Microtonal Composer Ezra
A Conversation with Bruce Duffie
One of the reasons for my success with this series of
— first heard on the radio and now being transcribed for the internet
— was my preparation. I would take my lifetime of knowledge and
experience with music, and then research specifically each musician I
about to meet. This way, our conversation would reveal as much as
possible about their own specialties and interests, as well as allowing
them to speak freely about their own understandings and
discoveries. Personal remarks made by my guests after the
discussions were very complimentary, and led me to believe that it was
somewhat unusual for them to be find someone in my field who was up to
this task. Indeed, one whom I greeted several years after our
meeting remarked, “Oh yes! You were the
one who was so well prepared!”
Since most of my guests had recordings, I usually succeeded in
obtaining most (if not all) of them before we met, and listened to
their works to glean insight and familiarity. Generally this
exposure was straight-forward and provided the expected continuity
mixed with progress. Once in awhile, however, the learning-curve
was much steeper, as in this case with Ezra Sims.
His musical language was such that it took many more hearings to become
accustomed to the language, and further encounters to begin to
understand his process. Naturally, he was aware of this extra
necessity, and seemed pleased that I had taken the trouble to do such
Sims was very pleasant to speak with, and was generous in his
replies. He knew his work and its impact on others, and made sure
that I was on the right track with my inquiries.
We had set the meeting-via-telephone for June of 1987, about a
half-year before his 60th birthday. On that, and subsequent
anniversaries, I presented programs on WNIB, and am now happy to share
the conversation in full on this website. Names which are links
refer to my Interviews elsewhere on my website.
The records have arrived. I’ve been
listening to some of them and I’m still trying to get used to the
scales and intervals. So let me begin by asking
what you expect of an audience that comes to hear your music,
especially with the added barrier of a new scale?
Ezra Sims: Of
a mere audience of laymen,
I expect them to listen to it like they always did. They don’t
know what the instruments are playing anyhow. I’ve had no trouble
with laymen. I tend to have a bit of trouble with musicians.
performing, or musicians who are listening?
who are listening
— people who make up
juries, people who judge you for the N.E.A. and the occasional critic
is well-trained. I gather that these people have invested
so much in the twelve notes as played by the piano that they consider
anything else wrong, or they think it’s an assault, or somehow
I’m calling in question what they have put so much faith in. I
don’t know. They might think it’s heresy. The people that
raise the questions are, as I say, generally the musicians. The
laymen just either like the music or don’t.
BD: Do you
find that they do, or do they not?
ES: I’ve had
very good luck with laymen. They
seem to like it quite a lot. Sometimes, if I feel that they’re
worried, I will start them off with the last piece on the last record [shown at right],
that solo viola piece, which seems to provide one of the easier
accesses to people who come into it at all rigid.
BD: The work And as I was saying?
Uh-huh. Then to anyone who is worried about
the microtones, I tell them to listen to it first, because then they’ll
realize that they’re perfectly straightforward and they really have
very little effect. We’ve been hearing singers and string
quartets, and for that matter even winds, use these intervals for years
and years and years and years and years. It was singing in a
chorus in Birmingham, Alabama, that really started my
ear off in this direction.
BD: So we’ve
been hearing them for years, but we’re
unaware that this is what we were hearing?
Yes. Now I’m just using them
structurally, to a slightly different structure. I have the
feeling that if people have trouble with them, it’s because I’m using
what they are not bothered with in other situations to a different
BD: Is the
standard twelve note system outmoded?
ES: No, oh
no. I see no reason for it to
be. I myself haven’t written a strictly chromatic piece in
years. If I don’t use the microtonal inflections, I’m liable to
drop straight back to diatonic music, and I haven’t done a
diatonic piece recently, either. But that has been the parallel
to my microtonal
stuff. After all, I went into microtonal music from a tonal
instinct. There are lots and lots of things to say about
that, but it finally comes down to an ability to maintain the chromatic
saturation that we’re used to, and which seems to be
inevitable in this century. In my ears, my pieces
definite sense of key, but I don’t know if you get that in the pieces
or not. I’m very aware of the key changes and the modulations and
everything of that sort.
BD: At least
in a couple of
the pieces, I’ve been aware that I’ve been sitting in one sort of tonal
center for quite a while.
that’s the thing. Of course, I didn’t go out and say, “How can I
chromatic saturation and get keys?” What I did was find that I
just was so unhappy with the twelve notes and I was having such
trouble using them that I had to find out what my ear was up
to. It ended up being this eighteen note scale and the
seventy-two note chromatic.
