Name: Bekah Simms

Nationality: Canadian
Occupation: Composer
Current Release: Bekah Simms's Bestiaries is out via Centrediscs.
Recommendations: Alex Paxton – Music for Bosch People; Jordan Peele – Nope;

If you enjoyed this interview with Bekah Simms  and would like to stay up to date with her music, visit her official website. She is also on Soundcloud.

When did you start writing/producing/playing music and what or who were your early passions and influences? What was it about music and/or sound that drew you to it?

I grew up in Newfoundland, where playing music (usually Irish-Newfoundland folk music) was an integral part of parties and social gatherings. It just seemed natural to be actively engaged with music both as a listener and a creator. Music was a community activity, not something that really required training or expertise.

As a teen, my musical interests were disparate and eclectic: I wanted to be a session flutist for metal bands, compose video game music, and perform in musical theatre as a singer/actor. None of these particular aspirations ended up panning out, but all of those influences are still foundational in some way.

I think the 21st-century listening experience - unfettered access to music from all eras, all areas (usually facilitated through online searching) – was what really drew me to composing in the way that I do. Eclectic listening resulted in eclectic composing for me, and I wouldn’t want it any other way.

When I listen to music, I see shapes, objects and colours. What happens in your body when you're listening and how does it influence your approach to creativity?

I have a very visceral reaction to listening to certain kinds of music, particularly anything heavy: big, boomy amplified music can feel absolutely sternum-shattering and reverberant in the body. I’m just so attracted to these types of expansive musical gestures that “shake the floor,” so to speak.

I also love the physical sensation of having to lean in and really listen to extremely fragile, delicate sounds – there is a special concerted effort to even process what you’re hearing. In that way, I’m drawn to extremes in sound, and those dual interests certainly show up in my music.

Lately, I’ve also been interested in auditory phenomena like beating and difference tones, often achieved by microtonal harmony. It literally tickles your ears – of course I want to do that to my audience!

How would you describe your development as an artist in terms of interests and challenges, searching for a personal voice, as well as breakthroughs?

I think being interested in so many other genres and modes of music-making can be challenging for a composer, because there is both external and internal pressure to be “singular” in your output.

Writing notated music for ensembles also presents certain challenges – I’ve done so much studying of the scores of other composers, and it can be tough to find the balance between “inspired by” vs. “derivative of.”

Ultimately, though, having so many sources of inspiration probably helped far more than it has hurt – threads of experimental classical music weave together with metal, ambient, psychedelic, and folk musics to create something that I hope is quite distinct!

Tell me a bit about your sense of identity and how it influences both your preferences as a listener and your creativity as an artist, please.

I think my sense of identity is as a listener – growing up as a metalhead and then super into the indie scene, it felt like the musical subgenres you listened to actually became a core part of your identity. Especially with metal, I practically had a uniform on that shouted “hey I listen to this genre of music” and could likewise identify others from the same subcultural community.

So I think that music that is all-consuming and intense like that – artists and subgenres that inspire that level of devotion – probably contributed to the sonic intensity of my music in a pretty tangible way. I’d hate to write something as my composing-self that doesn’t reflect the identity of my listening-self, and I believe that shows.

What, would you say, are the key ideas behind your approach to music and art?

One key idea is that modern composition needs to remove itself from its pedestal AND its vacuum, and acknowledge all of the other amazing approaches to music and sound that are happening.

The other is that as a composer, we have the privilege of writing for humans rather than automatons. It’s extremely satisfying to write personalized, collaborative works for individuals.

How would you describe your views on topics like originality and innovation versus perfection and timelessness in music? Are you interested in a “music of the future” or “continuing a tradition”?

I’m absolutely interested in a maintenance culture over arbitrary innovation. But not maintenance of a tradition per se – rather, a maintenance of artistic practice that the performers I work with have been developing totally independent of me!

Lately, I’ve been cataloguing the recorded sounds or vocabulary of a performer and writing new works based exclusively on these sounds. I re-contextualize the language that the performer already uses. And in that way, the works are tailor-made for that performer and reflect the parts of their work that they felt most like sharing with me (which I imagine are their favourite!) Just because these sounds are familiar to the performers doesn’t mean they’re familiar to me – “new” can be so relative.

I think perfection in performance is dreadfully boring – part of what interests me is the way that extreme difficulty (or even impossibility) can result in creativity through failure. Things that are impossible to perform mean that each performer tackles that impossibility completely different, and that’s where the artistry and creativity shine through.

Over the course of your development, what have been your most important instruments and tools - and what are the most promising strategies for working with them?

For my current music, the use of pre-existing audio recordings; my digital audio workstation (DAW); and the Lounge Lizard virtual instrument have been my most important tools. My strategy these days is to abandon all strict systems and just compose with my ear: do I like the way it sounds? That’s the only thing that’s important to me.

I always used primarily audio (rather than synthesized sound) to create the electronic components of my pieces, but lately I’ve been using recordings of the musicians to compose the acoustic material as well.

