By Daniel Corral
A Beginner’s Guide to Erv Wilson
Erv Wilson did not seek to be a famous composer or performer, but rather a teacher whose approach to music seemed parallel to his love for gardening.
Today, there is a cult-like following of musicians devoted to Wilson’s work. However, his name is enigmatic to many outside of that circle, and his ideas remain impenetrable to many who approach them.
In the Santa Clarita warehouse of LA Percussion Rentals (LAPR) lies the magically-named Transceleste. This metal percussion instrument may have an alien sound, but it also probably sounds vaguely familiar—it has appeared in numerous TV and film soundtracks, including Karate Kid, Columbo, the 2009 Star Trek, and The Matrix. The notes of the Transceleste are arranged in an unfamiliar way for anyone who knows their way around a piano keyboard. In fact, it was designed to play the 22 shruti found in Carnatic or Hindustani music traditions.
The Transceleste is part of LAPR’s collection of instruments that were formerly owned by Emil Richards, percussionist extraordinaire who played innumerable studio sessions in Los Angeles. Besides his near-omnipresence as an LA studio musician, Richards was also interested in microtonal music and played in Harry Partch’s ensemble of custom-built instruments. The 22-tone Transceleste can be found on Richards’ own albums like Stones, New Time Element, or the Microtonal Blues Band’s Journey to Bliss. Richards’ involvement in microtonal music led him to become friends in the 1960s with Erv Wilson, speculative theorist and instrument builder who designed the Transceleste. In fact, the Erv Wilson online archives at anaphoria.com contain a PDF with a copyrighted design for the Transceleste dated 1967.
Erv Wilson’s World
His various musical systems fit into an interwoven ecosystem of number theory and geometry, with various genus and species. In addition, these theories were not hard-line rules but malleable tools for creating personally meaningful musical systems. He did not build musical scales but laid out a set of eloquent tools for others to build their own scales.
Wilson did not have an academic background and his students found him through word of mouth. His teaching/mentorship was tailored to each student’s interests, and often involved conceptual puzzles just beyond the student’s understanding. Several former students of Wilson have told me of receiving hand drawn diagrams with no explanation, leaving them to contemplate at great length what it might mean. When I recently showed a friend one of Wilson’s “Eikosany” diagrams, they said it reminded them of “The Maze” in the HBO reboot of Westworld. I was shocked by how fitting that description was.
Musicians who have connected with Wilson’s ecosystem often describe having a transformative experience that changes their relationship to music and pitch. There is a surprising poetry in how his mathematical systems connect to the physicality of sound. His “Combination Product Sets” are a good example of this. Under the hood is math—Pascal’s Triangle and a series of multivariable multiplication tables—but the geometric diagrams that come out are eloquent JI structures akin to sacred geometry, which allow one to bypass the math once it’s understood.
Some of Wilson’s other systems include “Moments of Symmetry,” keyboard designs like the Transceleste or his Generalized Keyboard (a hexagonal isomorphic design), the “Scale Tree,” “Tree Toads,” “Sums of the Diagonals of Mount Meru,” and others. While it would be easy to dismiss these as whimsically-named arbitrary number games, the clear potential for musical application is undeniable. And the important word here is “potential,” for Wilson’s ideas are deliberately not dogmatic or fixed. They can be bent and customized to yield wildly different results without sacrificing the integrity of the systems he’s designed. Continuing the gardening theme, it is like he is sharing tonal seeds or clippings for musicians to grow or graft in the loam of their own creativity.
Wilson cited microtonalists like Augusto Novaro and Joseph Yasser as influences, and collaborated with the godfather of American microtonality, Harry Partch. That collaboration combined his theoretical depth with his day job as a draftsman: Wilson drew the diagrams in the 2nd edition of Partch’s seminal treatise Genesis of a Music, and helped design Partch’s Quadrangularis Reversum—a 1965 instrument that complements his 1946 Diamond Marimba. Beyond this, almost all of Wilson’s writing appeared exclusively in independent microtonal journals that began circulating out of San Diego to small audiences in the 1970s. As such, his work has long been hard to access.
A Brief Bio of Erv Wilson
Ervin Wilson was born in Colonia Pacheco, Chihuahua, Mexico in 1928, to a family of Mormon missionaries from Utah. His childhood was a modest farm life, which set the tone for his later work. He learned to play the reed organ from his mother and became interested in South Indian music (thus the interest in the 22 Shruti). As a teenager Wilson joined the US Navy, and during his stint in Japan he learned about the harmonic series and Japanese pentatonic scales. After briefly studying at Brigham Young University, Wilson moved to LA, where he lived for most of his adult life, and developed his microtonal theories while working with his father to distribute herbs from Northern Mexico to the US.
His connection to agriculture led to him thinking of musical scales in the same way he thought of plants. According to Terumi Narushima’s book Microtonality and the Tuning Systems of Erv Wilson, “he saw each kind of scale as a plant species that had the potential for growth and transformation…”
Wilson loved Southern California plants and typically maintained a flourishing garden wherever he was.
According to a 1986 edition of Seedhead news, Wilson took over the Colonia Pacheco family farm in 1970 and experimented with mixing local seed varieties with seeds from US and Mexican research institutions to provide higher-protein corn to feed northern Mexicans.