BD: Is the
music your slave, or are you the
slave to the music and the intervals?
ES: Well, I
would never have used that particular
noun! [Both laugh]
who’s in command?
ES: It’s my
duty to find out what the piece
wants. But beyond that, it’s not so much the music versus me,
it’s me finding out what I’m up to. I think almost any
artist will tell you that there’s some part of him that he cannot
really converse with except through the creative process. It’s a
lot brighter than he is. I tend to say that my mind knows a lot
more than I do.
you’re really just unlocking what’s there?
ES: That’s my
feeling, indeed, yes. And that’s
what any composer has had to do. That’s the meditation
BD: Are you
ever surprised by what you discover?
yeah. I’m in the
process of a mess with that right now. I am having a
seventy-two note keyboard built, and just today, instead of cleaning
out — as I had told myself I must do
— I was playing around at my
monochord with the opening of a new piece for wind quintet. And
it begins to look like certain acoustical things that I’m now
interested in are not going to be playable on this keyboard that I
haven’t yet had built. This piece is going to require something
like a hundred and forty-four notes in the octave, not dissimilar to
the thing that Wendy Carlos has come up
BD: Sort of
like it’s already obsolete before it’s produced?
[Laughs] That’s very likely to be it. Of course,
these distinctions are so very fine that I’m
hoping is that the ear’s willingness to correct what it hears will
operate here, and since this keyboard will be under
computer control, I’ll be able to make these shifts at need. But
it will complicate things a bit, and I would be happier if I
didn’t. I think probably the ear will allow me to write a
near-approximation, and it’ll know what’s going on.
BD: Is it
correct to assume that this
creative process — the expansion of these
intervals — is going to go on for as long as you
live, and that perhaps
you’ll never reach a definitive conclusion for it?
perfectly possible. I don’t
know that any composer has kept on enlarging himself for as long as he
lived; most of them stop sooner or later — even
lasted, perhaps, longer than anyone. Well, there was Telemann,
but we don’t tend to think about him! [Laughs] In fact, I
try to think about him as little as
possible. By the time Stravinsky got to the
Requiem Canticles, he couldn’t
quite be said to be growing. At the end, all he was doing was
transcribing Bach fugues. But so long as I’m working, yes, I
expect so; otherwise I’d
get terribly bored! One of the things that’s happening to
me now is that I was beginning to feel that I had invented all my
clichés, and I’d better get to doing something else! [Laughs]
BD: Make new
indeed! And in fifteen years, if I
keep working that long, what I’m doing now will have turned into a new
set of my clichés, and I will have wandered on to something else.
it’s not a conscious direction.
Getting back to the audience, you keep understanding all of these new
techniques and the new
processes. You keep growing, and yet each audience that
comes to you is perhaps a new one. There’ll be people who are
just coming to your music for the first time. Should you
expect that they come to your most complex pieces right away, or should
they consciously start out with your easier pieces — as
you suggest, the
viola piece first?
ES: It seems
to me that that’s really not my
concern. I started out after I had listened to music at all as a
child. I started out listening to everything — Rite of
Spring to the Haydn Clock
Symphony. People hear
Wagner for the first time and they dive right into
Götterdämmerung or Meistersinger, and apparently get
it! If I’ve made the piece clear enough and if
they’re good enough listeners to start off with, they will get
it. I cannot
decide that people are going to have X, Y, or Z capabilities, and write
to that; that way isn’t sensible. You have to write what the
BD: For whom
do you write?
Gertrude Stein said, “For myself and others.”
[Laughs] I’ve gotten that answer several
times, including from Virgil
ES: Oh, you
bet you! Another way to say it would be, “One
writes because that’s
the way the
piece goes,” and if you write any other
way, it will stop
itself. I’ve had that happen when I’ve let myself get in the way
piece! The piece just would not go on, or I’ve made myself
unhappy by the piece. So the way to have the best and most
fun is to write whatever seems to be required at the
moment either by the
piece or by that person in the back of my head.
BD: Have you
basically been pleased with the
performances of your work that you’ve heard?
performance is good enough, of course, but yeah. I’ve been
extremely lucky, indeed. Musica
that has recorded one of those records you have, has been very good to
me, and played me a lot in five or six seasons, and
commissioned two pieces after agreeing to do the very first one.
