Monday, January 27, 2014

The Wolf Tone

Going east out of California, I-15 leads down from the San Bernardino Mountains into a valley at the Nevada border, a dried lake basin called Ivanpah. It’s an old name, native language, said to mean Clear Lake. It’s the Mojave Desert, a place where I used to worry about overheating the car. These days, cars don’t overheat much. I do. Not the car

I was alone, listening to a recording of a lecture by Kevin McIlvoy. We call him Mc (said ‘Mac”). He writes ephemeral stories of delicacy and grace, strange music. Here’s a little taste from “Ladies room”:

“As he knew they would, the three ghosts appeared again in the Ladies Room of The Pea Vine at 4:30 AM, the middle of his shift. It was May 7, his ninetieth birthday. Len's checklist of tasks more or less done, he listened in.”
The rest can be found at: "Ladies Room"

Mc was lecturing a group of students about dynamic balance in fiction and poetry, and as always for me, it was a struggle trying to get it. Then I do get it. Then I don't. It’s like that with his thoughts about writing, always just above my fingertips reaching up. 

He was talking about the Wolf Tone. The lecture can be found on line. “The Equilibrist and The Dynamist” at  He was saying that:

“A person who wants that unique sound of John Lee Hooker on a song like “The Waterfront” or “Stop Now Baby” will want a guitar that in open tuning has a crunch – ha – howl— whenever the F# is fingered on any fret. That flawed wonder is called the Wolf Tone.”
The Wolf Tone is an unavoidable flaw in a perfect cello. It is the note where the harmonics of string, instrument, bow, player, pin, tailpiece, neck, body, bridge and sound bar conspire in to depart from harmonic balance. Dissonance is the word Mc does not use. The sound of it can be found here: Wolf Tone 

                                                    Why would anyone want it?

You have to drive through a lot of dry country to leave Southern California going east— very orderly dry country. Mc had told me, “Biologist and geologists and physicists assert that symmetrical forms and even quasi-symmetrical forms in nature are extremely rare.” This is certainly true, but there is a sameness, a coherence in the desert. Driving my perfect car, in perfect comfort, the Joshua trees, chickweed, creosote and cactus seemed in perfect balance with the raw rock faces of the mountains. The desert was certainly nothing like Mc’s term for dynamic balance, “…the effect of work that in substance and style is, at the very same moment, on the verge of falling into and falling out of balance.” More here: Experts on the Wolf Tone

Even the chaotic weather of that day seemed in harmony with the desert. Asymmetric winter light through clouds running east after a storm. I came down the pass toward the lake and saw three towers glowing in the basin, the dried lake itself seemed filled with silver waters. Strange. Otherworldly. 

This was the Wolf Tone. This was dynamic balance, the beauty of impossible symmetry spread across the coherence of the desert.  

A solar plant, made to create power. Here's the link: Ivanpah Solar