A discussion with Paul Erlich

A well-known and well-respected figure in microtonal musical circles, Paul Erlich is a guitarist, multi-instrumentalist, and theorist, originally from New York City. He grew up with Western classical music at home, emanating from both the radio and the piano, which his parents taught him at a young age. He then moved away from classical piano, mastered conventional ear training and theory by age 10, and taught himself guitar at age 15. He has devoted his life to immersion in a wide variety of musical styles and to the understanding of (and innovation in) harmony, scales, and tuning.

Since moving to Boston in 1995, he has performed with an array of Boston’s best rock, folk, jazz, Middle-Eastern, and avant-garde musicians on the stage, in the recording studio, on the radio, and on television, in locales ranging from Texas to Vermont. Paul has composed and performed microtonal music with Ara Sarkissian, with whom he participated in both Microthon concerts of the American Festival of Microtonal Music in New York (1999, 2000) and some of their performances ended up on a recurring WNYC broadcast. Some of his music and guitar playing can be heard here.

Paul earned a B.S. in Physics from Yale University in 1995, but also spent long periods of time in the music libraries at Yale, Harvard, and NYU, as well as the New York Public LIbrary’s Performing Arts branch, absorbing the writings of Harry Partch, Adriaan Daniël Fokker, Easley Blackwood, and countless other theorists, historians, musicologists, and psychoacousticians, while relentlessly experimenting with microtonal ideas and sounds on his own. He posted countless articles to the Tuning List and related internet discussion groups from 1996-2006, where he learned about Erv Wilson and many others who have been devoted to the field, and helped forge a thorough, new understanding of the nature and generalization of the diatonic scales — as well as many related topics. He has published important papers in Xenharmonikôn 17 and 18 as well as independently and online. He hopes to write a book tying together many of these ideas, exhibiting many alternate tonal systems in detail but also probing the deep methematical foundations that underlie them, such as the duality between Projective Tone Space and Projective Tuning Space.

UnTwelve is delighted to have this discussion with Paul. -Aaron Krister Johnson

UnTwelve: For starters, how about you tell us what microtonal activities are keeping you busy and/or keeping you awake at night lately?

Paul Erlich: As you can probably tell I'm excited about the online microtonal community that keeps growing, especially with younger folks entering the fold, who tend to more readily challenge cultural or academic authority and blaze their own trail. It's hard for me to resist getting involved in a lot of the online discussions when I see them, particularly when I can cite some science or do some math to directly and definitely answer someone's question (as opposed to just throwing opinions around). So that often keeps me awake later than I should be and takes away from other things I should be doing. :)

I just learned that, in part due in part to these online connections, I'll be performing at a San Francisco event dedicated to Ivor Darreg on July 21, and possibly giving a lecture nearby around that time as well. So now I'm slowly getting geared up to prepare for these things. I'm not going to over-prepare though, as I like to keep things spontaneous, both musically and in how I communicate with others.

UnTwelve: What's on the program, or at least what you are planning, for the Darreg concert? Who will be involved?

Paul Erlich: The event looks like it will be called MicroFest North and will be at the Center for New Music in San Francisco. I plan to perform some 22-tone guitar improv with a delay/looper pedal.

I don't know much else about the program . . . that would be a question for David Samas, who invited me to play at this event (and mentioned Darreg's name in connection with it), and who organized past MicroFest events such as the Visual Harmony exhibit at the Kalimba Center in San Diego which I displayed, played, and presented at in 2015.

UnTwelve: Sounds great! You are a known advocate of 22-edo, having done a major paper on the subject and written and theorized about it extensively elsewhere. From a practice point-of-view, do you improv much in 22-edo? If so, what is you approach? And while we are on the subject, take us back to your discovery of 22-edo, and tell us why you think it holds so much promise for musicians, especially ones new to microtonality.

Paul Erlich: I go through phases improvising/working with 22-edo, but don't spend nearly enough time on it, because I'm more a collaborative musician than a solo artist, and it's been a long time since I've found a musician locally who wants to play in 22-edo. My approach, then, is often to loop a simple chord progression, and solo over it using a single scale that all the chords occur in. Though I don't do this nearly enough, the fact is that I've been improvising in 12-equal almost daily for decades, and working on theory in 22-edo and other microtonal systems also almost daily, keep the experience from ever feeling too uncomfortable or confusing when I do sit down to make music in 22-edo.

