Bekah Simms and I talked on the telephone about her life and work as a composer. As a child, Bekah loved to be in the spotlight and had a passion for music. She also had a strong desire to succeed. Music was the natural route she pursued in order to find that success. She says, "Being good at something made me want to pursue it more. I had a natural affinity for the recorder and eventually I went from the recorder to the flute. I played a lot of traditional Irish tunes before moving into classical music when I was 16 years old."
She had a slow start when it came to composing. Bekah explains, "As a teenager, I listened to a lot of metal that had flute parts in it. Eventually I started adding flute parts to songs without them, but it wasn't until I got into undergrad at university that I started thinking about composing. There was a theory and composition program at my university. I also had my first dose of contemporary music while I was there and I was very much into it."
Bekah also became fascinated by some of the composition professors. She says, "I found the teachers themselves to be interesting human beings with fascinating perspectives on life. I decided to start writing music a little more seriously after that; meeting artists that are doing good things inspires me. I started out with solo and duo compositions and slowly worked my way up to larger ensembles."
Her compositional approach has diverse sources. Bekah points out, "I find most of my inspiration in instrumental timbre and colour. I'm not as interested in melody or rhythm necessarily. I really like to just hear sounds. I think that sound art may be the direction I'm going to move in because the most interesting aspect of music to me is the raw sound.”
While Bekah's music isn't overtly programmatic, there are some themes that intrigue her. She says, "I'm fascinated by cosmology, astrophysics and astrobiology. When I read about the universe, at the beginning or the end of its timeline, it fills me with awe and terror.”
She adds, “For example, I find neutron stars really mind blowing, so if I was thinking about neutron stars I might try and write something really heavy and dense. The programmatic nature doesn't go beyond that - it's just a starting point."
Bekah points out, "It's not really about telling a story or going on a journey with the subject matter because I don't find that interesting. With every piece that I write, I want to challenge myself. I want to get to the end of the piece and feel like a better composer because I wrote it."
In the immediate future, Bekah's going to be working on a project as part of the Soundstreams workshop. It's a workshop for emerging composers who are finished their early graduate studies. The workshop participants will work with two leading lights of contemporary music, Unsuk Chin and Christopher Harman, on a piece for vocal quartet and electronics.
She elaborates, "It's a pretty challenging project. I tend to write music that's quite difficult so for singers there's a lot more to consider. It's easier for things to become difficult because of the idiomatic nature of writing for the human voice."
Longer term, her goal is to compose for larger ensembles but this can be a challenge. Bekah says, "You basically have to be an established, mid-career composer to get your foot in the door in that world which is a little frustrating. Winning the Toronto Emerging Composer Award helped me out on that front, though. It's a project based award and my project was for ten musicians, so I can use the funds and the support from that award to write for a larger ensemble.”
Bekah observes that there's no shortage of people graduating with professional composing credentials, but this throws up other problems. She elaborates, "Any time there's a saturation of people, there tends to be less opportunity. There are lot of people who are writing good music that doesn't get performed. A lot of it has to do with being in the right place at the right time and meeting the right people but I feel like I'm part of a super supportive scene in Toronto. I think that if I was still living in Newfoundland I'd be struggling."
The contemporary music scene in Canada is thriving in enclaves in Bekah’s view. She says, “We have pockets of music that are aesthetically unique. There's a west coast sound, there's a Toronto sound, there's a Montréal sound. I don't know what's happening on the east coast and I'm from there! It’s that big city syndrome. Making new music seems to be based on where you can get funding and there's a lot more arts funding in the cities.”
Unfortunately, in her view, Canada is underrepresented internationally. Bekah explains, “When I was in Italy in 2013, I met American composers and European composers and they knew two names from Canada: Claude Vivier and R. Murray Schafer. It leaves the impression that your music will always be Canadian music and you will be a Canadian composer. It's kind of a bummer but you're really in great company at the same time!”
The constant turnover in projects is something that keeps her motivated. She says, “Over the last few years I've always had projects that came up at least a year in advance. There was always music on the horizon for me.”
Bekah concludes, “If you're thinking, sleeping and dreaming music I think it's impossible not to write it. It's something that you're born having to do. I think if I wasn't writing, I'd be physically uncomfortable. I have to compose. It's a necessity in my life.”