Composer Stephen James Taylor describes to the newcomer, the mysterious musical realm of Erv Wilson, and the vast universe of his musical structures.
We all can do this.
But it changes us forever.
The old way of seeing things
is still there of course,
But we cannot
go back to it.
That’s what happened to a few of us musically,
when we came into contact
with Erv Wilson….
and caught a glimpse of…
THE SONIC SKY
Everything had been fine. Sailing along smoothly in my career writing music for television and film and I really thought I had a handle on music. Then bam something happened and I suddenly saw life through a different filter: new sounds, new colors, new shades of feeling. I entered a parallel dimension of sorts–one much larger of the one we’re in now–a universe the includes this one, yet goes beyond it.
Here’s how it all happened. I was walking along the path and I poked my head around the bend a little bit trying to see what might lie ahead in the future of music when I came upon a man on the side of the trail. I found out later he was a sonic sorcerer, but I didn’t know that at the time. He called himself Ervin McDonald Wilson and I said, “I think I’ve heard about you.
He said, “Come here. I want to show you something.”
And what he showed me over the next twenty years blasted open a portal to a vast universe that very few even know exists. Some of what you might hear there can sound something like this. In fact, much of the music you will be hearing in the background from here on out, will be nuggets of sonic gold extracted from planets within this sonic Wilsonic universe.
(“Combination Product Set” world)
I came to find out that amongst the handful of people who had also caught a glimpse of this infinitely creative realm he’d opened up, nobody knew how to explain it in plain English. They could explain the individual fruits of his labor, but all had great difficulty explaining the tree they came from or the orchard or the region or the state–any kind of simple overview explaining what he does, how it’s different, and why anyone should care.
So about five years ago, I got together with a couple of other guys that write music: Gary David, a jazz musician with a doctorate in philosophy who studied with Erv back in the 1960’s and Marcus Hobbs, a techno composer, computer programmer, who studies with him in the later 90’s.
Turns out, it took us this long: 5 years to come up with a simple way to break it all down for you. And we went down a rabbit hole. Looking at his work through the lens of philosophy, art, acoustics, psychology, emotion, mathematics. I travelled across the country interviewing an astrobiologist, a healer that uses unusual musical frequencies, instrument makers, composers, dancers, musician’s with perfect pitch, a heavy metal guitarist. All these people profoundly influenced by Erv Wilson.
So in this intro, we’re going to just this.
1) Explain who Erv Wilson is and exactly what he does…
2) … How is work is a groundbreaking-gamechanging musical innovation.
3) Why this stuff is just so damn cool.
Ok, so what does Erv Wilson do. In a nutshell, he sculpts with numbers, but that’s only the beginning. He devises ingenius almost magical ways to create extended families of New Musical Frequencies.
He then often takes these new notes and maps them onto three dimensional objects like this so we can see all the ways the notes are connected with each other.
In other words, he works with numbers, to uncover musical notes you can’t find on a regular instrument like the piano because the new notes would literally fall between the cracks and you’d have to build a new kind of piano with lots of extra keys to be able to hear them–kind of like the one here he designed with 8010 keys.
Actually, in order to explain the scope and level on which he operates. We found it helpful to construct this physical model to use as a rough analogy of music. Not to be interpreted too literally, but take a look at it and tell me what you think. (Also see the “Three Story Rap”)
Think of music as a three-story building: ground floor, second floor, third floor, and a skylight to the heavens. Now these three floor only represent where our attention is at any given moment. They are Arenas of Attention. No one floor is any better than another because in music they all have to work together at the same time as Layers of Awareness. More like a cake than a hierarchy. Except for the third floor and we’ll get to that.
But suffice it to say if we spend too much time on any one floor to the neglect of the others. The experience become barren and some might say the music will suck because it gets stuck.
Ok, so let’s walk into the building and see what’s going on in there.
The first floor has this massive room, where all of music is consumed.
This ground level is the place of pure feeling–what goes on in your body and soul when you hear or perform a piece of music. This is the place that music is played and listened to. That’s it. Concerts happen here. iPods operate here. Dancing happens here. Music is simply taken in. It’s not intellectual, technical or symbolic. It’s just a party.
