Wednesday, April 03, 2013

Kraig Grady on Erv Wilson

This is a nice informal video of composer Kraig Grady talking about his studies with music theorist Erv Wilson.  I'm also a student of Wilson's, having my first lesson with him while I was still in high school.  He lived (and still lives) in one of the oldest houses in the Highland Park area of Los Angeles, a wooden place (the stone chimney fell in an earthquake a couple of decades ago) high above Arroyo Seco, now the oldest section of the the west's oldest freeway.  The terraced garden in front of the house was planted with corn seedlings (later to be joined by chenopods) which, I would learn, he bred from wild plants and old cultivars he had gathered, to plant on his family's ranch in the mountains of Chihuahua, where he had been born. (Wilson speaks English with a slight trace of Chihuahuan Spanish.)  The inside of his house was full of guitars fretted in unusual ways, not one of them with twelve equal steps to the octave, bamboo and wooden flutes from South America and a variety of mallet instruments of metal tubes and slabs, wooden bars, and bamboo, each of them in a different tuning system.

When I identify Wilson as a theorist, it is not as the type of scholar who researches and teaches how to imitate or analyze harmony and voice leading, or counterpoint or form in existing tonal music or "set theory" in atonal music (though there is a certain relationship to the latter.)  Instead he's a speculative theorist, investigating the huge vector space of possible new musical materials and relationships and attempting to locate those with the most potential for use in new musics.*  His great predecessors were the theorists Huygens, Bosanquet, Novaro, Yasser and Fokker and he was also a collaborator with Harry Partch.  To this end, he has designed keyboard layouts and notations for these new scales and systems and a series of techniques for generating new materials and tools for visualizing their properties (Wilson's was a professional draughtsman in the aeronautics industry, among the last generation of pre-CAD virtuosi.)  I have written before that Wilson is probably the most productive collector and inventor of scales since Ptolemy, and that's not likely to be an exaggeration; aspects of his work in classifying scales and systems have been taken to further consequences by members of the tuning community, revealing some extraordinary new environments for potential tonal practice, much of which is now made practical (if not possible) only by computer-assisted analysis and synthesis.

Kraig Grady, now based in Australia, has been a far more loyal student of Wilson's than I, having made a formidable body of music in alternative tunings and most of the instruments required to play that music, much of it connected to Grady's (imagined?) island nation of Anaphoria.   (That website also hosts a formidable repository of Wilson's papers, which are not documents with scholarly expository prose but the visual accompaniments to his oral teaching and demonstrations.)  Although I have made quite a bit of music in tunings other than 12-tone equal temperament, and much of that in extended just intonation, the bulk of the music I get asked to make is in a nominal 12 equal, but the impact of an early exposure to the possibilities of intonational and tonal-structural alternatives has its way of infecting everything I do with pitches in any collection configuration, whether through unexpected modulations, flashes of harmonic or subharmonic spectra, or the play between local and global tonalities.  Thank you, Erv.
*One of Wilson's ideas, the Moment of Symmetry, which occurs when a generating interval —let's say a perfect fifth with the ration of 3:2 — reiterated within another interval space — let's say an octave (taking octave "equivalencies") — creates symmetrical melodic patterns when closed (returning to the initial tone) by a single anomalous intervals — for example 6 perfect fifths and 1 diminished fifth in a 7-toned scale, but also for four perfect fifths and minor sixth in a 5-toned or 11 perfect fifths and a wolf fifth in a 12-toned scale  —  a property which is prescient of the attention given to well-formedness and Myhill's Property in the academic music theory community. Wilson's "scale tree" is essentially a catalog of Moment of Symmetry scales indexed by the size of their generator and the number of iterations.

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