Bekah Simms // Composers of the WSYO Project

December 23, 2016

The 2015 Toronto International Electroacoustic Symposium (TIES) coincided with an existential moment for me—perhaps a perpetual state of mind for us arts administrator types? I was a core organizer for TIES, and I spent part of my week questioning the legacies of various institutions in Toronto contemporary music, and whether we were taking genuine steps to support local artists establishing their careers in the 2010s, as opposed to the 1950s.

And then I had some unexpected real talk with Bekah Simms who was working the registration desk for New Adventures in Sound Art (one of the other organizations behind TIES). I had crossed paths with Bekah before, and heard several of her pieces in concert. On this occasion we chatted about barriers in arts funding, systemic issues in music education, and all the reasons to not use comic sans. It was a great remedy for my gloomy disposition.

In the 18 months since that conversation I have been collaborating with Bekah much more often, whether we were setting up 8 channel systems or coordinating rehearsals for Caution Tape Sound Collective which she cofounded. I was delighted when she was selected to take part in the Windsor Symphony Youth Orchestra project. Here is part of a more recent conversation that we had when she allowed me to interrupt her composerly work for an hour.

bekahsimms [11:56 AM] Hey Matthew! Ready when you are

mfava [11:56 AM] Hey!

[11:57] the staff meeting just wrapped up

[11:57] I'm heading down to my office

bekahsimms [11:57 AM] No rush, I'm chilling

mfava [12:01 PM] OK! I am back and ready to begin

bekahsimms [12:02 PM] Awesome!

mfava [12:02 PM] I usually jump in with a general pleasant question: how is your day going?

bekahsimms [12:03 PM] It's going well! Wednesdays are usually a day "off" so I've been doing a lot of listening and electroacoustic work this morning

[12:03] And for you?

mfava [12:03 PM] It has been a good day so far.

[12:03] Well

[12:03] Actually, I have had an ongoing drama with a particular piece of equipment

[12:03] that shall remain nameless

bekahsimms [12:03 PM] Oh noooo!

mfava [12:03 PM] I'm dealing though!

[12:04] Tell me about your listening. What is on the playlist today?

bekahsimms [12:05 PM] I'm listening to an electroacoustic playlist curated by Martin Bédard - some Ake Parmerud, Monique Jean, Yves Daoust... also looking to revisit some acoustic pieces, namely Akrostichon-Wortspiel by Unsuk Chin and Professor Bad Trip Lesson 3 by Fausto Romitelli

mfava [12:05 PM] Nice!

[12:05] Now Martin is serving as your mentor in the CLC-Continuum-CMC Pivot project, correct?

bekahsimms [12:06 PM] Yes! This playlist travelled with me via USB stick from Montreal, where we had our most recent get-together last weekend

mfava [12:07 PM] That's wonderful. What are the linkages between the playlist, and some of your current electroacoustic work? Is it inspiration, methodology, some other line of inquiry?

[12:07] Or perhaps a blend....

bekahsimms [12:08 PM] Well the playlist is entirely "mixed" music, where there are live instrumental forces combined with fixed media, which is the exact medium I'm working with for my new work with Continuum.

[12:09] I also think the methodology is somewhat linked - the fixed media elements often contain processed sounds from the instruments on stage, frequently granulated and with spectral processing, which are some of the techniques I'm using in my own work

mfava [12:11 PM] Since I am not a composer, I like to try and draw an analogy to illustrate your thought process: do you think of electronics as a language with a particular vocabulary/syntax? I guess I'm really asking whether you try and impose a logic onto a seemingly boundless medium.

[12:11] And I bring up language/vocabulary because I appreciate your treatment of text in other pieces.

bekahsimms [12:12 PM] Honestly, I am such a newbie in the electroacoustic world - and it really is a boundless, fully-fleshed out world that I feel requires a full immersion. I'm really just beginning to get my toes wet and hoping to gain more and more experiences.

