Pitt’s Music on the Edge series fetes two giants of microtonal music. | Music Features | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

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Pitt’s Music on the Edge series fetes two giants of microtonal music.

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In this age of advanced medicine, it's no longer unusual for people to live well past the age of 80. But for a musician and composer to reach that age while maintaining a high degree of accomplishment for five decades, and for his work to remain vital right up to this day -- that's a veritable cause for cultural celebration.

And so Music on the Edge -- the University of Pittsburgh's long-running modern chamber works series, co-curated by professors Eric Moe and Mathew Rosenblum -- has organized a double 80th-birthday gala involving two concerts to tide any avant-garde aficionado over during the frigid months. On Tue., Jan. 8, the hoopla begins with an exploration of the sizable oeuvre amassed by Ezra Sims, considered by his peers to be the current American dean of microtonal music.

What are microtones? They're not musical notes so small that you have to read the page with a microscope. Rather, they exist between and around the regular half-tone chromatic scale most of us are accustomed to hearing ("notes between the cracks of the piano," as composer Charles Ives said). Microtones have been prevalent throughout history and in various cultures both Eastern and Western (including some ancient Greek scales and Byzantine church music).

Working with microtones means breaking free from the 12-tone "equal-tempered" scale heard in most pop and classical music, with its 12 notes. Sims wasn't the first to do this -- he was preceded by the likes of Ives and Mexican composer Julian Carillo (whose advocacy of intervals smaller than conventional half-tones was called the "Thirteenth Sound"), and by maverick Just Intonation genius Harry Partch, who worked on his 43-tone scale before Sims began his composition career.

But Sims developed a system none of his colleagues matched. Incorporating both overtones and resultant pitches, it was based on "twelfth tones" and divided into 72 segments. From these 72 divisions, Sims pulled 18 notes to provide a scale for his works. Moreover, the system was equal-tempered -- so that it could be expressed easily in compositions and, unlike most microtonal systems, easily transposed into various keys.

After 1962, Sims composed almost entirely in his "72-ET" system, on which he has published many articles and lectured across Europe. With New York cellist Ted Mook -- who has recorded for such labels as Tzadik and Asphodel, and who will appear in the Jan. 8 concert -- Sims devised a computer font called MICRO3. It's based on micro-accidentals (tiny sharps and flats), and allows him to publish his works for any musician to grasp, once he or she gets a feel for the tones "between the cracks." Sims also co-founded an ensemble called Dinosaur Annex, which has played much of his repertoire, and some of his most important works have been released on the CRI label.

Pitt's Mathew Rosenblum has also used a "hybrid" 19-note scale in microtonal pieces based on Sims' innovations. What's more, there's an entire group of New England composers (the Boston Microtonal Society) dedicated to perpetuating the sounds that Sims brought to light and to writing music inspired, in part, by him. That's quite a legacy for a microtonal composer.

The other 80th-birthday celebrant hits closer to home. Along with music by Eric Moe and Buffalo professor David Felder, a second MOTE program, on Jan. 20, will feature the work of Eugene Phillips. A former violinist for the Pittsburgh Symphony, Phillips is vicariously famous through his sons Daniel and Todd (members of classical superstars the Orion String Quartet). But he also has a stable of chamber pieces at the ready, not heard in this region nearly as often as they should be.

So while it's always essential for New Music to be about contemporary aesthetics (Moe's piece is a world premiere, after all), in the case of these two upcoming MOTE concerts, after 100 years of "20th-century music" it's equally fitting to recognize some of its more illustrious icons while they're still among us. Be there if you want to give these gentlemen some assistance blowing out all of those candles.

Music on the Edge
Music of Ezra Sims: 8 p.m. Tue., Jan. 8. Music of Eugene Phillips, Eric Moe and Daniel Felder: 8 p.m. Sun., Jan. 20. Bellefield Hall Auditorium, 315 S. Bellefield, Oakland. $10-$15 (free for Pitt students). 412-394-3353 or www.proartstickets.org

Note-worthy: Ezra Sims
  • Note-worthy: Ezra Sims

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