While 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.