Beyond that, I’ve had Dinosaur Annex
here in Boston, who have been
playing me. The violinist on that record has been playing me
before Dinosaur Annex
existed, so that means from 1973 or something
like. She started off playing me perfectly casually, then
continued to do so ever since. Most of them have taken to it very
easily. It’s been like Martha Graham having her own dance
BD: Is this
your own in-house
Yes. Martha Graham or Merce Cunningham, to take some
dancers, had their groups. They had
absolutely no hope of ever getting their art out if they had to depend
Royal Ballet and the Paris Ballet and whoever was dancing in New York
City. They had to have their group that learned how
to do that. Dinosaur Annex
has been that to me, even though
they’ve not played me exclusively. They’re a working performance
group that does all sorts of new music. Three composers started
the idea of
Dinosaur Annex with some
performers — two or three of which are
still in the group. We founded it as a non-profit corporation, so
it’s a family more than anything else. I’m kind of uncle to
them all! [Both laugh] They’ve been very good and I’m still
for them, in fact hoping to do a big piece (actually impossible for
Dinosaur Annnex) for
the violist and small
BD: I must
ask about the name. Why “Dinosaur”?
And why “Annex?”
[Laughs] At the time we
organized it, I was music director of a dance company. The
director of the company had a young son who was at the right
age. One day when the phone for New England Dance Theater rang
at her house, she got up from the dinosaur book she was reading to her
son and answered the phone with, “New England Dinosaur.” [Both
laugh] At that time they had incorporated and were looking for a
name, so it became New England
Dinosaur. So, there I was. Dinosaur Annex started under
their aegis, using their tax number and all that kind of thing.
We organized with the help of a group that was playing in the
Museum School Annex, doing modern music, called the Annex
Players. There was no question that we just simply had to
merge the two names. It was all just that simple. We’re not
a rock group! We have great trouble with people, sometimes, who
think that surely they can’t be interested in us because of a
name like that. But that’s what it was.
BD: Here in
Evanston, there’s a doorway that says, “Dinosaur Eggs,
established 4 billion B.C.” It turns out to be the accounting
for the car dealership right next door, but they just decided to put
something funny on the window!
ES: Good for
them! Good for them, indeed.
back to current times, in your view, where is
music going today?
Hmmm. Right along beside me. I have no
idea where it’s going. [Sighs] That’s a question I don’t
with, actually. What I notice is that there are a number of
people doing the kind of thing I do, and it’s getting much more
popular. Wendy Carlos, whom I mentioned earlier,
is suddenly deciding to take up a theoretical position that I’ve been
holding for about two decades now. I’m sure it is not as a result
of what I’ve
done, but still, to find it happening is interesting.
BD: Are you
hoping that someone like her will
go into it and stay into it, or are you afraid that it’ll
be a passing fancy, and she’ll drop it after a time?
ES: I have no
thought in either direction. It
just strikes me as important that such a person has become interested
in this. It seems to me that the microtonal aspect of music is
getting more and more interesting to more and more younger
people. Also there are the youngsters that feel a lot
happier if they have a numerical gospel that they can refer to.
There are other trends,
and presumably they’ll all come to some synthesis such as none of us
are going to predict, I suspect. I see a few people who seem
to be writing with a kind of casual control of all of this, but
no, I wouldn’t
begin to tell you where music’s going!
BD: Are you
optimistic about the direction that
is, is right. Oh, I don’t know what to say. It would look
as if we had been under the control
of people who were more interested in mediocrity than was quite useful
for the art, in this country, anyhow. I don’t see any like Max
Davies or Berio
or such people springing up in
this country; or at least I don’t see them being encouraged half so
much as it
strikes me a number of much duller people are encouraged by some of the
powers. But then again, there are people like me and
that is encouraging. This may be a bit smug, but it
seems to me that a lot of music in this
country has gotten — I won’t say “academic”
— but it’s been
awfully hard for us to avoid feeling that, good God, if the people out
there like it, it must be bad! [Both laugh] I think it was
Babbitt who spoke
of there being a higher music the way there was
higher math, which simply had no concern with the
BD: Do you
not want a great audience for concerts of
ES: Oh, I
would love one! [Laughs] As I was saying earlier, it
pleases me that laymen seem to have no trouble
with me. My barrier is getting the music to them through the
musicians. For example, I wait for a
performance in New York of any of these pieces that Dinosaur Annex and
Musica Viva have played
because the New York people, the hotshot pros, don’t want to do any
music that they don’t already know how
to play. They don’t have time to learn it!
they’re not very adventurous?
adventurous within the terms of what they already know, but there I
think that the audiences in New York would like me less than they do
some of the other things I hear played.
