About » Erv Wilson About Erv Wilson (in his own words)


Ervin McDonald Wilson was born in 1928, June 11 in N.W. Chihuahua, Mexico in the high mountain valley of Pacheco just east of the continental divide, and along the Piedras Verdes River.


Pacheco was a small thriving community of religious exiles whose sacred songs Erv learned from infancy. A second very important musical influence was the popular Mexican songs which were sung by all and Erv did truly enjoy the Mexican songs. The sacred songs had ancient melodies several traceable right back to to bagpipe tunes in the British Isles where the Mexican melodies are a complex mixture of Spanish, exiled Muslim and exiled Jewish and even Gypsy music plus a rich undercurrent of indigenous intonations.

When Erv was old enough to read musical notation, his mother Luisa MacDonald Wilson taught him accordingly that he might effectively accompany the hymns. But young Erv quickly decided that he could just as well be wring his own tunes and set out forth to do exactly that by the melody minds ear, locating in on the keyboard of the reed organ , and transcribing it into musical notation. This system worked quite well for the first three notes C, D, and E, but the next note F, which Erv had clearly in his mind was nowhere to be found on that keyboard. F was much to flat, and F# was just wrong. Thus began Wison’s inquiry into what musical scales are mode of, a voyage of exploration which continues this day.

Erv had long standing associations with other microtonal pioneers such as Harry Partch, Adrian Fokker, and Lou Harrison, the latter which he cites as one of his major influences. He recently said “I was there when Lou Harrison gave a koto to Harry Partch. He said ‘I can always tell when I’m listening to Harry Partch, it’s in the key of C†”. (where G = 392hz)

The Act of Scale Formation (a letter from Erv to Gary David circa 1968)

“The act of scale formation is inseparable from the other creative aspects of music formation. The human voice illustrates admirable how scale formation participates fully in the whole creative process of song. The scale is perhaps as unique to the song as are its rhythms and melodies. And like rhythm and melody, the scale neither precedes, nor follows the song, but progresses in the full flow of real time as a soft and sensuous and endlessly malleable expression of human consciousness.

Particularly in fixed-pitch instruments the role of scale tends to be diminished, if not entirely put aside. Even in a polyphonic keyboard instrument, whose ostensible goal is scale-making, the spontaneous, song-like scale is far from being achieved. In the design of a new instrument, one does well to recognize the technical limitations, and to compensate accordingly. (1) The fixed-tone needs to be bendable. (2) The fixed-pitch must have alternate inflections. One makes “knowledgeable guesses” as to what these will be, basing one’s judgment on past creative explorations. These are assigned to a Generalized Keyboard in an appropriately organized pattern. (3) One must have the facility for introducing, in performance, and in creative explorations, new pitches/inflections that may not have been anticipated when the “best-guess” tuning was assigned to the keyboard. Particularly as we “compose” we must be able to create our tunings, immediately from the console, as part of the same, if I may say, somewhat ritualized, creative act. To whatever level is optimally feasible, we should espouse creative tuning as part of the “live performance” (again, a ritual). The wall separating the “composer” from the “performer” should not be designed into the instrument.

The keyboard may be visualized as a Navajo loom upon which intricately lovely and endlessly variable scale patterns may be woven. A canvas. Arbitrary limitations to this variability must not be designed into the instrument. The keyboard is an art, and an interface, a crossroads and a bridge. The keyboard is a ship. In the tunable generalized keyboard we have the birth of a new art and the rebirth of an old art, as ancient as man. The keyboard must Breathe, poetically speaking, for it is the extension of a living process. The scale is a volatile genie that knows how utterly to transform its shape. Every effort must be made to accommodate this mercurial creature-of-the-psyche through the keyboard. The keyboard/console must animate the scale. While undoubtedly it is valid and admirable to study the scales of other peoples and other times, we are concerned primarily with the creative processes and the development and expression of our own arts. We see the keyboard in an attitude of creative anticipation, and to jealously guard against closed, limiting, non-living attitudes, and the great body of “tacit assumptions” and “forgone conclusions” (which, incidentally, we do not assume ourselves to be free from) which might hobble or render ineffectual those subtle intuitions of beauty.

Design philosophy, in a word, should be OPEN. Keep it general(ized), viable, versatile, changeable. Guard against the proverbial cul-de-sac, the one-track, the squirrel cages! My heavens!

The keyboard is a transient lens through which a cosmos of musical relations may be observed. Keep it volatile. Forgive the metaphor! Or interests are primarily “just” and in that regard the acoustic universe is seemingly endless.”


The actual papers of Erv Wilson can be viewed on Kraig Grady’s site http://www.anaphoria.com/wilson.html.