On rare occasions, all the stars align. This is how it was when composer-musician and instrument-maker Bex Burch jumped into her car and drove eight hours across Europe to Utrecht in November 2021. “Mostly life isn’t like that,” she says. “We’re here to figure things out and struggle. But occasionally things just fall into place. Sometimes the world is magical.”
The car trip began in Berlin, where she was living after a long stint in London, where she’d made her name in the layers that exist between jazz and improvised experimentalism. The journey ended at Le Guess Who? Festival and an invitation from International Anthem’s Alejandro Ayala. Or perhaps it ended in a ground floor studio in Chicago’s South Side with light streaming through a skylight onto her newly-finished wooden xylophone and a stream of musicians selected by International Anthem’s Scottie McNiece and Dave Vettraino. Or maybe, like a wave travelling across the ocean, the travels continued until Bex Burch finally finished editing thirty-two days of exceptionally tender improvised recording sessions into the forty gossamer minutes of this stunning debut solo record, which oscillates between modes of quiet open-heartedness and powerful expression.
There is only love and fear is the sound of Bex Burch in communion with some of the finest sonic communicators in International Anthem’s extended family. These include woodwind player Rob Frye, who gave Burch a tour of the Illinois Audubon Society’s Gremel Wildlife Sanctuary the day after she arrived in Chicago. Also Tortoise drummer Dan Bitney and Ben LaMar Gay, who both took Burch through her first few days in the studio, tuning into her communicative harmonics and responding with their own. And double bassist Anna Butterss and violinist Macie Stewart, who participated separately but both became key collaborators in the album’s post-production, accenting their respective string improvisations with additional sounds remotely recorded per Burch’s direction. Everyone on this record is highly skillful, a rare talent, but drawn together by Burch they were invited to inhabit something even more extraordinary: their most open selves, requested only to bring the sounds they liked – or even needed – in the moment of recording.
“What has come through in this album,” she says, “is a more domestic style of music: the simplicity of life and sound-making. The word I’m shy to use is ‘feminine’ but it’s true, and I reclaim it in all its power.”
She describes her sound as “messy minimalism.” The twelve tracks evoke variously the sweet kind of zoning-in that allows the listener access to their own feelings; the generative meditations of First Thought, Best Thought-era Arthur Russell; Vivaldi or Laurie Anderson – if they’d been ultra-gentle satellite reflections of Chicago’s minimalist and avant-garde music histories.
Burch has previously released as part of Boing! with Leafcutter John, and with the critically acclaimed Strut-released Flock with Londoners including Sarathy Korwar and The Comet Is Coming’s Danalogue. She also runs the band and label Vula Viel and has collaborated with artists from Peter Zummo to Dame Evelyn Glennie.
This album also welcomes in the sound of the natural world; ‘hip as fuck’ wood pigeons and resonant nightingales recorded in Berlin parks and forests, dreamy waves lilting onto the sand on the Baltic coast of Rügen Island for the unforgettable closing track ‘When Love Begins’ – and some extreme Chi-Town weather.
“There was this ignition moment,” she says of ‘You thought you were free’, the carnival-coloured mid-point of the album. “There was a tornado warning, our phones were all going off: ‘go into the basement’.” The players collectively shrugged their shoulders – until siren sound waves began ghosting through the studio walls. “I turned one of the microphones up to catch the thunder and the rain under the skylight,” she says. “I was properly scared, not just because of the storm, but because I was nervous. I was trying to stay open and be conscious of the fact that I didn’t know what to expect – and that doing so means surrender. That knife edge of presence was really intense. We all just played through.”
Playing through was possible, at least in part because of a 90-day practice Burch calls Dawn blessings, which also provided some of the ‘heard sounds’ that dance around the music generated during these collaborative recordings. The practice refers to a friend called Dawn, not daybreak, although at least one of the Dawn blessings that ended up on There is only love and fear was recorded when the sun came up. The Dawn blessings required Burch to make one piece of music daily, in answer to the question: ‘what sounds do I like today?’
“My intention was to cultivate this feeling of expansion and magic that I felt when I was invited to the US. The music is already there, and I have to let go and allow myself to be in it. The 90-day practice was to strengthen that muscle. You know if you do sit ups, you get a six-pack? Perhaps this was exercising my openness six-pack.”
She was also exercising her hand-made xylophone. Burch lived in Ghana for three years, including an 18-month apprenticeship in instrument-making, in the Upper West of Ghana with master gyil player Thomas Sekgura. The new instrument isn’t of a particular tradition, indeed the harmonics are tuned to maximise the resonance and was made in collaboration with Jamie Linwood in Stroud, in the south west of England. “The question ‘what sounds do I like today?’ brought up harmonics, and this is the first instrument I’ve made because of what I want to hear. This record happens to be the first that features it.”
It’s quite a christening: a resonant, respectful, super-warm expression of asymmetry, repetitiveness and space. “It’s how the universe works, it’s how we’re all vibrating. We all resonate, literally, with these fundamentals. Tension and release, space, chaos and asymmetry in heard sounds in nature – I love it.”
The energy sent into the world when Bex Burch turned the ignition key of her car and drove to Utrecht has finally landed on the beach, in the shape of There is only love and fear. “It’s about choosing to act in love and choosing not to put more force or fear into the world,” she says. “Imagine it like I’m swimming: instead of just leaving a wake of love behind me, I’m pushing it ahead of me, and all around me as well, void of hierarchy, it’s beyond the linear and binary. We can lift people up when we do that.”
Soak this music up – it will rejuvenate you.