I started investigating tunings on my own in the 1980s, using a Commodore-64 to code up some theoretical calculations and an ear-training program that would quiz me on random intervals in 22 or 31 (I was eventually able to get perfect scores in both). Around 1991 I was drawing a bunch of lattices, searching for an analogue to the diatonic scale, and discovered the decatonic (10-note) scales in 22-edo that I later wrote a paper on. They're rich in nice tetradic harmonies, especially so-called "7-limit" tetrads, which are based on approximating the first 7 or 8 partials of the harmonic series (or its mirror-inverse the "subharmonic" series). These chords appeared and sounded like a logical next step, beyond the conventional 5-limit major and minor triads constituting much Western classical and pop music, to a new more complex/interesting standard of consonance. But the decatonic scales also share a number of features in common with the diatonic scale -- including nice melodic structure; and rare, dissonant intervals which can resolve contrapuntally to cadence on certain consonant chords, whose roots then define the tonics of the "tonal" modes of the scale. You can read more about this in my paper published in Xenharmonikon 17.

I scoured four major music libraries to see if anyone had discovered these scales before me, and it seemed no one had, though Gene Ward Smith later claimed that he had discovered them earlier.

It turns out that much of the music one can create with this decatonic approach is not at all unfamiliar sounding, combining say jazz-like harmony with country-like chromaticism, or perhaps evoking Stravinsky, and often sounding like it could be in 12-equal. But any modulation between different decatonic keys immediately brings with it a strongly microtonal flavor, since a 55-cent interval is produced, which is absent from either decatonic scale on its own. So to me, this is a natural way of getting very microtonal sounds out of a very "tonal" approach which uses a richer harmonic aesthetic than common-practice Western music -- start with decatonic scales which sound kind of like more chromatic versions of the diatonic scale, and then modulate between them . . . with tetrads used as stable harmonies while certain intervals and larger chords are used as dissonances which resolve in principled ways to those tetrads.

So for any musician looking to explore microtonality who is interested in flexibility of harmonic progression, consonant harmonies old and new, novel and melodically coherent scales incorporating such harmonies and progressions, and/or simple access to strikingly non-12 effects, 22-edo comes highly recommended by me. :) I especially recommend it to guitarists, as a guitar can be refretted to any edo fairly inexpensively and 22 notes per octave is not too many to make the guitar unplayable for most fingers.

UnTwelve: Speaking of guitars and other things, tell us about your instruments and gear!

Paul Erlich: For a very long time I had an Ensoniq VFX-SD. It allowed every key on the keyboard to be tuned to any pitch, independently for each patch. So I had trumpets in BP, a kalimba in Mavila, piano in 22-edo, and so on. The resolution wasn't great (cents display translated inconsistently to 512-edo internally), but good enough for most purposes. Unfortunately, this instrument stopped working recently. But I have electric guitars in 19-, 22-, 26-, and 31-edo, and a fretless bass with markings for 12, 22, and 31.

UnTwelve: How do you envision the process of making musicans aware of concepts that are new to them (microtones in general, and their theory) should go? What are the typical challenges and what do you think the best way(s) to meet them are?

Paul Erlich: Well I'm a theoretician-type myself. So I would instinctively start thinking about rationalizing microtonal exploration in terms of the history of Western (and non-Western) tunings, the compromises involved, the coherent scales present and how equally coherent, unconventional scales might be created. I could also cite studies about how we normally hear in terms of learned perceptual categories, and how weeks of immersion in a microtonal system is required to truly hear its intervals in their own right. But I think most artists operate less via rational theorizing or psychoacoustic research and more via inspiration. So perhaps the best approach is creating and publicizing great music (yours comes to mind) in alternative tuning systems, and then having various resources readily available for musicians inspired by what they hear. Such resources would include hardware, software, transcriptions, and of course theoretical material (and us -- living microtonalists). At that point a deep dive into the relevant concepts (like chords and chord progressions that temper out commas, etc.) might be well-motivated enough that an interested musician would have a good chance of grasping them. Without the music itself to capture their ears, many musicians will never develop the curiosity to penetrate the concepts underpinning microtonality, and will tend to roll their eyes at (or at best ignore) cryptic theoretical material that lacks immediately apparent relevance to their lives. (This phenomenon also afflicts different "schools" of microtonality, with members of a particular "school" inspired by this or that renegade composer or indigenous tradition often seeming closed off to new ideas or conceptual frameworks relevant to approaches different than their own.)