I used to compose straight into my notation program (Sibelius) but now that comes last – everything gets assembled in the DAW, and the transcription happens afterwards. It’s just changed everything for me, to be able to hear a mock-up of the piece before deciding what to do with it next. I’ve been more playful and more confident with my music.

The Lounge Lizard is a VST plug-in of keyboard instruments like a Rhodes that can be tuned microtonally. It sounds so absolutely killer to me – plus it has the satisfaction of immediate playback – that I’ve been using it in almost every piece lately. It’s the main form of synthesized sound that I use.

Take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work, please.

I’ve been in the process of moving internationally for the past few months, so I feel like my routines have been totally smashed!

Normally, I balance composing with university teaching. I’m the most productive in the morning or late at night, so I try to do my creative work at the extremes of the day and leave all the emailing and lessons for the afternoon.

I usually start by listening back carefully to what I’ve already composed in the piece, to find a natural extension of the material that’s already there. When starting from scratch, I usually have many gigabytes of audio recordings from performers that I spend a lot of time sifting through and deciding on the most compelling sounds (both individually and when combining them together.)

Everything is listening-oriented, and lots of trial and error – it’s easy to do that when just dropping audio into a DAW!

Could you describe your creative process on the basis of a piece, live performance or album that's particularly dear to you, please?

On my new album Bestiaires, each piece functions as a tribute to other musical works or genres that influence me. All three pieces use material from the other music: in “Foreverdark,” the musicians play variations on riffs from metal bands like Strapping Young Lad, Bathory, and System of a Down; in “from Void,” the players play stretched versions of mutated large chords from composer Rebecca Saunders’ work “void;” and on “Bestiary I & II,” the harp quotes melodies and the soprano sings all the flora and fauna from Joanna Newsom’s album “Ys.”

My work is always referential, whether to broader touchpoints in popular music or to very niche things the performer themselves are known for. I don’t often come up with the base material – I prefer to mould preexisting sounds into new shapes and contexts.

Listening can be both a solitary and a communal activity. Likewise, creating music can be private or collaborative. Can you talk about your preferences in this regard and how these constellations influence creative results?

Oh, this has changed so much for me in the past few years!

I used to be very independent in my work. I’d receive a commission, diligently work on it, then submit it with no communication, feedback or workshopping with the group who would perform it. I would just deliver a finished product, usually an acoustic one with no electronic element.

In the past 3 years or so, it’s been much more collaborative – inviting musicians to share their hopes/desires for the new work; asking them to contribute their library of sounds and their audio to be in the electronics; crediting them in the score as integral to the creation of the work; etc.

It suddenly feels much less lonely to compose!

How do your work and your creativity relate to the world and what is the role of music in society?

Fundamentally, I think my music is rather selfish – I’m just creating music and sounds that I think are interesting to hear. I hope that it’s also fun to play, and maybe someone else will have a similar ear to me, but I don’t consider that too much when writing it.

Music can be just about anything – it can be ritual; community-building; private; functional; useless; euphoric; irritating; etc. And likewise, just about anything can be music. I focus on the micro rather than macro.

Art can be a way of dealing with the big topics in life: Life, loss, death, love, pain, and many more. In which way and on which occasions has music – both your own or that of others - contributed to your understanding of these questions?

I think the way I emotionally engage as a listener vs. a creator is quite different. I tend to be pretty detached from my own music – it’s not explicitly seeking to create a certain emotional affect. The way that a single piece can evoke a myriad of emotional responses – that I find interesting, but impossible to predict.

I don’t think I ever use music to deal with these things – when I’m feeling overwhelmed, I don’t want to imprint those feelings on any music I love and then associate the two.

How do you see the connection between music and science and what can these two fields reveal about each other?  

I have little interest in the analytical side of music, but I do think that science – especially acoustics, for example – can lead to very interesting sonic results.

Likewise, I do find popular science tidbits like “memory of music is stored in a different part of the brain” to be very interesting but not something I think about much.

Creativity can reach many different corners of our lives. Do you feel as though writing or performing a piece of music is inherently different from something like making a great cup of coffee? What do you express through music that you couldn't or wouldn't in more 'mundane' tasks?

I tend to be a very impatient person, and writing a piece of music is one of the few activities that I engage in that seems to come with endless patience. The hours really melt away when I’m listening, revising, and writing.

So unlike just about any other task, my music has the advantage of receiving my full attention and patience. When I’m deep into my work, everything else feels like a distraction and annoyance!

Music is vibration in the air, captured by our ear drums. From your perspective as a creator and listener, do you have an explanation how it able to transmit such diverse and potentially deep messages?

There is an additional filter of the “self” – we all perceive the world subjectively, and of course that translates to music as well.

One of my favourite things about instrumental music (or, at least, music without words) is that its abstraction allows for any and all meanings to be perceived by different listeners. I think that’s more compelling than everyone receiving the same message.