IN: News & Features

Remembering Ezra Sims


ezra-simmsWhile other obituaries will doubtless cover more of the standard CV details, BMInt is posting my personal reminiscence of Ezra Sims, a composer long resident in Cambridge and closely identified with the Boston musical scene, who died on January 30th, a couple of weeks after his 87th birthday.

I had known Ezra Sims since around 1977, when I first became involved with Dinosaur Annex, of which he was a co-founder, along with Rodney Lister and Scott Wheeler (for the curious, the name was an amalgam of Toby Armour’s New England Dinosaur Dance Company, of which Ezra had been music director, and The Annex Players, an instrumental group that had performed at the annex of the School of the MFA, whom Ezra recruited to be Dinosaur Dance’s “pit orchestra”). But I had known about Ezra a decade earlier, when as a research assistant to Eric Salzman in the production of the first edition of his Twentieth Century Music: An Introduction, I had compiled a listing of microtonal composers for the relevant chapter of Salzman’s book. Although microtonal music wasn’t one of my special interests, the subject attracted me, as another of my teachers, Joel Mandelbaum, was pursuing this avenue.

I soon discovered that microtonalists divided along lines relating to how thinly they sliced the octave sausage, with camps arrayed for “just” intonation, 19 pitches, 24 (that is, quarter-tones), 31 and 72 (there may be many more). Mandelbaum was a 31-tone advocate, while Ezra went all in for 72. Fortunately, unlike many esthetically and ideologically-driven movements, microtonalists of all denominations maintained cordial relations with one another. In any event, being ever the southern gentleman (born in Birmingham, Alabama and receiving his undergraduate degree from the well-regarded Birmingham Southern College), Ezra didn’t bad-mouth other microtonalists, despite a somewhat waspish tongue in many other facets of music and life. That tongue was actuated, as well, by a staggeringly comprehensive and informed intelligence. He was eclectically well-read and had a corpulent (wide is a grossly insufficient descriptor) frame of reference in literature, art, and, of course, music (including a love we shared for Gilbert and Sullivan—I could never trip him up on a reference or quotation).

After an early career as a dodecaphonist, Ezra switched to microtonalism in the 1960s, for reasons he was never quite able to describe other than “it sounded right” (which for a composer should be reason enough). Out of his 72-note equal division of the octave Ezra devised 18-note scales, just as diatonic scales consist of a seven-note subset of the available 12, which allowed him to create “keys” and the ability to modulate from one to another. He also came up with a notational system for all this that won favor in the larger microtonal world.

It should be evident that this system isn’t easy for musicians to learn and play, so Ezra was particularly reliant on a small band of hardy souls willing to put in the effort. Luckily, once Ezra had settled in Boston in the 1960s, he found young musicians willing to endure microtonal boot-camp, and musical leaders willing to present the results to the public. One such leader from early days to the present is Richard Pittman, whose Boston Musica Viva, founded in 1969 and therefore Boston’s oldest new music ensemble, occasionally programmed Ezra’s work. Eventually, though, Ezra, along with young composers Rodney Lister and Scott Wheeler, founded Dinosaur Annex in 1975, and this group, whose original players included the late Janet Packer, violin, and Katherine Matasy, clarinet (still with the ensemble), performed much of his music, along with other original players David Allcott, viola, Deborah Thompson, cello, and several others, later being joined or succeeded by Anne Black, viola, Sue-Ellen Hershman-Tcherepnin, flute, Ian Greitzer and Diane Heffner, clarinets, and Ted Mook, cello. Piano was the odd man out for Ezra, since its inflexible 88 keys and difficult-to-retune pitches made it an impractical instrument for him to write for, though of course, there are quarter-tone systems requiring two pianos to play alternate notes of the more granular scale.

A composer’s reputation is a difficult plant to germinate, and a fragile one to sustain. When I first got involved with Dinosaur Annex, Ezra seemed genuinely astonished (and gratified) that I had heard of him, and being as susceptible to flattery as the next person, was delighted when his music was well received, which it was, curiously, much more outside than within the US, although he was locally well-known and heard within the precincts of the Boston Microtonal Society, whose late founder, Joe Maneri, was his close friend. The Dinosaur Annex and BMV recordings of Ezra’s works, originally on LP but since reissued on CD (the Dinosaur recording can also be downloaded), were relatively hot sellers in Japan, with another market in the Netherlands, where the Huygens-Fokker Foundation supports the dissemination of microtonal music. Ezra has contributed a fair amount of writing to the study of microtonal music, and if all goes well, there will be at least one biographical study of him published.