UnTwelve: Ok, longer question, bear with me...you mention theory in a way that's opposed to intuitive inspiration. I've always felt that they can co-exist and inspire composition to an equal degree; it's the old "Apollonian" vs. "Dionysian" argument. I'm sensing you agree with me. I'm wondering if you can say a little more, and maybe address how to bridge the gap in the community between those who do a lot of hard mathematics to make discoveries relating to tunings and temperaments, and those who shy away from math. There's certainly a level of math I'm comfortable with, and for instance, I don't make heads or tails of much of what Gene Ward Smith writes about, and am wary of too many names in the "temperament zoo" being overwhelming and a turn-off for newcomers in particular, but others have their own levels of aptitude or tolerance for such things, and either are less math-aware, or more math-aware than me. Should we worry about this kind of thing as a community, especially, in terms of (maybe?) the outside perception being that we are kind of "egg-headish" (not that that should be pejorative), and thus the music is "cold" or all about "cold intellectualism", when in reality, a lot of the music being written is anything but? What would you say?

Paul Erlich: Well I don't know. There are a lot of debates within the community, and between the community and those outside, which seem "Apollonian vs. Dionysian" in tone. I think a lot of people who have forged a path in music, especially using alternate tuning systems, are rebellious types, and many weren't comfortable with formal education or its rigors. And the process of creating music that sounds "musical" is often very divorced from anything rational or analytical for many people. John Cage said, “Don’t try to create and analyze at the same time. They’re different processes.” So a lot of the debate may reflect reactions against teachers of music and math who put students through the rigors of established curricula and analytical exercises but made no room for impassioned creativity and self-directed discovery. Yet those on the "Dionysian" side very often use scales and tunings developed in an Apollonian manner by someone who just happens to share some ideological viewpoint, such as rejection of authority, or Platonic purity. So I frequently find myself on the Apollonian side just by virtue of the analytical origin and nature of the tuning systems frequently used on both "sides", and the various rational considerations that can lead one to choose one system or another for one's personal musical goals. That said, I like the approach of setting up a tuning system and maybe a keyboard layout, like a canvas and a palette, using a lot of thought -- and then letting the imagination and passions run wild when it comes to actually making music with that setup. I do perceive, at least in myself, evidence for Cage's maxim.

The "zoo of names" issue seems to me like it may occupy the opposite position relative where you place it in this dichotomy, if I read you right. How would you refer to a couple dozen temperaments that might be useful to you out of a few hundred that might each be useful to someone in the community at large? Comma bases? Generator mappings? Multivals ("wedgies")? These are lists of numbers that make most musicians' eyes glaze over. My approach is to avoid the mathematical and pick picturesque names with mnemonic power (like the familiar mode names Ionian, Dorian, Phrygian, etc.) that musicians can learn to associate with the *sound* of a temperament and its native scales, without having to think about it. But "silly" names that evoke a "zoo" -- like Porcupine and Hedgehog -- run the risk of engendering dismissal on the part of academia. So the names may have room for improvement. I'd encourage you and anyone reading this who is interested to join in the discussions, which I expect to go on for a while before academia finally takes a real interest in tuning and in microtonal/xenharmonic music and theory and anything gets "set in stone" in a culturally significant way. Then again, it seems that more and more young people are appearing on the scene familiar with "Porcupine", "Mavila", "Semaphore", and so on . . . If we are stuck with some silliness I think I can live with that; to me that gives the field a more "Dionysian" flavor than, say, 12-tone atonal set theory -- personally I feel our field deserves to be a lot less obscure and esoteric and ivory-tower than that. Musicians in our community need, I think, an expedient way of communicating about scales and tuning systems which have audibly unique and appealing properties, and my guess is that colorful mnemonics which can immediately evoke a sound in the mind (given some exposure over some learning period) are going to serve that purpose a lot better than lists of numbers which require a lot of thought to extract the musical meaning of.

The heavy mathematical theory in our field is concerned with working out details and ever-more abstract relationships, but a larger audience might be completely satisfied without any of that understanding and merely a digestible compendium of useful, if disconnected, results and diagrams . . . like a book with 5 pages on each of 50 tuning systems or scales. So maybe the best way to bridge the gap is just to help everyone appreciate all the unique, important roles that exist for those of either Apollonian or Dionysian temperament (hehe), and those who straddle those categories, can play in this burgeoning area of musical exploration.

UnTwelve: Well said, well said. And, that about wraps up this installment! Thanks for taking the time to have this discussion with us, Paul!

Paul Erlich: You're most welcome; it's a great honor to chat with you and share my thoughts!

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