Sonneck Society for American Music
Bulletin, Volume XXIV, no. 1 (Spring 1998)
Ezra Sims at Seventy
Julia Werntz, Brandeis University
For four decades, American composer Ezra Sims has steadily been producing a treasury of works
that distinguish hem as one of the most unique voices in the broad field of microtonalism. Sims
neither comes from the traditon of those like Alois Haba or Julian Carrillo, who expanded upon the
model of the equal-tempered scale with their microtonal chromatics, nor belongs properly with the just
intonation school and its very strict adherence to principles based upon "acoustical fact."
Independently, he has used natural phenomena as spring-boards for ideas, while at the same time
always making artistic choices based on musical instinct. His music expands the tonal concept,
so that the essential driving forces of tonality -- such as the powerful draw of the fundamental
tone -- are maintained, while the harmonic palate is enriched far beyond the triad with higher
The first months of 1998 have seen, in addition to the composer's seventieth birthday in January,
performances of new and old works in various U.S. cities, and the re-release on CD (CRI of three
works of his from the 60s and 70s. (See end of article for details about CD and upcoming
performances.) The concurrence of these events naturally prompts reflection from his audience
about where microtonalism has taken Sims, and speculation about where it is leading him now.
In his early twenties, Sims began hearing different ivervallic relationships from the ones provided by
the equal-tempered twelve-note system, but it took him some time first to comprehend the nature of what
he was hearing and then to devise an organized way to integrate the new intervals with his music. In
fact, his first reaction was to regard the perceived pitches as intruders and to try to ignore or
work around them. At the time he was writing his String Quartet (1959), his use of the semitone
E to F consistently compelled his ear to invent a third pitch somewhere in-between the E and F one
octave above. Although he did make use of some microtonal clusters at the end of the piece, Sims ignored
the intruding pitch.
Only in his early thirties did Sims finally decide to devote his attention to the specific and persistent
intervals that his ear invented and use microtones systematically in his compositions. His first
explorations in the early 1960s involved the use of quarter-tones. While these pursuits produced
some satisfying pieces (most notably his Third Quartet (1962)), they ultimately led the
composer to dead ends in his search to satisfy his ears. He found that performers had difficulty
playing quarter-tone music accurately and that listeners in general did not respond favorably to
it. More importantly, as he paid ever closer attention he realized that he was hearing a quasi-diatonic
scale of some kind that included third-tones and five-twelfths-tones, as well as quarter-tones. He
understoon that this implied a total division of the octave into seventy-two equal-tempered intervals.
After gradually accumulating bits of information about the physics of sound, Sims began to notice
that it was possible to explain his pitches in light of two acoustical phenomena: the overtone series
and resultant tones. The overtone series, some of whose intervals differ dramatically from the
twelve equal-tempered ones, was a well-known phenomenon that composers had employed for years as a
harmonic model for just intonation. Less commonly considered by composers were resultant tones. These
secondary pitches are perceived (though they do not actually reverberate as do overtones)
when two pitches are sounding simultaneously. The frequency of the resultnat pitch is either the sum
of the other two pitches, in which case it is higher (a "summation" tone), or the difference, in which
case it is lower (a "differential" tone).
These revelations enabled Sims finally to understand the apparent cause of what he heard. For example,
the third-, five-twelfths- and quarter-tone "inflections" that he felt inclined to use reflected the
differences that the fifth, seventh, and eleventh harmonics have from their counterparts in the equal-
tempered system, and the intruding pitch in the 1959 String Quartet could now easily be
explained as the summation tone of E and F.
The new understanding also helped Sims to see additional harmonic and structural implications. The
equal-tempered 72-note chromatic scale allowed very close approximations to the natural intervals,
and with it he began gradually to develop an asymmetrical, transposable microtonal scale whose
tones are derived from the overtone series (Example 1a-b). By 1970, Sims had the basic scale in
place, although the most elaborate form, shown in Example 1c, wasn't crystallized until around 1979.
Open noteheads indicate more stable pitches with the fundamental C, drawn from the lower harmonics, 1-16.
Filled noteheads are less stable, more remote harmonics and complex ratios. The sixth-low F, shown with
a stem, is added so that G, the third harmonic, may also have a seventh.
Unlike many composers using just intonation, Sims has been quite idiosyncratic and unscientific in his
use of the overtone model, and perhaps more artistic for that reason. This can be seen in the construction
of the scale as well as in his compositional techniques. For example, the first seven tones of his scale
are derived from the intervals between the twelfth and the fifteenth harmonics, two two-thirds-tones --
which he then, for convenience, splits into third-tones - but uses other pitches than the actual
harmonics over C. (Those are G, sixth-tone low A-flat, sixth tone high A-flat, A, etc. that appear
higher up in the scale.) These members of hte sclae, therefore, while derived loosely from the overtone
series would not be consonant whenused in combination wit hteh fundamental C and its overtones. The
implication of such usage is that the overtone series simply offers Sims a prototype for various interval
sizes. It does not determine the absolute hierarchy of intervallic relationships or the degree of
consonance or dissonance as in most contemporary just intonation systems.
