with photographic slides and other special effects performed in a planetarium setting. These experimental works led to a number of wholly synthesized electronic compositions and the first ever concert of all electronic music at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC in 1977. LOCUS-1977 was commissioned by Richard Bales, director of the National Gallery of Art Orchestra, for the 34th American Music Festival in honor of the Bicentennial.

Ott left Milton College to teach at Emporia State University (then Kansas State Teachers College)  in Emporia Kansas.  In addition to his position as Professor of Music and Composer-in-Residence at Emporia State University, he also served as guest composer and panel member at the First International Symposium of the Tubists Universal Brotherhood Association (TUBA) at Indiana University in 1972,  guest composer at the Tennessee Technical University in 1975, and guest composer and panel member with Elie Siegmeister and Dr. Alfred Reed at the University of Denver in 1982.  He received yearly awards from the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers from 1968-1989.

Throughout the 1980’s, Ott struggled with the complications and treatment of kidney disease which included hemodialysis and, in the advanced stages of the disease, peritoneal dialysis. The rigors of the disease seemed to resonate as he continued to develop his musical style.  In 1985 he was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize in Music for his composition, Piano Trio No. 3.

After suffering a stroke, he died on May 17, 1990 in Topeka, Kansas.

More about Ott's compositions and musical style

Personal life

Joseph Ott grew up in a working-class household in New Jersey.  He was not particularly close to his family and his relationship with his father was quite arduous.  In 1958, Ott married Evangeline Anderson of New Haven, Connecticut, with whom he later had a daughter, Jenika, and a son, Noah.  Despite divorcing in the mid-seventies, he and his ex-wife and children remained close.  He did not remarry.

Ott had many hobbies and interests which included painting, woodworking, electronics, computers, flying, sewing, cooking and writing.  He studied painting for a short time at the University of Connecticut and produced a number of distinct watercolors.  He designed and built furniture and later had a woodworking shop.  He built many of the electronic devices he used for teaching and in the electronic music studio at Emporia State and enjoyed programming computers and computer games.  He took an interest in flying in 1976 and pursued a pilot’s license.  After he divorced, he rediscovered his knowledge and interest of sewing and tailored his own suits and an entire “Annie Hall” wardrobe for his teenage daughter.  He was a self-taught gourmet cook and took particular pleasure in making his own breads and pastas.  During his lifetime he wrote several articles and text books including Everything You Didn’t Want to Know About Music Theory But Were Afraid Someone Would Ask, volume I and II, and was working on a novel before he died. 

He was known for his dry sense of humor and loved telling and playing jokes.  Humor and satire played heavily in all areas of his life and is readily evident in his work.