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Bex Burch: Jazz musician compares building her own xylophone with Ant-Man in the Quantum Realm

The musical and composer's first solo album, There Is Only Love And Fear, came about as a result of her crafting her own bespoke instrument

Bex Burch with a xylophone

Burch learned how to make her first xylophone according to Ghanaian tradition. Image: Fabian Brennecke

“I don’t think music is really separate from living,” the musician and composer Bex Burch tells me from her home in Berlin. We are discussing her new album, There is only love and fear, released later this month on the renowned Chicago-based label International Anthem.

I had been searching for the right words to describe the subtle force of her music; it strikes me that this integrated approach, drawing no boundaries between life and work, has truly allowed her to make music to live by. 

Burch, primarily a percussionist and pianist, graduated from Guildhall School of Music & Drama in 2007. The following year she was invited to Ghana to join Thomas Segura, a professional maker of Dagaare xylophones, or gyilli, as his apprentice. “An amazing instrument,” she says, “and a beautifully accessible way of making. Through respect for the wood and getting my head and hands around three simple tools, Thomas gave me this first taste of making my own instrument.”

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She then went on to found the group Vula Viel, along with Ruth Goller on bass and Jim Hart on drums, releasing three albums to great acclaim from various corners of the music world including Jazzwise magazine, the Financial Times and Iggy Pop, who described their output as “Beautiful… dance to it, make love to it, consume it, listen to it, stare at the clouds to it… That music deserves good reactions!” on his BBC 6 Music show.

More recently, under the tutelage of xylophone maker Jamie Linwood, Bex Burch built the instrument which she used to create her new solo record. I am curious, I tell her, about the sense of freedom in being able to construct her own bespoke tools and, as a result, her own bespoke sound. The possibilities must seem endless.

“This current xylophone on the record that I made with Jamie is the first time I asked myself what sound I needed,” she says. “I was more and more interested in harmonics and so wanted to be able to choose how to tune mine. Harmonics are kind of what makes all sounds sound like they do. It’s how you recognise the same pitch or the same song played on a piano from a kazoo.

So I began listening to the harmonics in sounds I liked. I didn’t need to understand, I was just listening and enjoying listening deeper and deeper like Ant-Man going into the Quantum Realm… choosing my instrument for the first time like this, it’s similar to choosing how I want to be in the world.”

The resulting album, replete with ambient, pastoral recordings of water and bird song, sounds like it grew out of the earth. From the bright and gentle opener Dawn Blessings to the chaotic, melodic rainstorm of You Thought You Were Free, sounds of nature captured in Yorkshire, The Baltic Sea, Berlin, Südtirol, Wyoming, Chicago and LA enhance the organic feel of the music.

“Like with music and life, there’s no one way that’s ‘right’ and perfection isn’t necessarily the ideal,” Burch remarks on the process of putting each track together. “So just like waves on the lake bumping into each other, interference in sound can also be beautiful.”

Another highlight is the upbeat Joy Is Not Meant To Be a Crumb, featuring additional percussion from Mikel Patrick Avery and Rob Frye, violin from Macie Stewart and double bass from Anton Hatwich, probably the album’s biggest nod to traditional jazz.

The most recent single On Falling is also rooted by jazz chords, supplied by LA-based pianist Diego Gaeta, surrounded by rhythmic creaks and thumps of the natural world. The record moves at its own pace, swaying between sparsity and exuberance, storms and sunshine. It is the perfect soundtrack for the changing season. 

Bex Burch’s unique handmade xylophone anchors the overall sound in a dreamy, thoughtful resonance. “Creating something, especially out of wood, is a very down to earth analogy for life,” she says. “There’s no way around patience, care, intention and hard work.

I feel like I’m growing as a person and getting more interested in and more able to really take care of what I’m making. And if I am lazy, I have to carry that around to every gig. So it means I have less to hide behind.”

I ask her what she hopes people take away from the record. “I don’t think I’m in control of that,” she says, “But I do believe that if I do my work, and come and share something truly of myself, that that means something. That we all feel that in some way. And that it helps. I’ve really lived this album in the way I wanted, I really made this from love not fear.”

Bex Burch’s There is only love and fear is out on 20 October through International Anthem. Deb Grant is a radio host and music critic.

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine out this week. Support your local vendor by buying today! If you cannot reach your local vendor, click HERE to subscribe to The Big Issue or give a gift subscription. You can also purchase one-off issues from The Big Issue Shop. The Big Issue app is available now from the App Store or Google Play

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