Erv Wilson Remembered

ERV WILSON, COSMIC DREAMER (1928-2016) by Gary David



I knew Erv Wilson for over fifty years starting in 1964. He was my guide into the world of pitch fields, his fields of dreams. Each one who knew him has a different story. This one is mine. In the 1960s and early 70s, I led an experimental vocal-instrumental jazz group called The Sound of Feeling. I had been interested in tunings that deviated from the accepted 12 equal system the prevailed in Western cultures. Erv stewarded me into the methods of making scale formation part of the creative act of composition. I feathered into our music what I learned with Erv, and it was the first time arrays such as hexanies were featured by a musical ensemble on a major label. The many hours of theory and ear-training with Erv changed the meaning of music for me. The great psychologist-researcher Silvan Tomkins said, “The world we perceive is a dream we learn to have from a script we have not written.” Erv Wilson was a weaver of dreams that embodied previously unheard or unrecognized webs of frequencies. In the process, I got to know one of the most coherent and unusual individuals of my lifetime.

Here is a short account of my experience of how that unfolded.

Is it knowing to contemplate while dreaming? Is it understanding? The eye which dreams does not see, or at least it sees with another vision. . . Cosmic reverie makes us live in a state (where) the communication between the dreamer and his world is very close in reverie; it has no distance, not that distance which marks the perceived world. — Gaston Bachelard

As I follow the curve of space-time, I spiral into my own movement, and there I become an eddy of space-time itself and I “disappear” into my own vision. —Gary David

On Dec. 8, Erv Wilson took his leave from planet earth. While I feel a sense of grief, I don’t mourn. My past with him lives now as I write. He is inextricably lodged as a basic element in my being. George Spencer-Brown wrote, “Each being experiences what he, she, or it regards as the world as if of a dream of one’s own creation, and each of us is also an appearance in the ‘dream world’ of another. When the other dies, we too are lost from the dream. If we were prominent in that dream, we feel the loss acutely, and call it ‘grief.’”

“I myself prefer to be known as a “natural approximationist of (the) Augusto Novaro school (circa 1927). I will not be the one to split hairs in this matter; it’s the way one splits the tones that really matter, and I prefer to split them lengthwise, as opposed to those who split them sideways, or not to split them at all, for that matter. My entire philosophy of musical intonation can be wrapped up in one succinct little quote: “Nothing that exists is un-natural.” This includes the arts and artifices and artificiality of the musical imagination. Or, indeed, “why settle for the real thing when one might as well be having artificial?” (Lou Harrison, the 2nd funniest thing I ever heard him say). All scales are artificial, as are all other great works of art and products of the human imagination. You want to know what “natural” is? Let me tell you what “natural is. You don’t want to know. Well, I’ll tell you anyway.”

Erv Wilson

He never did tell us. He showed us. It didn’t matter if it was pitch fields or corn fields, he was a unifying weaver of meanings. He uncovered unity wherever he found it. A friend of mine who met Erv said, “I never thought someone could render me so fascinated by the potential of individual corns on a cob! And his flying micro-tonal scales hanging from his ceiling amazed me.”

Once you become aware of this force for unity in life, you can’t ever forget it. It becomes part of everything you do …. my conception of that force keeps changing shape.

John Coltrane

I have written elsewhere about Erv Wilson’s work, but here I give you a mere taste of my sense, feeling, and experience of the man. I’ve told the story of my first meeting with Erv Wilson many times, and I never tire of repeating that memorable moment. Harry Partch, was among the first of modern American composers to systematize microtonal music. In 1963, he was living in a chicken hatchery in Petaluma California with all of his instruments. I was living in San Francisco, and Emil Richards urged me to visit him. I did, and we spent the day talking about music and tuning (and drinking). I told Harry I was moving to Los Angeles and he said, “You should look up Erv Wilson.” In 1964 I moved to Los Angeles from San Francisco. One of my priorities was to meet Erv. One day I went to his apartment on Poinsettia Drive in Hollywood. I knocked on the door, but no one answered. The door was ajar, so I pushed it open and walked in. No one was there, but there were some unusual instruments in the living room of the small apartment. I picked up some mallets and began to play a microtonally tuned marimba. I was engrossed in the sound when behind me I heard a gentle voice begin to describe to me what I was doing. We started talking about the tunings the sounds and numbers. No introductions. That initiated a 30-year conversation.
In all the years I worked with Erv and enjoyed our friendship, I learned that there was no difference between who he was and what he was. As far as I could tell, there was no division. I experienced an aura of emotional safety whenever we engaged. He treated the novice I was in 1964 the same way he would relate to a master. That made it both easy to learn, as well as to accept my inability to grasp his meanings beyond my experience. There was little shame in not understanding.

If. . . the being I love most in the world came and asked me one day what choice he should make– what refuge is the most profound, the sweetest, the most immune to attack — I would advise him to shelter his destiny in the haven of a soul devoted to noble growth. — Maurice Maeterlinck, Sagesse et destinee, 1902

One of the innate traits of human life is curiosity. Those who lose access to that live an impoverished life. That fate never befell Erv, even later in life when his resources began to fail. His curiosity and his humor and his minimal egoism were hallmarks of both who and what he was.

He was what I call a fluid learner. Human awareness is both explicate and implicate – focal and subsidiary. Erv relied heavily on subsidiary awareness, while his focal awareness was a guide. He took literally, “the world is a dream.”

I have always been attracted to those with both a high and vast sense of life. To the overly focused, they appear either crazy or dangerous. Jimi Hendrix depicted it this way:

I can see my rainbow calling me through the misty breeze of my waterfall.

Some people say daydreaming’s for the lazy minded fools with nothing else to do.

What Erv saw in his waterfall was no fantasy. He made it available to all of us. He created a unified field that we can mine for generations to come. I am ever grateful for his gift, and to have participated with him.

“I begin by imagining
The impossible
And end by accomplishing
The impossible.” ― Sri Chinmoy

“The earth has music for those who listen.” – William Shakespeare

Does not everything depend on our interpretation of the silence around us? — — Lawrence Durrell