“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.

Virtual Analog Microtonality in VCV Rack

One of the most interesting computer music software developments of the past few years has been the advent of Modular Virtual Analog synthesizers.  That is, modular synthesizers that exist on your computer screen and which often do away with the limits of the equivalent hardware instruments. (And the weight, he says, remembering without any fondness concert tours of Europe where I pushed two flight cases of analog gear over cobblestone streets!) One of the most exciting of these synths has been VCV Rack, a free and open-source project (Mac, PC, or Linux) headed up by Andrew Belt.  VCV Rack has a whole family of free modules, some by Belt, but most by other developers, some of which emulate the function of well-known physical Eurorack modules. For example, many of the elaborate modules from French developer Mutable Instruments are available in authorized reproductions in VCV Rack.  Belt has encouraged other developers to develop modules which can function in the Rack environment.  These are called plugins and there are a lot of them out there.  One of the most prolific developers of free plugins for Rack has been Antonio Tuzzi, from Sardinia.  His set of plugins, which he promotes under the nom-du-software of NYSTHI, is extensive and deep.  Some of his plugins are original, and some are loving emulations of classic hardware from the past.  There are also selected modules which are for sale on a per module basis. For example, Andrew Belt has a number of modules, one of which we will discuss here, which are available at nominal cost. 

One of the problems Xenharmonic composers who use computers face is that of implementing microtonality.  Some software synthesizers implement the use of Scala tuning files.  (Modartt Pianoteq, all of the Madrona Labs synths, WusikStation, UVI Falcon etc.)  Others have proprietary tuning formats which can microtune most uses of their synthesizers/samplers (such as Native Instruments Kontakt – http://soundbytesmag.net/technique-microtuning-in-kontakt-5-and-6/).  Still others, such as the Arturia CMI V, and Synclavier V, and the Synclavier Labs Synclavier Go, emulate the tuning capabilities of those classic instruments, meaning that you can detune them in the same (non-standard) way that you did when the instruments were new and in physical form.  But you can’t use Scala files with them.

The Virtual Analog world has settled on the standard of (the digital equivalent of) 1 volt per octave tuning, as did most of the early analog synthesizers.  This means that fantastically accurate microtuning will be possible with any module designed to that standard.  If only there was a module in the VCV world that could process control-voltage signals and MIDI-keyboard signals into that desired accuracy.  Well there is, now.  Antonio Tuzzi has designed two modules, the Scala Quantizer, and the Equal Division Quantizer, for just this purpose.  The Scala Quantizer takes Scala .scl files, and quantizes any incoming control-voltage or MIDI-keyboard signal to match the tuning of the Scala file.  The Equal Division Quantizer quantizes any input signal into any desired equal-interval tuning, from 2 to 100 equal divisions (with 2 decimal point accuracy – ie, 56.35 equal divisions is possible), of any ratio from 1.2 to 100.  So for example, the 12th root of 2.05 is possible, for a stretched tuning, or something like the 45.3rd root of 7.63 is possible, for some kind of experimental tuning.  Furthermore, each of these factors – number of divisions and interval being divided –  can be voltage-controlled, for continually varying tuning.

Andrew Belt, meanwhile, has developed his own tuning module for VCV-Rack, called Scalar.  This is a Scala .scl file based module, but it also has the ability to specify different sectionings of each individual octave – that is, each octave can have a different set of pitches which are on or off.  Fans of Xenakis-derived non-octave pitch sieves will be delighted by this module.  Unlike the NYSTHI modules, this module is payware, but the asking price of $20 US is so reasonable that it is probably affordable by almost anyone who has a computer that can run VCV Rack.

VCV Rack also has another payware module ($30 US), called VCV Host, which enables VST Plugins to work inside the VCV Rack environment.  If the VST Plugin supports microtonality on its own, then you don’t have to use either the NYSTHI quantizers or the VCV Scalar.  Just send it the proper MIDI note numbers and you’ll get the desired tuning.  But if your softsynth does not support microtonal detuning, there’s still a way to control it in VCV Host.  This involves sending a synth both a MIDI pitch number and a MIDI pitch bend number at the same time.  The late John Dunn’s MusicWonk (algoart.com), a free program for PCs only, has a module called MIDI Tone.  With this module you set up a table of tunings using Scala files and the MicroTone menu in MusicWonk.  Then when you call up a particular scale degree, the appropriate MIDI note and MIDI pitchbend will be set. In order for this to work properly, you will need to set Pitchbend range on your softsynth to +/- 1 semitone. I tried this with Applied Acoustic Systems Chromophone in VCV Host, and it worked perfectly.