BD: Can you
take Dinosaur Annex down to
ES: You get
us the money! [Both laugh] We’d love to! We’d love to
season in New York!
BD: In your
music, where is the balance
between the artistic achievement and the entertainment value?
You keep asking questions that have
essentially no meaning to me! Just last night I copied a
of a quartet for flute and strings that our Artistic Director will take
to Europe with him as one of the examples
of what we do, just to see if he can foment some activity
there. I was, myself, simply enchanted through the whole
piece. It’s one of the things that pleases me most. It
seemed to me that it was doing awfully pleasant things all the time,
and doing little witty, cheerful, pretty things down in the
accompaniment, while the tune was a nice thing going on. Yet it
is as carefully and scrupulously written as anything
else I’ve done. You tell me where the balance is. You tell
me where that
is in the Appassionata Sonata
or the Ninth Symphony, and I
will try to
answer it about my music! [Both laugh]
BD: It seems
to me that it winds up being
different for each person, and depends on the occasion — whether
you’re listening to it in a concert hall with a great artist,
or with a small child trying to fight with it in a studio.
ES: Yes, and
I would never set a
note down on the page that I thought, “My,
they’re going to hate this!” I can’t
imagine it! It is much the same as Beethoven probably thought
at the opening of the last movement of the Ninth — that
dissonance is not complex at all, but the “skra-a-a-nk”
it had an artistic necessity. To that extent,
yes, I can say they’re going to hate this. But as to
entertainment, it seems to me that anybody that goes to a
concert of concert music is liable to be entertained by good concert
music. That has to be at its highest artistic level. Do I
think that there’s anybody who lets his
technical concerns interfere with the music? I don’t think
so. Even our most austere people say that they write the music
that they would like to hear, and that’s certainly the only way we can
judge, the only judgment any composer can apply.
BD: Then let
me pursue this one more step and ask what should be the purpose of
music in society?
ES: Let me go
back to Gertrude.
People asked her, “Why do you buy these pictures?” and she would reply,
“I like to
look at them.” It seems to me that the purpose is liking to
it. What’s the purpose of the arts? There is no
purpose. You can’t
justify painting, poetry, music, fiction, dance, in the same way that
you can justify the other arts, such as math. But apparently,
they have one.
BD: They have
ES: They have
whatever it is, their purpose and
their justification, yes. It’s interesting to notice that to
the extent that we’re aware of the history of art, the
things that have lasted, that have come down in this museum culture of
ours, have been by Bach and Beethoven and Mozart and Haydn, not by
Dussek or Telemann or the village
fiddler. Apparently there is some need for the arts. It
would be a very brave man to say what that need is, and
certainly none of the discussions I’ve ever seen of such matters
convinced me at all! In my case I can tell you why I compose, and
it may be one of the reasons I
listen to some of the music I do — to keep
myself saner than I
would be if I didn’t.
BD: Do you
expect your music to last?
Certainly, certainly. I
would like it to; I don’t expect anything of my music. I just
write as well as I can, and once I’ve let it out to cross
the street, if it gets hit by a truck, it’s its own fault, so
to speak. I can only make it as good as I can make it, and hope
that this is good enough to make it last. It may be that I will
high as Fauré; it may be that people will say of me —
as they do
about Gesualdo — that I was an interesting and
premature exemplar of X,
Y, or Z technique. It may be that I’m completely mistaken
about my music, but I would like it to last, indeed!
BD: Are we
perhaps throwing one
brand new joker into the mix by having all of these pieces recorded,
so that they at least are available to future generations to listen to?
ES: There is
that, which is a
nice thing and a bad thing. Certainly, it allows one to be a
relatively minor figure, a relatively unfamous person, and yet have a
spread of influence such as might not have occurred in an earlier
era. Of course, in an earlier era there were a lot fewer people,
and the musical society was much more compact, so it probably evens
out. But yes, if it weren’t for records I would be
totally anonymous, because my actual performances out in public have
not been that many. I hope that if the music does prove
interesting in the future, that future scholars and the like won’t
insist that the pieces be played exactly as they are on the records,
because those are flawed, inevitably. But one takes the best
thing one can,
and I think that’s a very good thing, indeed. But there are lots
of things on the records I wouldn’t mind being different. On the
next record to come out, there are some wrong notes in the voice
part! But they are so plausible, and it would have
taken so much longer to get the right ones. I remember that the
first American staging of
Wozzeck was so full of wrong
notes as to boggle the mind! So I just don’t worry much about
long as the piece seems to work. When it arrives at that
point, it does so with proper effect. All of my records could
be done probably better, I suspect, and certainly differently, with
equal effect. So I would hope the records don’t tie down
performers. But listening to what people do to Stravinsky, who
was the first of the great ones to really be documented through
his career, I have no worry along that line!