(1st Floor = what you feel when you hear or play)
The bulk of our attention here is on the sensation of music as it flows by. If this was a restaurant, you could say the food was served and eaten here. It’s where the feast happens. This is the level of Musical Reality (the “sensation” of music) that is happening where it counts in real time bound to the Earth.
Most music fans have a great time just hanging out here. In fact, why ever leave? Well, if you want to know something about how the music you consume here is made, then you need to scoot up the ladder to the second floor.
The Second Floor, is only for… Those who thirst, for more than the First…
This is where recipes are created. Composers live here–music theory people, technical people, instrument makers–anyone who works in patterns or relationships of notes or rhythms. This is the level where musical rules are devised and followed. Where those who create music decide what goes well with what. What chords fit together. What notes can be combined into a tasty melody to be served up on the First Floor. They’re like chefs conjuring up recipes.
In fact, the act of composition usually consists of jumping back and forth between the Second Floor of pattern making and the First Floor of sensation. They have to work together for the music to be emotional and interesting. Kind of like a left brain, right brain thing, but not exactly.
The excitement felt here on the Second Floor comes mainly from placing the attention on cool patterns and note relationships. For most musicians, composers, and listeners these two floors provide a lifetime of fun. This much in itself may seem fairly complete except what’s on the Third Floor?
Well, if we walk up the ladder, we’ll see at first not much seems to be going on up there. In fact, it’s fairly empty and quiet. The Third Floor is a mystery. That very few bother to see.
This is the realm where the master set of ingredients sits on its thrown in what we call the tuning system or “master” scale. In the case of American and European music, we’re talking about the twelve notes on the piano from C Natural to the C above it and then they start all over again from C to C.
In the West, all songs, symphonies, chords, melodies, in fact, any pattern derived on our Second Floor is made from these twelve notes as they beam down and permeate everything regardless of musical style whether Rock, Classical, Jazz, whatever. Those twelve notes in the master set are the only ones allowed to pass below where they get recycled, recombined, and reordered, on the Second Floor to form new songs that are served up for consumption on the First.
But very few songwriters, musician or composers question where these twelve notes came from and why they deserve the privileged status of being the only frequencies allowed to pass their DNA down to the Second and First Floors when actually truth be told, there are an infinite number of alternate frequencies and frequency relationships with which brand new music can be written.
Composers that work with this wider choice of notes are called Microtonalists and they spend a lot of time up here. It’s a different kind of kitchen. The attention here is focused on the system itself and the context in which everything below happens.
(Microtonalists work here with larger sets of tonal ingredients… more gradations of pitch than the tradition 12 notes)
Assumptions get examined here. On this floor the imagination goes wild in a jungle of numbers which then become highly structured and converted into a tuning system.
(3rd Floor = The “REALM” of Tuning Systems)
Excitement here is generated by creating new tonal ingredients that get kicked down to the chefs on the Second Floor who can then cook up cool note patterns that evoke new shades of feeling when performed on the First Floor.
Ok, but what about the skylight above the Third Floor?
The Sky is vast and full of stars.
If you gaze through the skylight for even a short length of time, you’ll go blind. They’re two many stars for the eyes to take in–their collective light is just too bright. Hence, we need Venetian blind on our skylight to let in only the light of a select few stars. Our brains would explode without a filtering process to take such small manageable bites of light.
So now think of each of those zillion stars as having its own distinct musical note. If they came at us all at once, then we’d be hit with an incoherent blast of noise. So what has evolved over time is that each culture or subculture has gradually settled on a particular number of blinds and also on the distance between each blind.
In the West, we have twelve equally spaced blinds. In India, they have 22 unequally spaced blinds. In Indonesia, they cut infinity into 7 unequal pieces with each village determining its own spacing.
Any master set, will permeate the DNA of all music below regardless of style. Watch this. I’m going to play on singly musical gesture–a pattern of notes that cascades down from high to low. The only difference each time I play it will be the swapping out of the master scale. Notice what that does to the genetic character of the music.
What you’re seeing operate here is a filtering process. Because once we deny the existence of everything but those few rays of light that get filtered through the blinds we tend to forget about all the other stars in the sky–they disappear from our awareness. That filter becomes mistaken for reality itself as the rays of light eventually burnish themselves into the floor at level three. Then the culture comes to treat them as if they were always there in the fabric of reality itself, but actually its just a product of our own filtering system. We created the Venetian blinds within us and hence are not separate from them.
