Sunday, November 10, 2019

Ezra Sims Discusses his Approach to Microtonality

January 30, 2015 saw the death of composer Ezra Sims only a few weeks after his 87th birthday. Sims’ Wikipedia page describes him as “one of the pioneers in the field of microtonal composition.” His earliest venues into this domain involved dividing the semitone into either two or three equal parts.

When I first met him I was working on EUTERPE, a parallel-processing programming language for representing and performing music with up to six voices in counterpoint based on ideas proposed to me by my thesis advisor Marvin Minsky. When I invited Sims to use this system, he asked about whether I could accommodate his divisions of the semitone. With an appreciation for the lowest common denominator, I told him that I could divide the semitone into six steps, making for an equal-tempered octave with 72 distinct pitches. That division of the octave became the basis for Sims’ subsequent work.

This past week Frog Peak Music, the publisher of Sims’ music, released an anthology of papers Sims had written discussing his approaches to microtonality. The collection was edited by Johanne Heraty under the title How Long Should a Man’s Legs Be? I should observe by way of a disclaimer that both EUTERPE and I show up among the papers that Heraty collected for this publication, so I cannot approach this book with the objectivity that I bring to other books that I discuss.

This is not the first time that I have discussed Sims’ subdivision of the octave on this site. The last time was in July of 2017, when my head was full of thoughts about just intonation and the impact of integer ratios on both composing and listening. Sims’ approach could be described as “just intonation on steroids.” Rather than confine himself to the intervals defined in the harmonic series by the third and fifth overtones (perfect fifth and major third, respectively), Sims wished to explore the more remote overtones. Dividing the semitone into six micro-intervals (and inventing accidentals to represent those subdivisions introduced pitches that more closely approximated a larger number of those overtones.

Where Sims was concerned that involved experimenting with the use of the seventh and eleventh overtones. Those experiments were not matters of mathematical abstraction. Sims had become acquainted with vocal styles that “pull away” from equal-tempered intervals. He conjectured that they were “pulling” in the direction of natural overtones, so to speak; and his efforts as a composer allowed him to explore that conjecture. As a result, most of this book involves discussing both the conjectures and where they led him, often with extended analyses of passages from his own scores.

I have to say that I was a bit amused to read that the thirteenth harmonic was the first interval he felt he wanted to avoid. It is, indeed, a somewhat disturbing sound. However, it is familiar at least to those who know Benjamin Britten’s Opus 31 serenade, where that natural harmonic is inserted into the opening horn solo. Nevertheless, I would probably agree with Sims that, while the thirteenth harmonic is good for “shock value,” it may not have a place in efforts to explore harmony and counterpoint among the upper harmonics! (On the other hand, back in the distant past, the tritone was declared to be the Devil’s Interval!)

The only disadvantage of this book is that it is text-only. Fortunately, recordings are available of several of the compositions that are discussed over the course of Sims’ essays. I have to confess that it took a while for my ears to adjust to Sims’ approaches to microtonality, particularly where melody is concerned. The ear may accommodate chords based on natural harmonics; but melodic lines always run the risk of devolving into what one of my teachers liked to call “slimy chromaticism.” Sims tried to avoid that kind of chromaticism by developing his own diatonic scale with limited chromatics inserted between the diatonic pitches. (An analysis of that scale worked its way into one of the chapters in my doctoral thesis.)

Given that I received my doctorate in September of 1971, this collection awakened many fond memories. However, that last sentence should make it clear that my ears have been exposed to Sims’ compositional techniques for roughly half a century. I doubt that many readers can enjoy such extensive experience. Thus, I would personally recommend acquiring some familiarity with recorded performances of Sims’ music before turning to what he chose to write about that music. Such a reader will be better equipped with points of reference when Sims goes into the details of what he did and why he did it.

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