This is a terrific weekend for new music in Pittsburgh with Sumeida’s Song already in performances by the Pittsburgh Opera and the Beyond: Microtonal Music Festival ready to be uncorked at the Warhol this weekend. All the details for “Beyond” are in the PNMNet events calendar, so I won’t rehash that here. You can also see Liz Bloom’s in-depth preview in the PG if you want some very useful context. What I do want to do, on the occasion of the Beyond Festival, is to take a moment to remember one of the great proponents of microtonal music. We lost Ezra Sims on January 30 of this year and many times I’ve meant to sit down and write something about what that meant, but feared my inability to do it justice. I probably still won’t do it justice, but here goes.
My encounter with Ezra Sims began in 1996 when I was a first year MA student in composition and theory at Pitt. Like all incoming grad students I had to write a state of research paper for the bibliography class. I chose to write about research in microtonal music, not because it was an area of particular interest, but because I didn’t know much about it. (This, by the way, is not the best way to approach that sort of course.) For my own edification, I decided to listen to as many actual microtonal composers as I could while I was working on the paper, so I listened to Partch, Johnston, Blackwood, Riley, Harrison and many others. One night I was in my study tapping away in Word Perfect 5.1 on my 386 IBM clone and suddenly I had to stop what I was doing and just listen to the music that was coming out of my stereo. It was the second movement of Ezra Sims’ Quintet for Clarinet and String Quartet—haunting, poignant, perfect.
A few years later I was ready to start working on my doctoral dissertation and Mathew Rosenblum and Eric Moe had invited Ezra to Pittsburgh for a lecture and performance of his music. As I listened to Ezra speak I realized that no one but him had written about his music and that that could be a fertile subject for the analytical part of my dissertation.
Now keep in mind that I had never written any microtonal music, and didn’t really aspire to do so, but what I had heard in Ezra’s music all those years before had stuck with me. My intuition was that he was the consummate composer and studying his craft would only make me better at my own.
I was right on, I think, both counts. I spent a few days in Cambridge meeting with Ezra, talking with him about his harmonic approach, taping our conversations. I pulled the second movement of Quintet apart, harmony by harmony. What I found in this maverick Just Intonation composer was not only an amazing ear for local harmonic movement, but large scale voice leading that would have been at home in any Mozart sonata. Or as I wrote in the conclusion of my dissertation,
“In his ground breaking book, Personal Knowledge, Michael Polanyi shows that the path to discovery begins with an intuitive grasp of the solution. He writes,
‘…true discovery is not a strictly logical performance, and accordingly, we may describe the obstacle to be overcome as a ‘logical gap’, and speak of the width of the logical gap as the measure of the ingenuity required for solving the problem. ‘Illumination’ is then the leap by which the logical gap is crossed. It is the plunge by which we gain a foothold at another shore of reality… The pioneer mind which reaches across this logical gap deviates from the commonly accepted process of reasoning to achieve surprising results. Such an act is original in the sense of making a new start, and the capacity of initiating it is the gift of originality, a gift possessed by a small minority.’
Ezra Sims’s creative development surely reflects this process of illumination. His discovery is the application of microtonality in a way that affords him the exigencies of local and large scale tonal direction. His development of the twenty-four tone justly tuned scale and the 72 tpo tuning constitute the means by which Sims overcomes the logical gap. His compositional technique represents the logical, coherent articulation of an intuitively grasped solution, and because of this we may regard Sims as a truly original composer whose work is a valuable resource not only to those interested in the possibilities of extended tuning, but to all composers concerned with relating their work to the western concert music tradition.”
I’m very pleased that as part of tomorrow night’s opening concert of “Beyond”, the brilliant cellist Ted Mook will play Ezra’s Solo in four movements, a piece he wrote for Ted. It’s a fitting way to remember a composer who embodied so much of what it is we strive for as we create our own music.