In Los Angeles, Wilson worked as a draftsman and mechanical engineer and was part of a devoted community of microtonalists. He was economically among the artist class, and was often a roommate with musicians and students. This is where Wilson met Emil Richards, and how the Transceleste came into Richards’ possession. In 1974, Wilson’s long-time friend John Chalmers began publishing Wilson’s work in his independent journal Xenharmonikôn, and for decades that was almost the only place it could be found (sundry articles and diagrams could be found in 1/1: The Quarterly Journal of the Just Intonation Network or similar publications). He taught numerous composers, musicians, and instrument builders—primarily from LA. Later in his life, these same students would take care of him and his archives, make sure he was comfortable and his archived material would be available. For a more detailed biography, see the first chapter of Narushima’s book.
Here are just a few of Wilson’s many students. There are many names left out here, including people who studied with Wilson directly (like Paul Rapaport, Gary David, and Terumi Narushima—whose book I’ve referenced here) as well as the numerous others who have been influenced by his work (like Warren Burt or Ron Sword, etc).
One prominent student of Wilson’s is Kraig Grady, who was a mainstay in Los Angeles contemporary music for decades before moving to Australia. He was even the head of ICA for a while—not the Institute of Contemporary Art, but the Independent Composers Association of Los Angeles that was active in the 1980s. Grady has been Wilson’s biggest proselytizer, and many Wilson acolytes have told me that they came into Wilson’s sphere through Grady. In the style of Harry Partch, Grady is a composer who builds his own microtonal instruments. The statement of purpose on his website Anaphoria.com declares the goal to be “to establish a center to provide information about, as well as promote interest in, the cultural resources of Anaphoria Island.”
Anaphoria.com is also the home of the Erv Wilson archive, where Wilson’s documents are available for free.
Stephen James Taylor
One of the composers introduced to Wilson through Grady was Stephen James Taylor, who works primarily in film and TV but is also a devotee to the ideas of Erv Wilson. Taylor’s interest in Wilson’s work also stems from his background in philosophy, which has also driven his interest in the shapes of Ben Gurule.
Taylor has several of Wilson’s original instruments, including another version of Emil Richards’ Transceleste. Taylor has included microtonality into his scores for mainstream documentaries like Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise (2017) and TV shows like Barbie: It Takes Two (2021). He even made a film about Wilson’s ideas, called Surfing the Sonic Sky.
British-born Rod Poole was a beloved LA-based improvising guitarist who primarily played a refretted steel-string acoustic guitar. Poole studied with Wilson and was even his roommate for a while. Poole had a tragic end in 2007, but the legacy of his work lives on. SASSAS organized a tribute to Poole in 2009 at the Schindler House in West Hollywood. I first became aware of Poole’s work when my own 2014 album Diamond Pulses was compared by a reviewer to his 1996 album Death Adder.
Electronic composer Marcus Hobbes (AKA Marcus Satellite) created the easiest way to access Wilson’s work in Wilsonic. Wilsonic began as an iOS app, and is now available as a MIDI plugin to control MPE-enabled synths.
Until Wilsonic, In order to grasp the theory of Wilson’s work it was necessary to have a mathematical inclination, some musical background, and the motivation to build or rebuild a musical instrument (let alone learn to play it). While these considerations are easily overcome today by home computers, they were some of the biggest barriers to entry for microtonality at large, including Wilson’s work (this is why Bart Hopkins’ zine Experimental Musical Instruments was so popular with microtonalists; it was devoted specifically to the logistics of building new and often whimsical instruments).
One of the beautiful things about Wilsonic is that anyone can download it and immediately start making sounds.
The aforementioned publishing of Wilson’s work in obscure journals made his work difficult to find. One of the earliest academic mentions of his name was in Ben Johnston’s article Changing the Metaphor in Perspectives of New Music, in which Johnston also noted how difficult it was to find Wilson’s work. Though his work is available online for free, it can be daunting to approach, especially without some sort of microtonal background. I found Narushima’s Microtonality and the Tuning Systems of Erv Wilson to be a great starting point for understanding Wilson’s work.
Despite these hurdles of access, Wilson’s sounds can be heard in the outer fringes of popular culture. It’s in Stephen James Taylor’s cues for Chemical Hearts (2020), and in the sundry film scores for which Emil Richards played the Transceleste.
A 1983 issue of Connoisseur Magazine included an article about microtonality in Southern California, featuring some of Wilson’s students. The conclusion of the article stated, “until some microtonal Bach or Beethoven comes along, it may be more interesting than satisfying.” This antediluvian, Eurocentric dismissal is irrelevant today in the same way that 20th century dismissals of West coast composers by the East coast classical music establishment is.
Perhaps what will drive microtonality (and the evolution of music at large) forward is not an individual great composer, but a deeply thoughtful teacher who enables individuals to create sounds that more accurately represent how they feel.
This is part of Wilson’s importance in microtonality. Rather than claiming to know the singular correct path, Wilson offers a variety of paths that can be traversed with in numerous ways.
If you consider the underlying meaning of Wilson’s work, it becomes a philosophical upheaval that doesn’t limit itself to music. If you can explore alternatives to the dominant paradigms of music, why not apply the same approach to other aspects of life? The last few years have been marked by parallel lines of thought in American life, including calls for increased awareness of diversity, equity, and inclusion, sustainability reappraisals in response to climate change, and the still-unfolding impact of COVID-19. Wilson’s gardening approach to music is also a call to exit the unexamined life and try to make your world a more beautiful place. Better yet, it’s a musical call that seeps into your emotions and doesn’t let you know you’re being called until you’re already moving.
About the Author
Daniel Corral is a composer/performer born and raised in Eagle River, Alaska but now based in Los Angeles. In addition to his creative practice, Corral is Operations Director of the PARTCH Ensemble, on the board of MicroFest LA, and currently researching the history of microtonality in Southern California as part of his doctoral studies at UCSD