Something like a year and a half ago, I received an email from composer (and blogger) Daniel Felsenfeld, who suggested that I look into the work of Ezra Sims. Specifically, Felsenfeld told me, Sims had written some pieces partly based on Louis Armstrong’s “St. James Infirmary” – “mostly because of the microtones involved.”
At the time, I wasn’t sure what that last phrase meant. But looking into it a bit, I found that Mr. Sims, a resident of Cambridge, Mass., has been a composer of microtonal music since 1960 or thereabouts. He has also written and lectured in a variety of settings, and was the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, among other awards. I tracked Mr. Sims down and dropped him a line. He was receptive — but I had a problem. The piece of his that I felt I most needed to hear, “Sextet,” wasn’t particularly easy to get hold of. I was living near New York City at the time, and while the library there did own a copy, they were in the midst of some sort of reorganization of that particular part of their collection, and I was told I would have to wait “several months.”
I was in the middle of some projects myself, one of which was moving to Savannah. Somewhere along the way, however, I was finally able to obtain “Sextet” by other means: The Avant Garde Project (“a series of recordings of 20th-century classical-experimental-electroacoustic music digitized from LPs”), which makes available “Sextet” and several other Sims pieces, along with links that allowed even someone like me to figure out what software I needed to get and, and how to get it, in order to acquire the (digital) piece.
Plus I got hold of a relevant article that Mr. Sims had told me about: A piece he wrote for Computer Music Journal (Winter 1988 issue) called “Yet Another 72-Noter,” in which he discussed microtonal music, Louis Armstrong’s version of “St. James Infirmary,” and his piece “Sextet” – which he describes as being “based on” Armstrong’s performance. (That is to say, it’s not a “cover version.”)
This was helpful (and entertaining) but parts of it did raise another problem, which is that I don’t really read music. So having absorbed all I could, I got in touch with Mr. Sims again, and we arranged a time to chat via phone.
An edited transcript of that conversation follows.
Q: In “Yet Another 72-Noter,” you start with a brief introduction to your history with microtonal music, and in one of the amusing passages you say that by 1960 you could “no longer avoid joining the lunatic fringe.” That being how microtone enthusiasts seemed to you then, and maybe how they still looked to many people, as of 1988, at least. So how would you explain to someone like me: What is microtonal music — and what’s lunatic fringe-y about it?
A: [Laughs] Well, to start off, microtonal music requires, for its proper notation, pitches that are not on the piano. Things in the cracks, in other words. Lots of people sing things in the cracks — and that’s just called “out of tune.” [Laughs] But you know, to really write down, for example, Louis Armstrong’s “St. James Infirmary,” and be able to reproduce it, you must be able to indicate much smaller intervals than the half-steps that are on the piano, much smaller increments.
A lot of people write music that, in its notation, requires only the notes that are on the piano, but played in one fancy tuning or another, so that the sound is actually different from the piano, but they are still writing a diatonic C-major music. That to me is not microtones, it’s tuning. Microtonal compositions need all of the those differences available at any moment, for structural reasons.
So the “lunatic fringe” aspect of it was just that it struck most of us that the people who went in for sixth of tones and twelfths of tones and thirteenths of tones and the like — generally were just a bit crazy. It was looked at as madness to try to ask people to play these other notes. For instance, Julián Carrillo, who for a while conducted the Mexico City Symphony at the turn of the 20th Century, he went overboard — he had a concerto for piano and strings and the piano is so tuned that the whole keyboard comprised one octave. That means there are 81 notes in his octave. If you were into microtones, you were almost certain of people saying, “Oh him, well — he’s a quarter-tone guy. He’s just one of those crazies.”
I resisted it for a long time until it became obvious that I needed it — or I wouldn’t write at all.
And since 1960 or 1961 or so, most of your writing has been done with a 72-note division of the octave?
Yes. It all depended on my finally coming to some rationalizing of it and finding some, oh, theory behind it all.
But my ear led me to it, through having sung classical music in choruses. Our conductor made us push tones up or down depending on what their–their destination was.
Yes, this is in the essay – Hugh Thomas, I think, at Birmingham-Southern. You wrote of that experience: “A few years of this and … you are liable to find it hard ever again to believe … that there is, for example, one thing which is G-sharp, one frequency that defines it for ever and ever, Amen.”
And also, though I had never been a great devote of blues, of course I went to high school dances and danced to Glenn Miller and all of that — and view that music as kind of one of my early influences, in a way. As I was working out my theory, I began to realize that the notes I was asking for really were the ones I had heard people like Armstrong, Memphis Minnie, and others sing. They were using this kind of thing because that’s the way the music is right to them. It is curious way of finding a justification of it, you know, that authentication of the technique.
So to a lay listener someone like me who listens to music a lot, but I’m not a composer and I’m not a musician — is there something that might sound different about a piece that’s explicitly written with a 72-note octave?
Of course to me, the music I write is the music I have to write, and so it sounds ordinary. Maybe you are in a better place to answer that question than I — does “Sextet” sound different?
It does, but you know I’m not coming to it very purely. I’m coming to it knowing in advance that it’s written this way –and so I’m thinking, “Hmm what’s different here? This sounds different to me, why is that?” So it’s hard for me to judge but my instinct is that if I just had randomly heard it, something would make it sound — there would be something about that would make me pause.