If you want to work in VCV Itself, and you can’t set the pitchbend range on your VST softsynth (such as with the Arturia Synthi V, which is fixed at a +/- 1 octave pitch bend range), there’s still hope.  You’ll need a sequencer which can send out precise values (the NYSTHI LOGAN modules will accept a spreadsheet of values) and then you can specify pitches and pitchbend numbers that will work for your particular pitchbend range.  This can get to be quite complex, but it is possible.

Andrew Belt has proposed an algorithm for a module that could do this automatically.  As of this writing, no-one has created such a module, although I’m willing to bet one will be made soon.  But here’s a link to his algorithm and if you click on “comments” at the end, you’ll see Andrew’s implementation of this using Frank Buss’s Formula Modules. https://www.facebook.com/groups/vcvrack/permalink/344906862836131/

I’ve tested a number of softsynths in this Host module, and many of them, which don’t actually implement microtonality on their own, will perform microtonally when in the VCV Host module, when a combination of CV and Pitchbend signals are sent to them (and the pitchbend range is set to the appropriate amount). Note: this method produces only monophonic lines, but multiple instances of the synths could be used for polyphonic textures.  Of the softsynths I tested, the Arturia Synthi V, the Arturia Moog Modular V3, the Arturia Synclavier V, the Arturia CMI V, Madrona Labs Aalto, Wusikstation V9, AAS Chromophone2, Garritan Aria Player, Native Instruments Kontakt with Spitfire Audio sample sets, and the UVI Falcon all worked perfectly.  Many of these, among them all of the Arturia modules, and many of the Spitfire Audio sample sets in Kontakt, will not accept Scala .scl file based microtonal control on their own, but work well in the VCV Host environment.  Some Arturia keyboards – ones that were not designed to support microtonality in their physical versions, also don’t support microtonality in the VCV Host environment either.  Among these are the Piano V2, and the Wurli V2.  You should try out your VST synths in the VCV Host environment to see which support microtonality and which don’t.  As they say, your mileage may vary.  But it is really lovely to know that certain softsynths on which microtonality wasn’t easily available will now perform microtonally when loaded into the VCV Host.

Returning to the many oscillators, samplers and tone generators available in the VCV environment, let’s look in detail at Antonio Tuzzi’s two modules.  They are well designed, are very efficient, and work seamlessly throughout the entire VCV Rack environment.  Here’s a screenshot of a patch which uses all three kinds of microtonal quantizer modules, any of which could feed into the Macro Oscillator’s 1V/Oct input in order to produce microtonal pitches.

In this patch, the MIDI-1 input module receives MIDI information from a Korg MicroKey keyboard. This MIDI CV information goes to either the Scala Quantizer module, OR the Equal Division Quantizer module, OR the Scalar module, and the output of the chosen quantizer goes to the V/Oct input of the Macro Oscillator.  The Gate output of the MIDI-1 module goes into the Gate input of the ADSR module, the output of which feeds the VCA input on the 4MIX module.  The output of the 4MIX goes into the Audio Output module.  Many other modules and processors could be added to this, of course.  But this simple patch shows the three quantizer modules in operation.

Here’s the front panel of the Scala Quantizer module.

At the top of the module there is a switch to switch between “midinote map mode” – MIDI Keyboard note input – and “pure quantize mode” – which is used for internal VCV control voltage signals from sequencers, LFOs, random signal generators, etc.  Below that is the Input, with a bypass switch next to it.  The window below is very nicely designed.  The top row gives the octave of the scale and the scale degree generated by the input. In this case, it’s octave 3, pitch 1.  Below that is the Octave and the Ratio of the scale degree.  Here that’s octave 3 and this is the fundamental 1/1.  Below that is the frequency of the particular pitch, and below that is the resulting voltage signal output.  With this window, you can very easily see what is happening with your playing or controlling being mapped to the microtonal scale at hand.  Below the window is an octave control, and a Control Voltage input for octave choice (very handy, this).  Below that is a fine tuning window, to adjust the output of the module to whatever external source you wish to match.  The output is below that, and to the right of the module are 11 more inputs and outputs, all of which will be subjected to the same quantization.  Further control is accessed by right-clicking on the faceplate.  This brings up a back panel with controls on it:

After the utility controls at the top, is a control for MIDI map offsets – this will add 1-5 volts to the incoming MIDI note signal to make sure that you’re paying in the octave you desire.  Below that is a control to add a new .scl file to the set of files kept in the cache for the program in the “Documents/Rack” folder.  The selected scale is shown below, and then below that is a list of the available scales. This list can be scrolled through with the middle scroll wheel on a standard mouse.  The list can be of any length.  Although, for convenience, you might want to occasionally navigate to the folder that holds the .scl files, and prune it for efficiency.  Clicking on any of the file names immediately loads that scale into the module.

The Equal Interval Quantizer works in a similar manner, and looks similar:

At the top we see the inputs for the Equal Interval equation – how many equal divisions (top) of what ratio (bottom).  There are also CV inputs to change those specifications in real time.  These could change randomly, or they could be under the control of a module that gives precise tunings at particular times.  As you see, you can specify numbers with two decimal point precision and any number up to 100 is supported by both inputs.  The midinote map mode and pure quantize mode switch is below that, and below that is the monitor window.  The top line shows the index number – what scale degree from the total pitch range is being played.  The resulting frequency in Hz is shown next, with the Voltage output on the bottom line.  An octave offset and tuning window is below that, and at the bottom are four parallel inputs and outputs – each of which independently quantizes a different voltage to the specifications given above.  And as with the earlier module, right clicking opens up a back-panel for further controls:

In addition to the utility controls at the top, there is here just a MIDI Note Map voltage offset to adjust the octave range being used.

Scalar functions in a similar way to the Scale Quantizer module, but adds some other capabilities.

The top row specifies which octave will be displayed if the Variable option is selected with “Octaves.”  Each octave can have a different set of pitches turned on/off. If Octaves is set to Shared, then the same parameters apply to all octaves.  The pitches of the scale are shown below.  If you’re in the proper octave, when the relevant key is pressed a black dot appears in that particular key.  Right clicking on a key turns off that key, so that you can play subsets of the chosen scale.  Below that are indicators – Tuning may be either Equal or Unequal, and Notes can be set up to 24 (24 pitches is also the limit of the Scala .scl file that you can load into the module).  If you click on any key, the Cents indicator will also light up – the cents setting of any pitch can be changed by holding on the number and moving the mouse.  (Ctrl+hold for fine tuning.)

Four unique controls are given below.  “Depth” allows you to cross fade between no quantization and full quantization.  This is also voltage controllable.  With this you can have continually changing tunings.  “Track” adjusts the tracking of the oscillators in reference to a 1v/oct standard.  Setting this, for example to 101% would produce slightly stretched octaves.  Again, a CV input allows this to be changed in real time.  “Warp” adds a random offset to each pitch for a bit of unpredictable detuning.  Again, the amount of this can be voltage controlled.  Finally, “Offset” simply adds or subtracts a voltage to the signal for transposition or adjustment of the pitch level of the output.

The inputs and outputs are on the bottom row.  If something is only plugged into Input 1, that signal is normalled to the four outputs.  If a signal is put in both In1 and In2, then the two inputs are processed independently, but both quantized to the same parameters.  Right clicking on the panel brings up a back panel where you can import and export Scala files of up to 24 notes in the scale.  If you have different note selections in each octave, that won’t be saved with your Scala file, but those settings will be saved if you save your VCV Patch, and they will load perfectly when you reload your patch.  But if you have specified a scale with all of its pitch and cents values, that can be saved as a Scala file.  As an example, here’s a 14-note scale that I specified in Scalar, saved as a Scala file:

! 14NoteHandMadeScalefromVCVScalar.scl


Created with VCV Scalar (https://vcvrack.com/Scalar.html)

  • 14
  • !
  • 87.914
  • 157.029
  • 216.843
  • 300.957
  • 396.071
  • 437.686
  • 586.500
  • 685.714
  • 701.329
  • 838.343
  • 969.557
  • 990.372
  • 1169.086
  • 2/1

With the development of screen-based modular Virtual Analog synthesizers, a lot of possibilities have emerged.  With the development of these microtonal quantizers by Antonio Tuzzi and Andrew Belt, lots of microtonal possibilities have now become available. The future has just gotten a bit brighter, and a lot more complex, for those of us who want to use our computers for making microtonal music.

