Composer, performer, and researcher Merrill Ellis was born in Cleburne, Texas, on December 9, 1916. He studied clarinet as a child and received bachelor of arts and master of music degrees from the University of Oklahoma. He later taught at the University of Missouri. Ellis appeared throughout the central and southwestern United States in numerous performances of electronic and intermedia compositions, and he lectured at different colleges and universities. He was interested in the advancement of new music and carried out research in new compositional techniques, development of new instruments, and exploration of new notation techniques for scoring and performance.
He began exploring electro-acoustic music when he arrived at North Texas State University (now University of North Texas) at Denton in 1962. He founded the university's Computer Music Center in 1963 and was a professor of composition. That same year he established and was director of the Electronic Music Center, the precursor to the Center for Experimental Music and Intermedia. He intended the center to be an important part of the Division of Composition, where professors and students could employ experimental technologies to produce art.
During the center's first ten years, participating composers centered their work on the prominent electronic music forms of the time––magnetic tape and live performances using analog synthesizers. Ellis induced Robert Moog, who invented the synthesizer, to make a second one for him and his students. Between 1973 and 1983 these composers also integrated elements from other artistic disciplines, such as theater, painting, and dance, to create intermedia compositions.
Some of his instrumental works listed by ASCAP include Kaleidoscope (for mezzo-soprano, electronic synthesizer, and orchestra), A Dream Fantasy (tape, clarinet, percussion, 16mm film, and slides), Nostalgia (orchestra, film, and theatrical events), Mutations (brass choir, film tape, and slides), Scintillation (solo piano), Celebration (flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, percussion, tape, lasers, and "visual events"), and Dream of the Rode (tape and 16 mm film). ASCAP also lists among his scores the opera The Sorcerer (solo baritone, tape, film, slides, and chorus) and the television film The Choice is Ours (intermedia work for two films, slides, tape, and audience participation). Ellis was a member of many professional organizations, including the Music Teachers National Association. He received several commissions and research grants and won an ASCAP award in 1979.
Ellis died in Denton on July 21, 1981, after a short illness. His body was cremated at the Roselawn Cemetery in Denton. Instead of funeral services, a concert was held in his honor at the UNT Intermedia School of Music. Ellis bequeathed a fund to commission yearly student concerts of new music, which took place five successive years after his death. He was survived by his wife, Naomi, three sons, and two daughters, as well as nine grandchildren. In 1981, when Phil Winsor joined the North Texas faculty, the Electronic Music Center became the Center for Experimental Music and Intermedia. The Merrill Ellis Memorial Composition Scholarship was established in his honor.