[12:13] I think as far as the tools I understand and know how to use, then yes, I conceive of it as having a particular vocabulary. I like to stick to audio treatments where I actually understand what's happening with the sound in a tangible way - like "Oh, this treatment is allowing me to stay on this tiny part of the whole sound, this treatment allows me to stutter my way through a certain spectrum of the sound" etc.

mfava [12:14 PM] Interesting. How is your approach different this time than when you developed the piece for sax and electronics performed by Chelsea Shanoff?

bekahsimms [12:16 PM] Oh my gosh, so so different. I basically used public domain samples (from websites like freesound.org) and did very little treatment. The sounds from the electronics were always audible - like "there's some saxophone, there's some voices whispering," etc. Martin likes to describe treating sound sources like treating wood - you can use varnish to give the raw wood a slightly different colour and sheen, but you recognize it as wood. That's all I was doing with Chelsea's piece, Wild Creatures.

mfava [12:16 PM] Ah ha

[12:16] ...and that is a great analogy

bekahsimms [12:17 PM] Conversely, you can paint the wood black, or bright red - now it looks like something else. It's wood-shaped, but it could be other things - it's ambiguous - it's flexible in how it's perceived and functions. I wasn't really doing that yet. I conceived of the electronics as another instrument, as opposed to an entire orchestra whose forces could be called upon at will.

mfava [12:17 PM] Awesome!

[12:17] Now I would like to shift a bit

bekahsimms [12:18 PM] Sure!

mfava [12:18 PM] (while recognizing that I would love to hear more about this)

[12:18] If I'm not mistaken, you were once young, and a musician at the same time, no?

bekahsimms [12:18 PM] HAHAHA. Indeed!

mfava [12:18 PM] Were you involved in bands/orchestras/ensembles?

[12:19] A more direct phrasing: "what bands/orchestras/ensembles" were you involved in?

bekahsimms [12:19 PM] I was! My primary instrument is the flute, although I didn't actually start through an ensemble program - I really loved traditional and Irish folk music, so I played solo rep in lessons for a couple years before joining any bands.

mfava [12:20 PM] Sweeeeet

bekahsimms [12:20 PM] I was involved in my high school band with flute, and its jazz band with tenor saxophone. In high school, I was also in the eastern school district band (in Newfoundland) and the Newfoundland Symphony Youth Orchestra, where I played piccolo

mfava [12:20 PM] Can I relive a childhood thing with you: did you ever have to play the flute at family functions?

bekahsimms [12:21 PM] No, no one in my family wanted to hear a concert flute! They would've loved for me to haul out the tin whistle but they were not so down with the flute. The only time I played flute at family functions was if my eccentric uncle wanted to do interpretive dance…

mfava [12:21 PM] HAHAHA

[12:21] That's amazing.

[12:22] I had to play my violin constantly.

[12:22] I had to play melodies from Andrea Bocelli, and I also played a Shania Twain song with my cousin at an event.

[12:22] Ours was not a musical family, so my sub-par playing was well received

bekahsimms [12:22 PM] HAHAHA oh my gosh, that is really rich childhood history

[12:23] You say not a musical family, but they were encouraging you to play for them and wanted to hear it! That strikes me as musical

mfava [12:23 PM] True!

[12:23] I shouldn't be so hard on our little collective of humanity.

bekahsimms [12:23 PM] It's very sweet - I love that encouragement for children and youth to play for their family.

[12:23] (but as a teenager - major eyeroll, right?)

mfava [12:24 PM] YES. You gave me a great opportunity to move into the WSYO project, but now I want to ask about early listening, and diverging from our childhood soundscape.

[12:25] I felt like a social outsider as a teenager, so I gravitated to what I felt was outsider music. Did/does music serve a particular social/emotional role for you, and how might you characterize that?

bekahsimms [12:27 PM] I'm not sure how I would answer that question about my current listening practices, because it's ridiculously far-flung and with a lot of popular music aesthetics that don't feel very marginalised anymore. But as a teenager, I believed that music was the prime indicator of your social group and your social identity - I thought it defined you. And I think that's very common in musical subcultures, especially of heavier music like metal or punk.