Forward (excerpt) to ‘Microtonality and The Tuning Systems of Erv Wilson’

Ervin M. Wilson was arguably the most creative music theorist in the world of alternative scales and tunings. He was also one of the least accessible because he chose to work alone and to share his prodigious discoveries and inventions personally, rather than teaching courses, writing formal papers, or publishing textbooks on his remarkably fruitful musical theories.

I first met Erv, as he preferred to be called, in the early 1960s when I was a graduate student in Biology at the University of California, San Diego. At that time, UCSD was located on the beach at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, and the atmosphere was so intense that graduate students were given keys to the university library stacks. One evening I got tired of reading about molecular biology and genetics, so I decided to peruse the holdings of the Journal of the Acoustical Society of America. Soon I discovered that a certain Tillman Schafer had constructed a 19-tone electromechanical musical instrument at Mills College in the late 1940s, and that he had worked for the U.S. Navy in Point Loma, a suburb of San Diego. Hoping that he still lived in the San Diego area, I called the facility and asked to speak to him.

As it turned out, Schafer was still in San Diego and invited me to his home where I saw the instrument, but more importantly, was given the names of other people interested in microtonal music. One of these was Ivor Darreg, who then lived in Los Angeles; so I drove to LA and met Ivor, who in turn referred me to Ervin Wilson. Just prior to this meeting, I had attended a seminar at the Salk Institute by David Rothenberg, a composer and theorist from New York City, who is best known for his theories on the perception of musical tones in scalar contexts. Remarkably, David also knew Wilson and was visiting him the same time I was. So, through this network of associations, I met Erv Wilson and became one of the fortunate few who have had the opportunity to learn firsthand of his work.

As a graduate student, I had access to a large mainframe computer, so in 1968 I asked Erv if there were any computations I could do for him. We decided that a table of all the equal temperaments from 5 to 120 tones per octave would be useful, especially if I also computed the errors in a set of small-number ratios for each system. I did this, and at Erv’s suggestion, sent a copy to Professor Fokker in The Netherlands. Fokker was the leading proponent of 31-tone equal temperament in Europe, and the author of a number of articles as well as a composer in that system. Having finished this study, Erv and I also compiled a very large table of just intervals and distributed multiple copies to other workers. Other projects included equal divisions of 3/1 and other integers, as these can approximate divisions of the octave with improved representations of certain harmonically important intervals. In recent years, other composers such as Heinz Bohlen, John Pierce, Kees van Prooijen, Enrique Moreno, and others have also become interested in divisions of 3/1.

At this point, I had to stop and finish my dissertation, which was on the genetics of the tryptophan pathway in Neurospora crassa, if I were ever going to graduate from UCSD. (One of my graduate advisors had started referring to me as “graduate student emeritus”.) After getting my doctorate, I moved around the country, and became involved in research and teaching in the fields of microbial genetics, industrial microbiology, biochemistry, and biotechnology, eventually returning to UCSD. Through all of these peregrinations, I continued to correspond with Erv and pored over his sometimes puzzling letters, intriguing keyboard diagrams, and cryptic worksheets. An invitation from Larry Polansky to spend a summer writing at Mills College followed by a part-time research position again at U.C. Berkeley allowed me to complete my book, Divisions of the Tetrachord, a task that was originally suggested by Lou Harrison. Much of this book was directly concerned with Erv’s theories and musical discoveries. Central to Erv’s work and among his first discoveries are his keyboard designs. To play microtonal music with the same skill and expression as is done in 12-tone equal temperament, one needs instruments that are designed for alternative tunings.

Wilson was also one of the most intuitive mathematicians one is likely ever to meet outside of academia, though he had little or no formal training in the subject. In addition to being able to visualize and geometrically plot musical scales as objects in higher dimensional space, he rediscovered or reinvented a method equivalent to the approximation of irrational numbers by continued fractions (The Scale Tree), and characteristically applied it as an organized system for discovering new musical scales of the type he terms Moments of Symmetry (MOS). Dr Narushima’s explanation of this mathematical process is crystal clear without losing sight of its musical significance, particularly as it applies to keyboard design.