BD: Do you
ever go back and tamper with your
scores, and perhaps make them a little bit easier?
ES: Once in a
while I have gone back and made
something different when I simply can’t imagine what in the name of God
I was thinking about when I did that! It usually is some very
trivial matter that the audience might not even notice. I have
also occasionally gone back and smoothed out something that had, at the
time of composition, seemed to need to be that complex and which later
convinced me that it didn’t. But no, I don’t much dare go back
and fiddle with stuff too much. Because the process of composing
depends on the
unconscious — that so little is mediated through
the verbal and depends
quite strongly on a certain meditative state, a global understanding of
the piece — it’s very hard, even for the
composer, to work up after
he’s finished it.
BD: But when
you’re originally composing it, how do you know when you’re finished
it? You get to the end and look at it and make your revisions, or
tamper with it a
little bit, how do you know when to put the pen down and say it’s
perfectly obvious! [Laughs] I couldn’t begin
to tell you! Sometimes I’ve been lucky and had a scheme that
revealed itself to me before I really got started on the piece.
The String Quartet Number Two (1962)
very much controlled by the ratio of five to four in its harmonies, in
its temporal relationships, in the links of movements of sections and
this, that, and the other. But when I got to the last movement, I
was a little surprised to find
myself actually writing out, in numbers and names of the
instruments, a kind of road map of the piece, saying how long certain
sections would be and what instruments would be playing in them.
So by the time I got to actually writing the notes, I rather
suspect the notes had already been written somewhere in the back of my
head, and it was merely a case of uncovering them and making them fit
the plan. It was another one of those things where the verbal got
in the way
of the compositional. Once I got into it, I realized that I
noticed certain things in that outline. So certain instruments
had to go in — holding pedals or something of
that sort — that were not
originally in the scheme. But it was over when it was
over, when the scheme was fulfilled. For other pieces, it’s a
finding out where the piece wants to go, and when it gets at the end,
it tells you it’s got there!
BD: Do you
always work on just one composition at a time?
always, but usually. The piece that’s on the next record, oddly
enough, got partly
written alongside another piece. Sometimes if I am fiddling with
two or three pieces simultaneously, they get to a certain point
and one will generally take over. That usually means that
the one that was left behind had not quite got itself started, or was
still in such an early stage that I could then go back into it and pick
it up without danger. But usually it’s one piece at a time.
BD: Are all
of these on commission, or are some just pieces that you feel you have
rarely will I write a piece that I have to
write — one of my string quartets, and two or
other pieces in the recent catalogue. Usually I have really
been kept pretty well occupied by pieces that were not necessarily
commissioned for money, but that were requested with a date either
implied or stated.
that’s even better for a composer to
be performed, than to have the little bit of cash.
ES: Oh, it’s
absolutely necessary to me! If I
ever ran out of a source of performance, and had to write pieces and
then go out and stand by the roadside, begging, saying, “Please, won’t
you play my piece?” I don’t think I could. Some pieces I guess I
would write, but it’s yelling into a vacuum, a pretty tiring
occupation! Once in a while I have done
this. Right now there’s an orchestra piece that I may
or may not write because it wants to get written. If it
feels like it’s festering, going bad in my brain, then I may
write it out or at least get started on it. I just hope that the
problem doesn’t really arise. I did go through a very
empty period for a while, after I’d realized that it was
microtone and before Richard Pittman agreed to take on String Quartet
Number Two (1962). I wrote one piece more or less on spec,
and it was later
performed by Dinosaur Annex
because there was a technical thing I
wanted to explore. And I felt that I needed to do this piece in
order to understand where I was at the moment. But I went
through a long period of not writing any note-pieces, and was more or
less saved only because the dance group that I spoke of needed taped
pieces, and needed a lot of them! So in several years I did
fifteen or twenty of them.
