Merrill Ellis (1916-1981), founder of the electronic music program at The University of North Texas,was born on December 9, 1916 in Cleburne, Texas, just south of Fort Worth. He began his studies at The University of Oklahoma in 1935, earning a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in 1939, and a Master of Music in 1941, and studied composition privately with Roy Harris, Spencer Norton and Charles Garland. His master’s thesis at OU was entitled An Evaluation of the Oklahoma Federal Music Project. He pursued further graduate studies at the University of Missouri from 1948 to 1951, and continued to study privately with Spencer Norton (1940-1941), Roy Harris (1950-1960) and Darius Milhaud (1957).
Ellis married Willa Naomi Wiggins, who held a BFA in Music Education, and was a private teacher of piano, and they had five children. Before joining the music faculty of what is now the University of North Texas, Ellis taught band and orchestra at Lefors High School, in Lefors, Texas from 1941 to 1943, band and music education at Moberly Junior College in Moberly, Mo. from 1943 to 1946, band, orchestra and choir at Hickman High School in Columbia, Missouri from 1946 to 1952, orchestra and music education at Christian College in Columbia, Mo. from 1946-1952, and music theory and history at Joplin Junior College in Joplin, Mo. from 1952-1962.
In 1962, Ellis became the director of the Electronic Music Center at what was then known as North Texas State University, and also taught music composition and theory. He persuaded Robert Moog, inventor of the synthesizer, to design and build another example of the instrument (the second one ever made) for him and his students, and the current, extensive computer music and intermedia program at the University of North Texas owes much to Ellis' vision and foresight.
Ellis died on July 21, 1981. A concert of Martin Mailman’s Mirrors, commissioned by the Merrill Ellis Foundation, was held in the Center for Experimental Music and Intermedia (CEMI) on 3 and 4 November 1986. Mailman said of Ellis: "Merrill was a valued colleague and friend who was a true pioneer in electronic and multimedia music. His works express, far more eloquently than any words of mine could, his unique contribution to the music of our time. Indeed, his creative vision was a cornerstone in the establishment of CEMI. It has been a privilege to have an opportunity to celebrate his memory in this environment that he inspired with his work and spirit."
The Merrill Ellis Collection includes performance materials for all of the composer's works: tapes, cassettes, slides, films, instructions, masters, etc. Also included are tapes of historical importance such as the John Cage Lecture, the Roy Harris Informal Evening, and a tape of Ellis discussing plans for the construction of the current Music Building.