Sunday, December 11, 2016

IN MEMORY: I REMEMBER ERV WILSON

Invited are all memories and/or comments in tribute to Erv Wilson. Please post your own recollections below or just share your thoughts in memory of this man.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Erv Wilson came across as one of the most open-minded and generous, and at the same time, one of the most imaginative and practical-minded music theorists you could hope to encounter.
Erv used to say things like "This particular tuning has no octaves--but who wants to listen to a bunch of octaves, anyway?" Or "This tuning does allow some familiar triads...if that's your idea of harmony."
He always keenly brought to mind the fact that other musical cultures outside Europe/North America had very different ideas of harmony, melody, and scale formation than Western musicians...and even the ancient Greeks had quite different notions than we do today.
It always proved wonderfully refreshing to talk to Erv because you knew you weren't going to get tangled up in unstated assumptions (like "There are only twelve tones, after all" or "We have to use chord progressions made up of tertian harmonies") that you tended to get from most other theoretical treatises on music.
Erv also had a unique way of writing his cryptic papers. I recall once visiting him and seeing a bunch of words on the blackboard near his kitchen. "What's this?" I asked him, scrutinizing a list of words like SUPERPARTIENT and EXQUISITE and SURD. "Those are words I'm going to use in my next article," Erv said. Apparently Erv chose particular words, like jewels, for their sound and luster, and then built his articles around them. Not the way most people do it. But then, Erv remains unique.
The Wikipedia article comes across as a stub. Erv influenced many people and strode out far in advance of the conventional music theorists. "Well-formed scales" apparently qualified as a big innovation among academic music theorists, but Erv got there long before Carey and Clampitt. I've seen a letter by Erv to John Chalmers where Erv discusses the MOS concept, and Erv was talking with admiration about the music in THE OUTER LIMITS, so that was 1963. Compare with Carey & Clampitt publishing their paper in 1989.
Erv's work in mapping non-12 tunings onto various types of keyboards goes all the way back to the 1950s. Ivor Darreg first got in touch with Erv by searching patents for xenharmonic keyboards, and Ivor came across a patent from 1958 that Erv had filed for a 31 equal keyboard. Ivor picked up the idea of refretting guitars from Erv, who got there first, though Ivor carried it much farther and composed actual music with them.
Erv also consulted with Lou Harrison and I think Lou picked up the notion of tubulongs from Erv. Ivor certainly did. Back in the 1950s and 1960s, it was terribly hard to tune anything, much less keep it in tune -- so being able to tune a metallophone that kept in tune more or less permanently regardless of temperature or humidity offered a big advantage. If memory serves, Lou and Bill Colvig didn't build actual retuned metallophones until 1971, by which time Erv had quite a set of xenharmonic tubulongs. So I suspect Lou got the idea from Erv.
Among the more memorable bon mots I recall from Erv were "Not to put too fine a point on it, five-limit diatonic just intonation sucks. It sounds so insipid that if the word `insipid' did not exist, it would be necessary to invent it to describe this music," and "Non-Western music tends to systematically avoid the harmonic series," and "Some music theorists have written in terror of the `infinite sea of commas' implied by just intonation. But we all come from the sea originally, of course, evolutionarily speaking."