BD: Do you
ever explore avenues and find that they
just don’t work, that they become blind alleys instead of good avenues?
Yeah. Yeah, there’s a piece for clarinet
and string trio that’s sitting on my desk right now that I’ve been
fighting and fighting and fighting. It’s obsessive, and yet it
will not work. So I’m thinking just to name it The Watsons, after
Jane Austen’s unfinished novel, and leaving it as it is! [Laughs]
BD: Are there
ever any that you just decide are so
poor that you just tear them up?
ES: I don’t
think I’ve ever done that... Well
now, wait a minute. There are a couple of occasional pieces that
I have since taken out of the catalogue that had to be written and had
to be performed. Once I had said yes I’ll do it for them, they
were depending on
it. Yet, I would not let them out in a general run of
things. But that kind of piece usually kills itself before it
started. If the idea can’t support the intense concentration
that’s involved in getting the piece started at all, then the piece
doesn’t get started, and it doesn’t go far enough to be dropped.
there’s really a tremendous amount of
work that goes on in your mind before you even put the pen on paper?
Yeah. Not what the Princetonians call
pre-composition, but yes. There is a lot of noodling and a lot of
things run through your head, not even knowing what the pitches
are, and finding it very hard to pin them down, until finally they
begin to clarify themselves. And of course a composer is never
running through his head, whether it’s his own or somebody else’s,
whether it’s something compulsive that just circles or a new idea that
he doesn’t even quite recognize at the moment. We think in notes,
or we think in music. That’s what makes it so hard,
living in this particular culture, with all the Muzak forever
interfering with our thoughts!
composers have complained
about hearing thirty-four seconds of something when they’re in an
they really should be hearing
their own thirty-four seconds! [Laughs] Oh, yeah!
BD: Tell me
about the new record coming
ES: The year
before last, I got one of the American Academy of Arts and Letters
Awards, and that carries with it a side of a recording.
BD: On CRI?
always. In fact, I don’t even see
the money; it goes straight to CRI. That’s part of it.
They’re doing a set of songs for mezzo and instrumental ensemble
called Come Away. It’s
four small songs, two Campion texts, a
Fletcher and a Hardy for the mezzo with viola and clarinet; and then
the Death Carol from When Lilacs Last in the Door-Yard
Bloom’d for the voice with the full ensemble. The Whitman
off with the voice, alto flute, French horn, trombone, and double bass;
at the climax, the viola and clarinet re-join. In the first
songs, some sample of the full ensemble plays
a tiny little introduction, and little interludes of one length or
another, between each song. It’s so arranged, as I remember it,
that each instrument is in two or three of the interludes. I just
forget this kind of thing after it’s
no longer on the top of my head. It’s a seamless, single
piece. The seams actually do show, but with these interludes, and
culminating in the death carol, and then a long, a fairly long coda
that combines all the tunes of all the songs.
BD: Now, when
will this record be out?
ES: Some time
next season, we hope. We have the
recording. The only thing that’s holding it up is that I’m trying
to get CRI to accept a kind of manner-istic string trio, that acts
as if it were an early nineteenth century piece, but using all of my
technical devices. [Shown at
right is the CD issue.]
BD: For the
ES: For the
flip side, and that can’t be
decided until September. Then that will determine, I think, how
quickly the piece comes out. But I’m glad they sent you all of
the current records. I listen to the Chinese Cantata now, and it sounds
like it was written by somebody else!
Really??? You don’t want to disown it, do you?
ES: Oh, no,
no, no, no, no! I’m very fond of
it! But I simply can’t imagine the person that wrote that, even
though I can pretty well kind of remember him.
doesn’t have your fingerprints all over it?
probably does, but I have the feeling that
somebody else would recognize those more easily than I, since I am so
concerned with what I’m doing now. It probably has the
chromatic twang, but being a twelve-tone piece, it’s really quite
As you approach your sixtieth birthday, what has
been the most surprising thing that you have noticed either about your
music or about music in general?
alarming or fascinating.
ES: I guess
the most surprising thing is how unhappily
the business of making money has influenced the introduction of music
into the normal repertory. When I
was in my younger days, I should have thought that by now there’d be a
Stravinsky on every
other program, the way there is a Beethoven.
And I am surprised to find that you hardly even hear Debussy any longer
BD: With what
regularity should the symphonies
and chamber groups of the world program the music of Ezra Sims?
other performance! [Both laugh] I would not have
predicted this museum culture, in which the old is used as a stick to
beat the new. In earlier periods, people used to
apologize for doing something by a dead composer.