Other key concepts of Wilson’s musical theories are Constant Structures, which are scales in which every occurrence of a given interval is always divided by the same number of smaller intervals. These may be considered as a generalization of MOS and have comparable structural stability. They exist in both equal temperaments and ratiometric tunings (extended Just Intonation) as do another class of scales, the Combination-Product Sets.

CPS are found by multiplying a set of n harmonic generators, m at a time. The prototype is the Hexany, a six-note set generated from four integers representing harmonic functions such as 1, 3, 5, and 7, two at a time. The resulting set of pitches is partitionable into four pairs of (generalized) triads and their inversions. Others are the Dekany (two out of five or three out of five), and the Eikosany, four out of six. These in turn may be divided into smaller CPS: Dekanies into Hexanies, and Eikosanies into both. These structures are especially fascinating because they are harmonic without being centric as any note or none can function as the tonic. They are also defined in equal temperaments, but are generated by addition rather than multiplication.

Numerous composers have composed innovative and aesthetically significant music based on materials invented and discovered by Ervin M. Wilson, thus proving that his work is not empty speculation and audibly imperceptible theoretical invention.

John H. Chalmers, PhD.

Author of Divisions of the Tetrachord

Founding Editor of Xenharmonikôn

Rancho Santa Fe, CA, USA



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

Ervin Wilson

I consider myself one of those composers who is never happy with the established order of things. So when Erv Wilson invited me into his world of numbers and symbols and sonic codes, I was entranced with the vast array of stars in his sky, the zillions of unexplored planets out there with jewels just lying on the ground. His mode of distribution was straight up and simple,… he was very old school. He drew his treasure maps by hand, (http://thesonicsky.com/erv-wilson- diagrams/erv-wilson-diagrams/)  xeroxed them, and would mail them to whomever he thought would be interested. But he would leave it up to you to determine what to do once you get into the vicinity of each treasure site. Much of what was so unique about his approach to master pitch selection is reflected by his rejection of the notion of “The Truth”, (i.e. that there exists some ultimately superior scale or tuning system). He believed you don’t have to stay in any one system but should mine the resources of whichever ones you might need for a particular compositional purpose. Hence instead of handing people pre-drawn circles, he offered a larger context in which you draw your own circles. He advocated a process by which what you intuit can be systematized into a master set of musical pitches, then evaluated, changed and even discarded…. ultimately creating scales based on what you “feel” more than what you “think”. This now broadens a composer’s capacity to create color, novelty and interest. Ultimately the back and forth interaction between imaginative play and it’s systematization renders a dynamic flow of innovation that never gets stuck in a “way of doing things”.


Someone once told me Erv stole fire from the gods. I agree. Yet why would one believe such a thing? The light of the gods burns hot and cannot be held in the hand. For as soon as the hand opens to reveal the stolen prize, the fire immediately erupts, spreading itself into the room and beyond, revealing its infinite nature. Erv’s musical frequency structures contain this property of stolen fire. They are self-propagating yantras… the Scale Tree, Holograms, Pascal’s Triangle, The Coprime Grid, the Combination Product Sets (http://www.thesonicsky.com/photography/erv-wilson-diagrams/),… their numbers spill off the page as they go forth and multiply.  Most everyone who met Erv and saw his work, musician or not, would sense the presence of that fire., feeling this intuitively without having to understand the work itself. All of us who have explored his structures were drawn to him and his material not because of some intellectual curiosity but due to this feeling of “the emerging unexpected” that gets triggered when in the presence of one who has stolen fire.




The website, www.thesonicsky.com, is dedicated to explaining the musical breakthroughs of Erv Wilson and the larger cultural narratives implied by his work. Wilson can be described as a “musical cosmologist” who, by creating/discovering brand new pitch fields. has cracked open a vast unexplored mother lode of new musical note relationships for composers to use freely.

Many of his dynamic tuning systems have the organic property of spawning an infinite number of previously unknown musical scales nested within each other like Chinese boxes. The video interviews and other content on this site attest to the broad impact of his work.