Monday, February 02, 2015
Ezra Sims (1928-2015)
News comes that the composer Ezra Sims has died. He was a fixture in Boston New Music and a well-know practitioner of microtonal music, but was always an independent and his music fit into no category other than his own. Alabama-born, he studied at Harvard and then a Mills College under Milhaud (the number of interesting composers who worked with Milhaud at Mills was unreasonably large and remarkably heterodox!)
Sims turned to his own microtonal practice via a process of determining the tones he needed to produce his melodic and harmonic needs, including representation of septimal and higher ratios, optimally locally in terms of just intonation and then mapped that set of 18 or 19 tones onto the 72 equal division of the octave, which allowed him both unlimited transposition as well as intervals that usefully gained tonal ambiguity under temperament, thus allowing uncommon voice leadings via common tones. The polymath and musical lexicographer Nicolas Slonimsky delighted in telling the story of how, making an inference from Sims catalog, he (Slonimsky) mistakenly added a String Quartet No. 2 (1962) to the works list in Sims's entry in Baker's Dictionary of Music & Musicians, when, in fact, there was no such work. Yet. Sims felt obliged to keep the notoriously accurate Slonimsky's reputation intact, so in 1974 he composed a work with the title String Quartet No. 2 (1962) for a five piece ensemble of flute, clarinet, violin, viola and violoncello.
I did not know Sims well, but our longest interaction, in getting an article of his ready for Xenharmonikon, a journal I edited for a time, was a delight. He was clear about what he wanted (a quality that is not often found in composers writing prose), he had a healthy sense of humor, an equally healthy disregard for large-scale musical organizations (and he did know something about scale, being an active organizer the Dinosaur Annex new music ensemble in Boston.)