“Grateful for Ervin Wilson”

In 1995 I was a 3d artist at Walt Disney Feature Animation writing code to render animated features. By night I was creating electronic music with hardware synthesizers. I felt limited by hardware as the software is my creative process and so I bought the only programmable synthesizer at the time: the Capybara by Kyma. The folks at Kyma told me that there were two guys who had also bought Capybaras and that they lived only a few miles from me.

“The guys” turned out to be Erv Wilson and Stephen James Taylor. They and their network Gary David, John Chalmers, Kraig Grady, Terumi Narushima, Chuck Jonkey, Jose Garcia would go on to deepen my understanding of not only music, scale design, and rhythm, but also the emotional context behind the excitement and joy of the experience of novel music.

I first met Erv at Stephen’s studio. Turns out Erv never really used his Capybara as his creative process was expressed in pencil and paper, but as a professional film composer Stephen was pushing the sonic boundaries in both pitch and timbre with every instrument he could get his hands on. At this time Erv explained to me that they were trying to implement one of his scale designs “recurrence relation”. It was the first time Erv shared his drawings of his microtonal scale designs with me.

Recurrence relations are generalized Fibonacci sequences, seeded with your personal musically-aesthetic harmonics. No matter how you seed them they will converge on a generator, but it’s those initial seedings that create an emotional space that artists desire to create their own unique sound. Even though at the time I didn’t understand Erv’s intent his math was straightforward and I was able to code it up on the Capybara on the spot.  On that first day I even added interactive reseeding. Much like Disney artists used my software to interactively find “solutions” to the creative visual values of an animated feature we were interactively exploring the creative musical “solutions” to the musical values of his scale design in realtime. Erv laughed with joy like a child. He was always able to hear his designs in his mind, but let me tell you, when he heard his designs in real-life it had a huge emotional impact on him, and me.

And so on that first day for the first time in my life I heard a microtonal scale by intent and design of a completely different geometry than the chain of 12 tone equal temperament and its stack of so-called “music theory”. At first I was excited but the more I processed this experience the more I become deeply disappointed that no one in my life was even aware that there was an entire universe of tunings. At Disney artists learned about color theories from day one…how could musicians not know there are pitch theories? This was a transformational experience for me which motivates me to this day to educate and create freely available microtonal instruments so that palettes of pitches are a fundamental artistic choice.

Erv, Stephen and I met regularly at Stephen’s studio with Gary, Kraig, Terumi, John, Chuck, and Jose joining when possible. It soon became obvious to me that Erv was not a one-trick pony. John Chalmers describes Erv as one of the most intuitive mathematicians he has ever known.  Erv realized scale designs with many mathematical objects such as Pascal’s triangle, generalized fibonacci series, binomial coefficients and all their resulting combinatorial geometry, the Co-Prime grid and other diamonds, Farey Series and Stern-Brocott trees and all of the resulting two-interval patterns, lattices, harmonic series—we can go on. With each design I came to see Erv as an explorer of many vast unknown landscapes leaving behind maps to get you there if you only could follow them. He freely shared his profound papers on you with little context and background, and it was up to you to find a path from your place to the peak of those mountains yourself.

Erv was fascinated with ancient cultures and devised many designs to model historical scales and at the same time creating novel designs with abstract mathematical structures that grow from the seeds of your personal aesthetic. If a musician performing music is the act of eating a gourmet meal, and a composer creating a musical composition is the act of preparing that meal with exquisite ingredients, Erv was the farmer planting the seeds of every ingredient of every meal of every culture. This metaphor of a farmer planting seeds is fundamental to understanding the nature of Erv.

In his early years Erv was a professional draftsman and you can see his clarity of thought and intent in every paper he ever made, even his scribbles. Almost all of these designs were digitized by Kraig Grady, Terumi Narushima, and Stephen Taylor and are hosted on anaphoria.com. There were many days where I would in the morning be working with the finest pencil drawings by the most talented Disney animators and then come home to dwell on Erv’s superb drawings. This was a man who was every bit as sensitive to subtle curves and fine shadings of hyper dimensional objects and drafting huge numerical tables as the professional artists at Disney.

As technology progressed personal computers became more powerful I moved towards software synthesis expressed as plugins in sequencers such as ProTools, Cubase, and Ableton Live. From about 2000 to 2008 I explored many third party plugin developers such as Native Instruments Reaktor. A desktop computer with this software was say $4K. But I found that support for microtonality was non-existent or inconsistent. And you couldn’t develop code for these instruments which blocked me from not only my personal creative medium, but also from implementing the most important idea of Erv: interactively reseeding his designs with the ones of your own personal aesthetic.

From that first day I met Erv he said that he always wanted new generations to grow up with these scales. Fast-forward to 2019: Hundreds of millions of people have mobile phones and tablets which are less than $1K.  In many countries around the world these devices are subsidized. We now find ourselves in a situation where children who, unlike myself, can grow up with palettes of pitches as an expected creative choice in their music. An independent developer in his spare time can distribute free applications around the world.

In 2014 I released “Wilsonic” which lets you interactively reseed some of Erv’s most musically-useful designs, and in 2018 the AudioKit open source software synthesizer Synth One founded by Aure Prochazka, Matthew Fecher and myself developed Synth One, a free open source additive synthesizer now with hundreds of thousands of downloads, and a method called “AudioKit Tuneup” which instantly shares tunings between Wilsonic, Synth One, and the paid app “AudioKit Digital D1”, a sampler-based synth.  

While Wilsonic is very technical and requires familiarity with the theory behind Erv’s work Synth One and D1 are not technical at all. The tuning support in these two apps treat scales as if they were simply presets or patches, and I bundled in Synth One a curated list of tunings by Erv, Kraig Grady, Stephen Taylor, Jose Garcia, Gary David, and myself.  Musicians with no knowledge of microtonality can simply play these by ear and make novel music never before possible.

After a couple decades of research and development where do we go from here?  At this point we are at a tipping point where we have the platforms and global distribution we need.  

Synth One and Digital D1 are professional-sounding and immensely popular synths with an exceptional number of 5-star reviews on the Apple App Store. The next level is to increase the exposure of microtonality by evangelizing to commercial software synthesizer companies who have a greater reach with their products. They could leverage this R&D to minimize their financial risk while efficiently adding popular microtonality implementations to their portfolios of instruments and sounds. It’s important to support musicians who like me have never heard of microtonality but want to find their own unique sound.

I would like to partner with teams of developers to implement all of Erv’s designs–I cannot finish them all myself. By working with software developers of all skill levels we can preserve all of Erv’s tunings and implement them in as many software synthesizers as possible.

I would also like to partner with musicians and educators to educate the public  by creating video content that demonstrates the use of these scale designs, and their practical use in these instruments, and the music created by these.

That feeling I had when I first experienced a design by Erv…that’s the feeling I want audiences and musicians to feel when they hear novel music created with these designs.