Bekah Simms: beautiful and disturbing expressiveness

Interview by Alain Brunet

Additional Information

Hailed for the disturbing and beautiful expressiveness of her sound language, but also for the diversity of her tools, processes and stylistic references beyond the contemporary (serious) music from which she comes, from electroacoustic to metal to noise to video game music, the music of composer Bekah Simms is highlighted here.

More precisely, his sound universe unfolds in the context of a carte blanche suggested by the Paramirabo ensemble and presented in concert with the Groupe le Vivier, this Saturday, April 22, 7:30 pm, at the Chapelle Scènes Contemporaines.

A native of Newfoundland & Labrador, Bekah Simms has lived in Toronto and worked in the contemporary composition scene in Montreal. She now teaches in Glasgow at the Royal Conservatory of Scotland, but is in Montreal this week to refine the program in question.

PAN M 360 : When did you leave Canada to settle in Scotland?

BEKAH SIMMS : Since last summer so it’s quite recent. I am teaching three days a week and doing research and composition the rest of the time. So it’s a really good balance. I love it. Yeah, it’s really wonderful. Like, because it’s a Conservatoire, rather than university. Most of what I do is just one to one teaching. So I’m just like, sort of talking about composition, all the time listening to lots of my students’ music, and it’s very fulfilling.

PAN M 360 : When did your creative relationship has started with Paramirabo and flutist Jeffrey Stonehouse, its artistic director ?

BEKAH SIMMS: It started in 2017. I worked with Jeff, now six years ago, I was doing my PhD at the University of Toronto at the time. During a summer session, Paramirabo was the ensemble in residence and commissioned a work from me, as I was composer-in-residence there during that same period culminating in the context of a contemporary music festival.We’ve stayed in touch ever since. For the first time three years ago, he asked me if I was interested in a carte blanche, so this concert has been in the works for a long time. It was conceptualized three years ago, and we’ve been working on it since then through other projects of course. Five of my pieces are on the program for this concert, two of which were written for Paramirabo. The others were written for different ensembles.

PAN M 360 : More specifically, what about those 2 pieces written for Paramirabo?

BEKAH SIMMS: The pieces are very different from one another. The first one is called With Dawn in Our Lungs for flute, clarinet, violin, cello, percussion and piano, it’s from 2017. And the premiere is from January, so it’s very recent. And in a way, this concert must be seen as a whole. It kind of traces my own development as a composer and how I’ve changed. So you can hear hints of some of the things that I’m interested in, and what I would evolve into in the 2017 piece, and then this piece, the premiere, is just sort of a more mature and realized voice. And as they are similar in length, with similar instrumentation, but the music has, I think, progressed quite a bit. And so, in a way, it shows that through a relationship with musicians of an ensemble, you learn to trust them, and so you can gradually do more difficult and experimental things with that ensemble that can bring them to life.

PAN M 360 : I see. So if we see your progression through this program, how could you describe it with words before the concert?

BEKAH SIMMS :Yeah, well, I mean, you can definitely see that it’s progressively more and more technologically inspired, more and more like sort of electronic sounds kind of enter the fray. And it gets more and more technologically involved as well. So a lot of my music has sort of these audio cues that are lined up and have to be triggered live. So the first piece on the program,  it’s just a piece where you press play, and then it sort of plays through all these electronics. The second piece of electronics has like seven times that you press play, and then the most recent one has 16. So you’ll see that it’s just like gotten more and more involved and more and more precise. And that’s me also is getting more comfortable with the medium of working this sort of electronic sounds and synthesizers and things that are out of tune. And I would also say that the most recent pieces are kind of the most fun and most groovy, especially when you go through academia, as a composer, you kind of think, Okay, I have to be very serious, I need to be serious with my art. And then after sort of graduating and getting away from it, it’s almost like I’m more comfortable doing the things that I just really liked to do, whether they’re serious or not. And so I think that there’s a little bit of fun, then in the more recent one, whereas the piece that I wrote for them in 2017, is quite delicate.

PAN M 360 : Also, between instrumental music and electronic music, it is always very to find a good balance. It’s very hard to find, you know, the fluidity between instruments, and textural approaches of electronics, and very few people start to be very comfortable joining those 2 different paths.