A “classical” composer’s lot is fairly difficult in the best of circumstances, and Ezra managed to keep afloat through a series of both musical and non-musical jobs, including a long stint working at one or more of Harvard’s libraries, and through the support of a number of generous patrons, especially for his travels. His family wasn’t poor, but neither was it rich, and Ezra existed rather frugally in rent-controlled apartments and, when that went by the boards, by buying a condo under a subsidized program. In recent years, beset by health problems that left him unable to compose and eventually shut him in, a loyal band of friends including composers, musicians, artists, writers and neighbors did his shopping, helped manage his apartment and provided company. By the end, Ezra was more than ready to go.

Ezra’s style of music, and the difficulties of producing it (to say nothing of his fastidiousness of composition), didn’t permit great fecundity. Nevertheless, there were several pieces, some recorded, some not, that showed Ezra to be a composer of immense talent and genuine depth, despite his penchant for joking titles and occasional compositional trickery: for one example, his work Night Piece: In girum imus nocte et consumimur igni, is a musical palindrome, as is its Latin subtitle; for another, the work entitled “String Quartet #2 (1962)” is not a string quartet at all, but the title is a joke referring to an error made by Nicolas Slonimsky in an edition of Baker’s Biographical Dictionary of Music (Slonimsky took it in good spirits—he wrote the liner notes for the piece’s recording). My favorite of his works is his Sextet, originally for clarinet, saxophone, horn and string trio, but which he arranged for three clarinets and string trio so Dinosaur Annex could play it without extra performers. In the early ‘70s, with Dinosaur Dance, Ezra wrote quite a few pieces with electronics, many of which can be perused here. Other excellent works are his clarinet quintet (recorded by Dinosaur Annex), his Concert Piece for viola and orchestra (recorded by Anne Black with the Pro Arte Chamber Orchestra of Boston, where the microtonal music is written for performers familiar with Ezra’s style, mostly Dinosaur Annex veterans, and the bulk of the orchestra plays standard intonation, and a flute quartet, not to my knowledge commercially recorded, in which Ezra gave microtonal inflections to a work otherwise written in 18th-century tonality. Also on the lighter side, an early work integrating his 72-tone idiom with standard tonality, was his In Memoriam Alice Hawthorne, whose performance by Dinosaur Annex, with Ezra narrating the text by Edward Gorey, is here. He was a genuine American original; no history of the byways of American musical discourse is complete without reference to him.

His well-organized website provides solid worklists and more biographical detail.

Vance R. Koven studied music at Queens College and New England Conservatory, and law at Harvard. A composer and practicing attorney, he was for many years the chairman of Dinosaur Annex Music Ensemble.


5 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. I was glad to listen to the linked recordings, but it would have been good to have the text to “In Memoriam Alice Hawthorne.”

    Comment by Joe Whipple — February 16, 2015 at 1:46 pm

  2. Vance, this is a great memoir – thanks so much. Two details as possible corrections: I’m pretty sure Toby Armour called her group New England Dinosaur Dance Theater, not Dance Company. There are perhaps records somewhere on this point. Also, I seem to recall that Ezra objected to the idea that the name Dinosaur Annex came from the Annex players. I never quite understood his objection, because Dinosaur Annex certainly did adopt Janet Packer, Debby Thompson and Larry Scripp from that ensemble, so your description makes sense to me. Maybe Rodney remembers the details. I myself wasn’t involved in choosing the name of the group – Rodney just presented it to me one day, obviously thinking it was brilliant, and I said “OK, I guess.” I don’t think we particularly discussed it again, though lots of people in the group have complained about the name ever since.

    Here are some thoughts of my own on Ezra.