BD: How can
we get the public to
demand more new music?
ES: I don’t
know! I really don’t know. We
have a new group, a new class, so to speak, coming up into
affluence and power, and when that happens, they usually want
opera. That’s another surprise, this sudden resurgence of that
BD: I take it
then you will never write an opera?
ES: I’d love
to, and I think I’d do very well!
But there again, I am not about spending the time and money on
something I’ll probably never hear performed. Get me
a bunch of performers, get any singers at a proper opera house to learn
me. However, I do expect to do something, now that I have the
keyboard, or when I have the keyboard. There’s something that
interests me a great deal. The Elegy
on that CRI disc deals with it. It is the discovery that with the
use, I can really notate spoken pitch, spoken speech, very
accurately. In the middle of that, Elsa has a long section in
which she simply speaks the German, and it is the dux of a
canon. The viola answers her arhythmically, heterorhythmically,
but at the same pitches as the second voice of the canon. And it
works! I want to do that with English. I would like to take
something like the scene where Mirabell and Millamant agree to the
terms of their marriage, and set that in a very fleeting spoken
music. It’s the recitative problem which is always the devil
to opera in English; how to state ordinary things which work
perfectly well in the standard old Italian recitative, but always
get pretentious in English. It’s something I would very much like
to deal with, and do intend
to when I have the keyboard that would allow me to do a more fleeting
accompaniment than a body of five instruments which
cannot respond quite quickly enough to recitative. That’s why
it’s always been done to a harpsichord or piano with just the
occasional chord. So that interests me a lot, and I do intend to
do some dramatic scenes, then if at all possible get them done by
Dinosaur Annex — not staged,
probably, just concert performances.
Oh, I like the idea of opera, indeed! But I find that a
great deal of what happens on some of the larger stages of the world
really is a little risible!
not done any teaching of music?
ES: I’ve done
very little. I taught at the New England Conservatory for a
years, and way back when I taught in a high school in Alabama.
BD: I assume
you’ve been offered a number of
ES: Not many,
particularly since I’ve gotten into my microtonal stuff.
I’m now too wild-eyed for the academy. I didn’t seek them for a
long while. I’m thinking that I’d
really rather work as a librarian or something parallel to the
music, rather than dissipating the compositional energy in teaching.
BD: Do you
have any advice for a young composer
who comes to you?
ES: Get it right! I wish I
really felt I knew
enough about all of this. I guess if I took on a composition
student, I’d do
one or two things. Either take them through all the techniques
and make certain that they’re competent in all the new, twentieth
century ones, or else, as Milhaud did for us
at Mills, just make them play through the pieces and make my
comments. I would, perhaps in certain cases, advise them to stay
freelance and in other cases advise them to go out and get themselves
into a teaching position in a school as fast as they could. It
would depend on the student, but certainly what would
come through would be my sense that having been a well brought up and
nicely behaved young man, I believed what my seniors told me a little
BD: In terms
of not rocking the boat?
ES: In terms
of what was respectable music and how to behave. Maybe they
shouldn’t let themselves be brainwashed, but then again, I’m getting
old enough that I sometimes think the young need to be sat on a little
bit! I really don’t know! I guess I have a
feeling that that would be what the student is. But the main
thing is to get it right! Don’t let anything out until it’s
won’t induce a sort of paranoia?
ES: No, and
it does, then fine, we’re spared that music! Milhaud was very,
great that way. I was still a clumsy composition student, and I
hope I’m not so now. I would have trouble with a
spot and would think that I’d glossed it over, and he would go
inevitably to that spot! [Both laugh] He would say, “Here
doesn’t seem to work very well,” or
something of the sort, and then I’d say, “All right.” I’d admit
that I’d have to go back someplace else
farther in the piece, and see to it that I didn’t come to that
thing. It was probably a much larger problem than just that
little glitch. That and teaching me to cut,
to not leave everything in a piece just because I had been able to
write it down, were the two best things he ever did for me. And
that might be pretty much what I would say to youngsters.