[12:29 PM] I listened to almost exclusively metal as a teenager (with some traditional/folk, which interestingly wasn't all that counter-intuitive since many European metal bands integrate folk music into their sound.) And I felt that if I wanted to truly bond with people, they would also listen to metal. Which is obviously very silly in retrospect, but it would mean that they automatically felt some affinity for an "outsider" culture that was integral to how I perceived my general outlook on life and opinions/beliefs.

mfava [12:30 PM] Can you pinpoint a time when that thinking shifted for you? What might have caused the change in perception?

bekahsimms [12:32 PM] I think it was bonding with people over something that wasn't music - probably best displayed when I met one of my most long-lasting friends in an after-school theatre program. We went to a lot of heavy music shows together, but she listened to totally different stuff - indie pop and the like. And I had this ridiculous moment of "wow this doesn't matter at all."

[12:32] But for a long time I honestly did think "if you're not into metal you are not my friend" - Manowar

[12:33] (“long time” being over well before I hit 18)

mfava [12:33 PM] haha, nice.

[12:34] Now, with the WSYO project you are writing for a group of young musicians. I wonder what has been going through your mind during the writing process? I figure the piece is in a near-to-complete state, but I'm interested to look back at some of your conceptions of the piece, and the ensemble.

bekahsimms [12:36 PM] I think the biggest struggle has been how to maintain my own artistic voice as a composer while writing for a young ensemble - especially since a lot of my work is extremely technically challenging - followed by how do I make this music exciting for these players while also writing for a successful outcome? How do I challenge the players to the perfect amount - something that's difficult but ultimately possible?

[12:37] And that's something I struggle a lot with as a composer - my music is more challenging the more "notated" it is. Some of my music utilizes free sections and they're usually not a problem, it's when things get extremely detailed that challenges occur. And this piece for WSYO is notated. So difficulty level was on my mind always.

mfava [12:38 PM] Is this the first time you are writing for a large ensemble that you do not have an immediate personal connection with? IE, you have a point of contact with Peter the conductor, but not the musicians. Is that also a new challenge?

bekahsimms [12:40 PM] Yes, for sure! The first large ensemble piece I wrote was my Masters thesis at the University of Toronto, which was an academic requirement and not for any specific ensemble. It's been recorded but never performed. The second was created working very very closely with the University of Toronto Wind Ensemble, where I could test things out, work one-on-one with players, etc. I didn't really have to question whether something would "work" a few months away because I could find out pretty quickly!

mfava [12:42 PM] It is interesting to contrast the workflow between the electronics with live instrument(s) you are exploring in Pivot, and the large ensemble in the WSYO project. I am guessing this year has been, overall, a learning/growing opportunity.

[12:43] And we are only scratching the surface as far as your writing/projects this year

bekahsimms [12:43 PM] Oh man, absolutely. It's been a really wonderful year for opportunities for growth and learning. It's been fantastic on all accounts.

[12:44] And yes, this year has been quite busy with projects!

mfava [12:44 PM] We are at the 45 minute mark.

[12:44] And I have a 1pm date with that devious equipment

[12:44] So I need to get a few more questions out there

bekahsimms [12:45 PM] LOL destiny is calling

mfava [12:45 PM] HAHA

bekahsimms [12:45 PM] I'll try to ramp up my response rate

mfava [12:45 PM] Oh, you are doing great!

[12:45] Now...sometimes we like things, and those things that we like are categorically bad...tell me about your interest in the 2003 cinematic classic, The Room.

bekahsimms [12:45 PM] HAHAHA. Oh my God. That is like, a Nardwuar-level question

mfava [12:46 PM] I'm flattered!

bekahsimms [12:47 PM] I love The Room. I love the social aspect of screenings of movies like The Room, where there's this affected social protocol - "When you see a framed photo of spoons on screen, you must throw plastic spoons at the screen." That level of absurdity is SO appealing to me.

mfava [12:47 PM] HAHA

[12:47] amazing

bekahsimms [12:47 PM] I mean - you don't watch The Room by yourself. You watch it because it is a group social experience.

mfava [12:47 PM] Now, you see, I have never watched the Room.