    I met Ezra Sims in the spring of 1974, at the end of my year of grad study at New England Conservatory. Ezra and I both had pieces on a program called Music Here and Now, at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. Ezra’s oboe quartet combined a tenderly aching, somewhat neoclassical sense of melody and musical form with an inherent (not just ornamental) microtonal pitch language. It was about the most original music I had ever heard, in the sense that here was a composer who had re-thought music from the ground up, who reached into the past and created something very new. I just had to get to know this guy and find out where all this originality and depth came from. The answers weren’t simple of course, but I was fortunate enough to get a sense of the richness of his thinking over the course of several years of friendship. Many delicious dinners were involved, usually at each others’ apartments, generally cooked by Ezra or by my composer roommate Rodney Lister. The three of us were pretty much inseparable as a concert-going trio for a number of years. My girlfriends, first Susan Sills then Willa Rouder, were often included, but the intense musical and literary discussions were mostly among the three of us composers. More peripherally involved was a lovely and vivacious young woman named Christen Frothingham, who had met Ezra before I did, and whom I married in 1985. Christen and I still have the splendid wine glass Ezra gave us as a wedding present.

    Before meeting Ezra, I thought I had received a bit of an education at some pretty good schools, but with Ezra I felt I was in a particularly elite grad school. He introduced me to lots of music I didn’t know. And literature. And food. And gossip. His astoundingly brilliant mind stood outside the academy in every sense, and he provided to this young composer a vision for how one might be not a teacher/composer but a truly independent composer. It’s hard for me to overstate how important Ezra was to me, and how permanent his influence has been.

    I think it was Ezra who introduced me to Rodney, though there were a few other connections, especially Malcolm Peyton, with whom Rodney and I both studied at NEC. When Rodney decided to start the group that became Dinosaur Annex, Ezra was deeply involved, though always more as a benevolent guide rather than as an active participant in the details of rehearsals or scheduling. After our first concert in 1976, Ezra hosted the one of his wonderful parties at his Harvard Square apartment. It was Ezra who connected me and Rodney to his friend the choreographer Toby Armour, who founded and directed New England Dinosaur Dance Theater, for which Ezra was the music director, and which produced our first two concert seasons. Ezra and his music were a central part of Dinosaur Annex for many years. I loved and admired every piece he wrote. I conducted a couple of them too – some of the most challenging and rewarding musical experiences I’ve ever had.

    Comment by Scott Wheeler — February 20, 2015 at 4:20 pm

  3. As arts journalists at the time well learned, New England Dinosaur was the original name of the dance troupe in the late 1960s and for approximately a decade thereafter. Evidently it may’ve changed later on at some point, perhaps after Annex started up. But not earlier. You can see all this on the Sims web page and elsewhere online. And Company, yes, not Theater. Google is your friend.

    Comment by David Moran — February 20, 2015 at 6:02 pm

  4. I’m pretty sure Toby changed the name on several occasions–when she moved to New York she dropped the “New England” from the name (I think she just called it “Dinosaur Dance”), and may have changed between “Company” and “Theater/re” at least once. But there was always a dinosaur in there, which was the main point. That was from her son, when he was in the dinosaur-mania phase that all kids seem to go through.

    Comment by Vance Koven — February 20, 2015 at 11:10 pm

  5. Mr. Koven doesn’t explain the error made by Nicolas Slonimsky. Ezra does: “In the entry under my name in the last supplement to Baker’s Biographical Dictionary, Nicolas Slonimsky created for me a non-existent work: String quartet #2 (1962). My second string quartet was called 5 Sonate and was written in 1960. So, when it came time to write a piece for Boston Musica Viva, it seemed a pleasant idea to write one that would remove the error. After all, a name isn’t necessarily a description, and just as the White Knight’s song was ‘A-sitting on a gate,’ but was called ‘Ways and means,’ while its name was ‘The aged aged man,’ but was called ‘Haddock’s eyes,’ just so could my piece be a quintet for winds and strings written in 1974, but be called STRING QUARTER #2 (1962). The dedication is to Mr. Slonimsky, ‘that he (or rather Baker’s) may be now less in error.’ I’m glad to say that the idea amused him.” (The quote is from the liner notes on an LP of the piece on the CRI Composers label, no. CRI SD 377.)

    Relevant affiliation: Ezra, my wife and I worked at the Loeb Music Library at Harvard. When he was traveling, I used to water his plants, and we still have a Christmas cactus raised from a cutting from one of them.

    Comment by John Lynch — February 23, 2015 at 2:24 pm

RSS feed for comments on this post.

Sorry, this comment forum is now closed.