Newfoundland-born, Toronto-based composer Bekah Simms has been the recipient of over 25 awards and prizes, including most recently the 2019 Barlow Prize (Brigham Young University) and the William and Phyllis Waters Graduating Award (University of Toronto).
Simms' music has been heralded as “nuanced and complex” (NOW Magazine) and “cacophonous, jarring, oppressive — and totally engrossing!” (CBC Music). Propelled equally by fascination and terror toward the universe, her work is often filtered through the personal lens of her anxiety. Foremost among her current compositional interests is quotation and the friction between recognizability and complete obfuscation.
Is it now? is Simms’ first work commissioned by the VSO, and her first commissioned piece for full symphony orchestra. In the preface to her score, Simms reflects on her works being typically played by ensembles dedicated to exclusively presenting new music, often alongside other premieres. She writes, “The context for the work’s premiere performance alongside German romantic composers [Schubert and Mahler] compelled me to consider connections between my work and theirs. Most, if not all, of my work is filtered through the lens of my anxiety. However, I have rarely confronted the anxiety and its accompanying existential wonder-and-dread in a ‘head on’ musical fashion; it is simply a feature of my music, but not THE theme or topic. Considering the emotional earnestness of the Romantic composers that would occupy the same program as my music (for the first time!), and especially considering Mahler’s own ruminations on anxiety-inducing topics, for this work, Is it now?, I aimed to more explicitly address these feelings in my own music. The title refers to the underpinning dread of the disaster-in-waiting, which is the main feature of my anxiety. A brain obsessing with the likelihood of scenarios or events that include life-altering injury or death can mean, on particularly bad days, that every incoming phone call holds the chance of telling you that your life or happiness as you know it – is over. The question ricocheting in my head always is – is it now?
Because of this topic, the work is in some parameters a departure from much of my other recent music: it is personal rather than detached; it is denser in pitch rather than economical and spare, it is often in flux rather than always static; it is seeking rather than satisfied - in some ways, it seeks to be unsatisfying. Replacing where I normally would insert bombast and climax – something reliable or predictable – there is instead mostly noise elements and the faintest grace note-to-perfect-fourth Mahler reference. Other elements, including nervous sputters and granular bursts and roiling tension, are unavoidable anxiety artefacts.” (Bekah Simms)