BEKAH SIMMS : It can be really challenging because very few people start doing electronics and instrumental writing at the same time. Usually, either you are like a producer who has to learn how to compose or you’re a composer who has to learn how to produce. So you’re always kind of trying to play catch up. For me, I actually did this mentorship, when I was 26, with Martin Bédard here in Montreal at the Conservatory. And a lot of my approach is kind of modeled after his, which is for the electronics to largely use the sounds of instruments. And so if I have a certain group of instruments on the stage, and then the electronics are sort of built from sound recordings of those instruments, there’s an automatic connection between what you hear on stage and what you hear in the speakers. And so it’s a little bit of a shortcut into making them sound like they belong together. And it’s not two different worlds at the same time.

PAN M 360 : You’re from a more recent regeneration generation, less afraid to mix things like you do. 

BEKAH SIMMS :  Yeah, of course, of course, like, I think that in general millennials, that are in this genre of composing, there’s a much more like, multifaceted approach. And people are influenced by a lot of different genres, even though they’re writing concert music. So you know, your concert music is influenced by folk music or by drone music or by electronic dance music. I’m very influenced actually, by video game music, especially for indie games, it is very, like, sort of low fi, throwback, electronic music. And so in my creation, I kind of use some synthesizer patches that kind of evoke that 8 bit kind of sound. And I just, I feel empowered to do that. Because the listening environment is just so eclectic. For myself and for most people. 

PAN M 360 : So it became more and more welded.

BEKAH SIMMS : Yeah, and the way it also became, like, the first ones are all electronics are very instrumental sounding, that actually, as I developed, I got more and more comfortable having the electronic sound more and more distance from the elements on stage, because I wasn’t afraid so much about, I know how difficult it is to make sure that they sound like they belong together. So for example, like the creation has a synthesizer sound, that’s almost kind of like a video game soundy and sort of Lo Fi sound, which I wouldn’t have been comfortable enough to do or whether or not confident enough. You know, I’d be worried that it stands out too much, you know, how do I make it sound? Like it’s all one piece. But now, you know, you hit your 30s? And you’re like, it doesn’t matter I’m gonna make this interesting.

PAN M 360 : Yeah, that sounds very good. Because you did, you’re developing some skills as a producer that you didn’t have first, when you were trained. First, you’re trained as an instrumental composer. And after you discovered the electronic.So then, to really have the electronic aspect very well suited in your own craft, it takes some time to understand all the textural possibilities that instrumental don’t have.

BEKAH SIMMS : Exactly. Yeah, it took a really long time. And like when you start as a composer, you know, I was sort of developing that since I was like, you know, late teenager, early 20s. And then the electronics came much after but you’re also trying to learn a new skill while composing a piece. So the development feels a little slower, because you’re focusing on so many different things. And I would say it’s only in the last like, maybe a couple of years. And yeah, I’m quite happy with how the electronic elements sound in my music.

PAN M 360 : Obviously, there are more producers and composers referencing popular and serious forms of music in the same corpus.

BEKAH SIMMS : Yeah, I feel like there was I think, even if you look back in the 20th century, there was a ton of popular music artists that were influenced by people like Stockhausen and stuff. And I think it just took a really long time for composers to allow the influence from popular music to become a little bit more obvious in what we do. I don’t know why we were so as a group, reluctant or hesitant to do that, but I think that all of that has blown out of the water now  people my age have no no issue. So just like referencing all sorts of popular music, certainly for me, like I released an album back in October, one piece is based around metal music from three different bands. And one other piece of mine is totally based around the music of Joanna Newsom. So my music is really rooted in this idea of referencing other genres.

PAN M 360 : So it’s going to be a diverse program on Saturday !

BEKAH SIMMS : Yeah, so it It’s actually a, there’s a lot of variety within my pieces, there’s a lot of variety from piece to piece, because like, four of the five are for the  Paramirabo instrumentation but one of them is for flute solo. Two of them are acoustic, three of them are electroacoustic. One of them is 4 minutes long. One of them is 11 minutes long. So yeah there’s like a ton of variety in a bunch of different factors.

PROGRAM

  • Bekah Simmssingle Red flower
  • Bekah SimmsSkinscape  for flûte & electronics
  • Bekah SimmsWith Dawn in Our Lungs  for flûte, clarinet, violin, cello, percussions, piano
  • Bekah SimmsEverything is… Distorted for flûte, clarinet, violn, cello, percussions, piano , electronics
  • Iannis XenakisPlekto , 1993 for flûte, clarinet, violn, cello, percussions, piano
  • Corie Rose SoumahIn The Cathedral of Our Rib , 2023  – premiere
  • Bekah SimmsStygian Pulse , 2023

ARTISTS

INFOS & TICKETS HERE

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