I suppose any real music should do that anyhow — it should catch your attention, make it hold up just a moment. But I can say this. Back in the ’60s, ’70s, ’80s even, I had my successes with two audiences. With the converted — the people who had spent enough time trying to work out microtonal music on their own, and they thought mine worked rather well. And then with innocent audiences, who didn’t pay any attention to that kind of thing at all, and just took to the music. So I’m sure it sounds odd, but I have a lot of people who remark on the pieces not in terms of any acoustical oddness, but in the fact that it tends to have a certain sense of its own of direction. As one friend said, it’s not that the music followed itself, had its own strong direction, it was that it picked you up and carried you to the end. And I don’t know whether she recognizes the odd tunings or not.
The people that I had the most trouble with were certain kinds of strict musicians, and a critic here in town who complained because essentially he had managed to teach himself a kind of rough absolute pitch, and here I came along and called it all into question and made all of his efforts … nugatory, shall we say? [Laughs]
I had some difficulties, back then, in the ’60s and ’70s. It could be hard to find players that would play it. There’s was one player here in Boston, a first fiddle in one of the string quartets, who will not play me because it upsets his tuning, his fingering. He has to think about my notes, and in order to play in tune he has to not be thinking about it.
But nowadays, the youngsters, the younger players are taking to it very easily.
Was there something in particular that drew you to that Armstrong recording of “St. James Infirmary”? You were mentioning those high school dances – where was that, where did you grow up?
I grew up in Alabama. Most of my practical experience then was – well, I played bass fiddle and played in orchestras, but my work was as a choral singer, and a choral director. And it was in the matter of tuning in chorus being so much more physical and intimate a thing, in a way, than tuning an instrument. The clarinet, there’s only so much you can push it around. Whereas the voice — you have to be careful all the time.
So that was where I grew up and the background I had. This was in the ’40s, so it was big band time. It was only later that I realized that of course they played a somewhat elaborated tuning, that quite often there were certain clichés that involved a small minor-third and then a bigger ba-deee-a-de-a-dum, that kind of thing. And all of that was working without my realizing it.
I didn’t know “St. James Infirmary” until quite late. It was after I had been to Japan — that would put it ’65, ’66, ’67, in there. I was visiting a friend in New York who had just gotten a standup Victrola. He was very proud of it, and he had found a prized source for steel needles, and the first thing he played me was “St. James Infirmary” — Armstrong’s “St. James Infirmary.” By then I had been working enough with my scales and the like to be able to hear that it was just obvious that Armstrong and I were using the same thing. And that’s when it all happened.
Wow. That’s a nice moment.
Well it was a great one indeed. [Laughs]
But the “Sextet” wasn’t until considerably later.
The “Sextet” was 1981. It was preceded by “Celebration of Dead Ladies,” which I wrote in 1976. That’s a very different piece from the “Sextet,” and much more elaborate and harder to bring off, so I felt that I could safely use the same material again to different ends.
I had spent some time realizing that obviously the folk and blues traditions use these pitches and use them systematically. By then I had heard Odetta. I loved her work — I still like it very much — but when she was young and it was all new to us, “Ain’t No More Cane on the Brazos” moved me immensely. When I’d first heard her work, I had not analyzed it. I just knew that it was exactly what I wanted to hear. I’m not an absolute pitch type myself, so I would have needed to test, as I did with “St. James Infirmary,” at something like the monochord level, to make absolutely certain what pitch she was singing.
In the “Sextet,” there is a moment where there’s a little trio — the clarinet, horn, and sax in the slow movement where the horn is playing a version of “St. James” and the sax is playing a version of “Ain’t No more Cane on the Brazos.” And they lay over each other meshing, matching and not matching, you know.
Would you expect a lay listener to hear “St. James Infirmary” in “Sextet”?
Well, there is my shame: By the time I got around to writing both of those pieces, I had been far enough and long enough away from the Armstrong recording and to — as a composer will do – remake the tune in my mind. So what I called “St. James Infirmary” in both of those pieces is the same tune, but it has been somewhat … developed, changed, varied. It’s — it’s mine now; it’s not precisely “St. James Infirmary.”
Yes. But I think that’s kind of appropriate, both because this in particular has been reinvented a number of times, in descending from a folk song in Ireland. And also, so much creation happens just the way you’re describing.
You think you’re remembering something, but your mind is working on it all the time, and turns it into its own thing, yes.
I know that it’s not as if you were setting out to make a statement about “St. James Infirmary” when you did this. But it’s pretty fascinating to me how it all worked out, particularly given the song’s history.
It is. And the important thing about it to me — aside from the fact that the tune has stuck in my head the way it does in so many other people’s, and one of them would be you — is what it did, in an odd way, through that particular performance. I’ve heard some performances that were just straight on the piano and absolutely useless. But that Armstrong was – well, a justification of my own instincts. I’ve always been pleased by that.
Thank you so much for your time. It was a pleasure chatting with you.
I hope we do it again.
No Notes offers sincere thanks to Mr. Ezra Sims for his time and generosity. His music is published by Frog Peak Music and Diapason Press. Recordings of some of his works are also available from New World Records.
Among his current projects is a commission from the Boston Microtonal Society, involving, believe it or not, the poetry of Friedrich Nietzsche! The Boston Microtonal Society’s site also has an interview with Mr. Sims that delves into the nature of his work with a great deal more musical sophistication than I’m capable of, and, on this page, you can listen to a sample of one of his compositions, “Night Piece.”
Finally, as noted earlier, Mr. Sims has his own site: EzraSims.com.