BD: When you
tell them to “get it right,”
reasonable to expect someone of a very young age to know when it is
ES: Well, as
right as he knows! Then, if he’s coming to me, listen
to what I say when I tell him that it doesn’t sound like he’s quite
made it! He maybe can then go back and rework; work and work and
work, but he should be aware of that problem. I have a feeling
the good students teach themselves. It’s useful to have a teacher
around, but after a certain point they teach themselves. It’s
mainly just having someone around who’s been through it all before to
bounce it off. Some of them get pig-headed and won’t learn
anything, and suffer the consequences. And some learn what you
don’t think you’re teaching them. Have you ever looked at the
facsimile manuscripts of The
Waste Land that was published some years ago? Eliot’s
is reproduced with Pound’s and Mrs. Eliot’s criticism. What is
fascinating about it is that Pound would strike out a whole section,
perfectly terrible; maybe such and such a line is decent. Eliot
would next appear with all of that thrown out, including the line that
Pound said was decent, having rescued some line somewhere
else that Pound hadn’t noticed, knowing that that was the thing on
which to build! This happened often enough to be quite
turns out that Pound, in the situation of teacher, critic, etcetera, is
recognizing a problem. Eliot, as the artist, is learning from it
what should be learned, and it is not what the teacher thought he was
teaching. That’s what I’m talking about when
I say that the really good student teaches himself.
problem is pointed out, and then it’s up to
the student to find out how to solve that problem?
ES: Yeah, and
the teacher has to be
prepared for the student to learn something that the
teacher didn’t mean.
teacher shouldn’t simply give the solution?
probably not. He can’t,
usually. He can suggest solutions. I
remember Hindemith at Yale, obviously couldn’t keep his pencil off
people’s paper! [Both laugh] That’s why Easley Blackwood
wrote twelve tone
music all the time he was there! Hindemith couldn’t
deal with that that way!
BD: This has
been a fascinating hour! I have
learned a great deal about you, and about life, too!
my! [Laughs] I didn’t realize I was
teaching about either of them, but fine. I’m glad!
interesting to probe the mind of a
creator. I am not a creator; I’m a passer-along. I find
things that are worthwhile, and then pass them along to the audience.
would we do without you?
BD: I hope
I’m being a good ombudsman that way.
I wish you, of course, continued success, and hope that your
sixtieth birthday in January is a happy occasion.
you. I do hope I get to meet you in person. I’ve
enjoyed this myself.
Ezra Sims was educated at
Yale University and Mills College, where he studied with Quincy Porter
and Darius Milhaud, respectively. Since 1958 he has lived and composed
in Cambridge, Mass., tapping into the Boston area’s musical resources.
He is known mainly as a composer of microtonal music.
He made his professional debut (with
his earlier twelve-note music) on a
Composers Forum program, in New York, in 1959. In
1960, he found himself compelled by his ear to begin
microtonal music, which he has done almost exclusively since then —
several years when he made tape music
for dancers, musicians at the time being
generally even more afraid of microtones than they
are now. His music has been performed from
Tokyo to Salzburg.
In 1976 he co-founded the Dinosaur Annex Ensemble with Rodney Lister
and Scott Wheeler. Sims’ microtonal notational system has become the
standard for Boston’s unusually high number of composers and performers
using seventy-two notes. (Most of the Dinosaur Annex musicians are
fluent with it, and Joe Maneri uses it, as does everyone who passes
through Maneri’s course at the New England Conservatory. Also, cellist
Ted Mook has created a font for Sims' microtonal symbols.
received various awards — Guggenheim Fellowship, Koussevitzky
commission, American Academy of Arts and Letters Award, etc. He has lectured on his music in the US and
abroad, most notably at the Hambürger Musikgespräch, 1994;
the second Naturton
Symposium in Heidelberg, 1992; and the 3rd and 4th
Symposium, Mikrotöne und Ekmelische Musik, at the Hochschüle
für Musik und
Darstellende Kunst Mozarteum, Salzburg, in 1989 & 1991. In 1992-93, he was guest lecturer in the
Richter Herf Institut für Musikalische Grundlagenforschung in the
He has published articles on his technique in
Computer Music Journal, Mikrotöne III, Mikrotöne
IV, Perspectives of New Music, and Ex Tempore.
© 1987 Bruce Duffie
This interview was recorded on the telephone on June 6,
Portions (along with recordings)
were used on WNIB the following January, and again in 1993 and
A copy of the unedited audio tape was placed in the Archive of Contemporary Music at Northwestern University. This
made and posted on this
website in 2010.
To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been
transcribed and posted on this website, click here.
broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago
from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of
2001. His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and
journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM,
as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.
You are invited to visit his website
for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of
other interviews, plus a full list of his guests. He would also
to call your attention to the photos and information about his
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