Sims's use of the harmonics in composition is also quite free. Having set up the parameters with the
notes of his scale, Sims is then comfortable trusting that his ear, his intuition, and his intellect together will
make good choices, both locally, in the harmonies, and on a large scale, with the sucession of pitch
regions. With his harmonies he often omits or de-emphasizes the fundamental itself, preferring
instead various arrangements of the higher, derived pitches. In Example 2, for instance, measure
5 contains notes in a cluster that are harmonics of a twelfth-low F-sharp, and therefore will "belong"
together, even though F-sharp itself is not present. (The sixth-tone-high D-sharp in the upper line of
the tape part is an anticipation into the next measure.)
On a larger sclae, series of scale tones are usually selected that will serve as regions throughout the
piece, and transpositions of the scale to those degreees are used for each modulation (even if the
fundamental pitch itself is not used, but merely implied). This, too, can be seen in Example 2, where measures
1-3 use notes derived from the scale on a fundamental of D, measure 4, from the same scale built on
E (9/8 of D), measure 5 from the scale on twelfth-low F-sharp (5/4 of D), and so on. Again, this type
of root movement arises from the composer's logic and his requirements at that moment in the piece, rather
than from some obvious scientific model intended to reflect the natural sequence of the overtone
The knowledge and perception of resultant tones also have helped inform some of Sims's harmonic choices. In
the opening of the slow movement of his Quintet (1987) for clarinet and strings, for example, the clarinet
is given a sixth-tone-high B-flat1, the summation ton of the B-1 and the F1 in the
second violin and cello (see Example 3). The clarinet holds its F through shifting tones in the other
voices and into the moment when the cello, returning to its B, and the clarinet, now with a
quarter-tone-low B-flat, begin to demand an E from the middle voice in order for all three voices to
attain stability. (B and E produce a summation tone of quarter-tone-low B-flat.) Thus the F functions first as a sort of
consonance, then as a pedal, and finally as a suspension that resolves to a new consonant tone, E.
Sims has written a good deal of vocal music, and has always been compelled to explore the relationship
between speech and melody in his music. His recent piece If I Told Him (1996) for alto and cello,
is based on a recording of Gertrude Stein reciting her poem of the same title. The subtle inflections of
her almost chant-like recitation had some effect on Sims's techniques, with implications that will perhaps
extent beyond that piece. These have to do with the shift from region to region. Formerly, such
prgressions were carried out, abruptly, as can be seen in Example 2, with the aid of common tones. Now Sims
seems to favor more gradual, intricate chromatic shifts, sometimes involving a harmonic no-man's land
in between regions. This appears to be a further abstraction of the natural harmonci model and further
expression fo hte composer's will over science.
Sims's piece If I Told Him (1996), for alto and cello, will be performed twice in March: first
on 9 March at the Music at the Edge concert series in Pittsburg, and then at Merkin Concert Hall in NYC
on 12 March. It will be played again at the Ijsbreker Music Center in Amsterdam on 28 May. His new CD,
Ezra Sims, on the CRI American Masters Series (CRI 784) features the String Quartet no. 2
(1962), Elegienach Rilker (1976), and the Third Quartet (1962), mentioned in this article.
Sims, Ezra. "Reflections on This and That (Perhaps a Polemic)." Perspectives of New Music 29
Sims, Ezra. "Tonality in my Harmonically Based Microtonality." Lecture. Naturton-Symposion, Heidelberg,
17 Oct. 1992.
Sims, Ezra. "Yet Another 72-Notet." Computer Music Journal 12 (1988): 28-45.
Sims, Ezra. Flight and Quintet on The Microtonal Music of Ezra Sims. CRI CD 643. New York:
Composers Recordings, Inc., 1993.
Sims, Ezra. Third Quartet on Ezra Sims. CD 784. New York: Composers Recordings, Inc., 1997.
Julia Werntz is a composer living in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and writing her doctoral thesis on
chromatic microtonal compositions at Brandeis Unviersity under David Rakowski. She has studied
privately with composer Joseph Maneri, during her undergraduate studies at the New England
Conservatory, and also with Yehudi Wyner, Marty Bohkan, and Allen Anderson at Brandeis. She is
co-director of the Boston Microtonal Society and teaches music theory and composition at Concord
Academy in Concord, Massachusetts.