In fact, let me revise the previous point, by saying now that it is not so much our filters that create the illusion, but that the filtering process itself is a creative act inseparable from perception. Hence we can embrace it for what it is: a creative activity to have some fun with.
And this is where Erv Wilson comes in. Not only is he a microtonalist, but he is one whose found a way to poke his head through the skylight and when he did that, he saw galaxies, galaxies of new musical pitch fields held together in coherent relations by the gravity of simple arithmetic.
He was thus able to map large swaths of the sky charting new constellations of notes that nobody knew about before. He noted the unique properties of many of these star clusters and by doing so laid the foundation by which our previous understanding can be placed in a larger matrix of pitch organization.
(Wilson created a larger matrix of musical pitch organization)
To get an idea of how vast this tuning universe is, take a look at this computerized visualization Marcos Hobbs did of one of Wilson galaxy clusters he calls Moments of Symmetry. You’re looking at an infinite pitch field in which our twelve tone master scale is a mere spec. Kind of like how our beloved Earth is a mere dot within the larger cosmos.
You see there is our system right here (12 Tone Equal Temperament)–that ring with twelve equally spaced cells dividing the circle. But change one little number way to the right of the decimal point in the formula that generates the radii (0.583333) and the whole cosmos changes right before your eyes and a new galaxy comes into being with nested master sets each rendering a whole new set of tonal properties.
I’ll demonstrate this by repeating the same four notes on the keyboard while the computer retunes those notes on the fly as we morph from galaxy to galaxy.
(The Master Set is constantly changing in the background…)
There are some many of these sonic galaxies in this cluster that you can’t even count them. That’s how big and fertile this are of exploration is.
So now we can finally answer the question who is Erv Wilson and why should we care. He is a cartographer like Mercator, a cosmologist like Stephen Hawking, an epistemologist of pitch like Pythagoras, and an explorer like Magellan unveiling brand new horizons. His work represents both discovery and invention. His work is also relevant to our understanding of perception and how belief systems in general function similarly to our tuning systems.
(A “belief system” is like a master scale that filter out ideas instead of notes)
Much like Copernicus who expanded our concept of the solar system by altering our understanding of how it actually operates, Erv Wilson has expanded our concept of what can be done on the Third Floor and above. The master set does not have to be a fixed or static noun sitting on a thrown, but a verb that moves around freely within our awareness.
With Wilson’s imaginative use of number logic, a composer can now embrace the Sonic Sky in its totality and hence, change the function of the Venetian blinds from static to dynamic where the blinds can change position as they logically morph from star to star along a continuum of Wilson’s charted constellations. His work invites us to create and use master scales of notes not as fixed values, but more like a moving pulsating electrical field of variables.
(Freezing this moving grid at any point give you a unique group of new master scales. Also see MOS Rectangle)
By fully accepting our ability, to participate in the creation of the master set, by understanding that each tuning system is merely a small planet in a large galaxy of related bodies, by changing it freely within a composition as we allow in the changing light of different stars then the creative act is expanded to fully include the Third Floor as well. To free this realm from rigidity amplifies the gene pool of music itself, fully integrates our layers of awareness, and enables the party to spread from the First Floor all the way up to the sky.
Written, Directed, Edited, and Scored by Stephen James Taylor with thanks to Marcus Hobbs, Gary David, and Beethoven. Photographs by Aaron Rapoport. Stock footage provided courtesy of NASA and Footage Firm. Produced by Taylor-David-Hobbs. Special thanks to Erv Wilson, Kraig Grady, Nancy Taylor, Andrew Wellman Taylor, Chuck Jonkey, Allyson Taylor, Jim French, J. Samuel Bois, Immanuel Kant, LL Whyte, G. Spencer Brown, Plato, Aristotle, and Pythagoras.
To see Erv Wilson’s papers go to www.anaphoria.com/wilson.html
For further listening and viewing please continue to explore our site.
ERV WILSON: As a very young child, in the adobe house where I lived, they had rafters and there were little cracks in the rafters and the wind would come singing through the cracks in the rafters and I could here the wind singing these beautiful haunting melodies that were going up and down, weave in and out according to the strength and direction of the wind through the rafters. And that haunted me for the rest of my days and still does. A lot of interesting musician got started listening to the wind.