[12:47] But Jay Caron explained the room to me once

[12:47] (which was fun in its own way)

[12:48] but I was not aware of the rituals.

bekahsimms [12:48 PM] It is very ritualistic. The last time I saw it, it was with several composers at The Carlton Cinema and Tommy Wiseau himself was there. It was so magical.

mfava [12:48 PM] WOAH

bekahsimms [12:49 PM] I bought a pair of Tommy Wiseau brand boxers! He signed them! He wrote "Love is blind" and his signature.

mfava [12:49 PM] Hahaha

[12:49] OK!

[12:49] I need to switch gears to cover it all:

bekahsimms [12:49 PM] yes of course, please don't let me distract you with The Room

mfava [12:50 PM] HAHAHA. This is amazing. Ok, moving on...tell me about your interest in the wider universe: I see images from the hubble telescope on your scores, and references to voyager, cassini, etc.

[12:51] (by the way, Elisha Denburg just walked in and says "Hi")

bekahsimms [12:51 PM] I have a huge love of cosmology! It's one of my favourite things to read about. I love the works of Carl Sagan especially. It's something I'm hugely curious and terrified of - the universe, how stuff got here, how stuff became us, etc.

[12:51] (Hello Elisha!!)

mfava [12:52 PM] Is there a bridge to your music from cosmology?

bekahsimms [12:52 PM] Not tangibly, no - I've never derived materials from cosmology. Maybe feelings I've derived from ruminating on it, but not in the literal sense.

[12:53] (I do however want to utilize some of NASA's space recordings at some point!)

mfava [12:53 PM] OH, they are amazing.

[12:53] And a treasure trove for people working with electronics.

bekahsimms [12:53 PM] Absolutely. The sounds are - appropriately - very alien.

mfava [12:54 PM] HA! If you can run with me on this...Now, if you were a travel agent....

[12:54] and I said I have 5 days, and I want to spend them in Newfoundland....

[12:54] What are the top 5 things that I must do?

bekahsimms [12:54 PM] Omg well first of all, I'd be very pleased

[12:55] And I'd be pressed because Newfoundland is HUGE and 5 days is not very long!!!

mfava [12:55 PM] Seriously.

[12:55] I'm not a good traveler, so this is what you have to deal with.

[12:55] This is the CHALLENGE

[12:55] I am also happy to do many things in one place.

[12:55] That is often what I do when I travel.

bekahsimms [12:56 PM] But I think St. John's is a must (..not biased..!) It has lots of incredible food and drinks (Mallard Cottage, Adelaide Oyster House, Piatto) and amazing local music, you can find it just about any night. For more curious ears, there's a great monthly night of weird improvised music at The Ship called Night Music. And I would absolutely recommend going during Sound Symposium! Or the Tuckamore Festival!

[12:57] And boat tours are actually super fun, even if you're from the area.. and Fogo is really beautiful, and my family is from an area called Green Bay South that is really beautiful and has lots of whales and icebergs

[12:57] "really beautiful" - Bekah Simms on Newfoundland

mfava [12:57 PM] HAHA

[12:57] Let's call the ministry of tourism and get this endorsement formalized.

[12:57] Thanks for the recommendations!

[12:57] OK

[12:58] In the last gasp of this interview...

[12:58] Do you have a favourite Doctor?

bekahsimms [12:58 PM] Yes! It's actually 9!!

mfava [12:58 PM] AH!

bekahsimms [12:58 PM] I love Christopher Eccleston ♥

mfava [12:58 PM] Do you have a favourite cookie?

bekahsimms [12:59 PM] I am obviously a huge cookie connoisseur but I have to go for the classic... chocolate chip, if homemade and oven fresh

mfava [12:59 PM] NICE.

[12:59] Oh gosh, there are so many other topics I would love to mention.

[12:59] I will leave it up to curious readers to look into your various works and projects.

bekahsimms [12:59 PM] This is really fun! I usually ask the questions and not answer, this is cool haha

mfava [1:00 PM] I'm really glad we got to the Room. I mean, future generations need to know this.

bekahsimms [1:00 PM] It's true! I want to proliferate its legacy!

mfava [1:00 PM] Well, I hope your afternoon remains productive and fun! And thanks for taking part in this interview.

bekahsimms [1:01 PM] Thank you, Matthew! Good luck with The Nameless Device

mfava [1:01 PM] Haha, thanks!