Limiting the Unlimited: Personal Reflections on Erv Wilson and Arabic Liquor


I was around 11 or 12 years old when I heard my grandfather, Joe Shikany, singing Arabic music with his friends. His eyes were tightly closed as he wailed “ya lay lee” accompanied by an oud (stringed instrument) and a doumbek (drum). There was a group of men sitting in a circle drinking Arak and encouraging Joe with shouts. The sound of it all entered me in a delicious way as though I were eating Arabic food. I didn’t know what to call it then but it was the sound of the “neutral third” (27/22?) that particularly impressed me emotionally. Later, I was able to sing that, but I couldn’t find it on the piano.

In 1963 percussionist Emil Richards told me that Harry Partch, one of the first American composers to systematize microtonal music, was living in a chicken hatchery in Petaluma California. Harry was living there with all of his instruments. I visited him and we spent and the day talking about music and drinking. I told Harry I was moving to Los Angeles and he said you should look up Erv Wilson. In 1964 I formed an experimental jazz group called The Sound of Feeling, and moved to Los Angeles from San Francisco. One of my first priorities was to meet Erv Wilson. One day I went to his apartment 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 a number of interesting 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 began talking about the tunings the sounds and numbers. No introductions. That began a 30 year conversation into which I am still learning my way.

To me the work of Erv Wilson is about freedom – degrees of freedom. The human species has a limited range of hearing. Our own bodies limit our experiences of the universe and its seemingly limitless events. We live within a limited awareness of that unlimited universe. In that sense, we are determined by our bodily structure. Sonic limits are species specific.

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Gary David

Gary David, Ph.D. in epistemology, is currently engaged in a private counseling practice, as well as giving seminars teaching the role of the biology of emotion in the meaning-making processes of the whole human being. A former professional musician, he was the leader of an experimental jazz group called "The Sound of Feeling," and was one of the early, longtime students of Erv Wilson.

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