On her International Anthem debut There is only love and fear, xylophonist Bex Burch creates a world of sound that jumps between jazz loops, ambient soundscapes, nature recordings, and propulsive, rhythmic “messy minimalism,” a term Burch coined herself. This sound world is made up of individual parts, recorded in Los Angeles, Chicago, Stanglerhof in Italy, and it incorporates numerous nature sounds and bird calls, gathered in Yorkshire, near the Baltic Sea, SüdTirol, Wyoming, and Berlin, where Burch currently resides. But those individual components equal something much more than the sum of their parts.
Intentions for the album were set long before Burch actually got into recording studios with collaborators like Tortoise drummer Dan Bitney and Ben LaMar Gay, who accompanied her homemade xylophone. It began with “Dawn Blessing,” a project which found Burch asking “What sounds do I like today”? and creating a corresponding piece of music for 90 days. But like any practice, it took dedication and resolve.
“Me and my partner lived in Belfast at the time, right under the seafront of the Belfast Lough and I’ve gotta say, a discipline is also not easy—the 90 days were not easy on me,” Burch explains. “You know that phrase, ‘fake it ’til you make it?’ [I remember on day 91] I went for a run along the seafront, and I was wailing, ‘Fake it ‘til you make it! I’ve made it! I’ve made it!’ I still remember physically this feeling, and I don’t think it’s left me since then, this feeling that I’ve made it, and making it wasn’t any accolade, it wasn’t any press achievement, it wasn’t any festival, it wasn’t anybody telling me that I was enough. It was just having kept doing something for 90 days—doing it for me.”
Burch joins us to discuss the choice between love and fear, her “messy minimalism,” and welcoming the sounds of nature into her record—and realizing that her record was in and of itself a natural sound: “I am part of nature singing my song.” This conversation had been edited for clarity and length. | j woodbury
Aquarium Drunkard: These last couple of years, it’s been easy to slip into pessimism. Everyone I know has been dealing with this nagging sense of doom. But listening to this record feels like a respite from that. It’s a record that helps me consider the bad alongside the good, and overall, it reminds me that I simply need to allow things to “be” as they are.
Bex Burch: The way I’d put it is: if we’re always trying to combat things, we’re just adding more of the same energy force into the world. What I’m trying to do as a human is add more energy of love into the world, as cheesy as that sounds. But actually, the work of that isn’t cheesy at all. It’s really badass, difficult, inspiring, and amazing. Making the record is part of that.
AD: It’s unfortunate, but I think people hear “love” and assume we’re talking about something trite, silly, or simplistic. People hear “love” and think “cheese,” like love isn’t powerful or sufficient for the tasks at hand.
Bex Burch: Yeah, I said “as cheesy as that sounds” not because I actually believe it’s cheesy, but because I want to make what I’m saying as accessible as possible and communicate myself. Sometimes that’s a bit of a game. Our ways of talking about things often don’t grant us permission to say something is beautiful, or that something feels like love. Love is an incredibly powerful energy. Words are your medium, right? But not mine. My medium is hitting things. But I try to be conscious of the words that feel true and use words that feel comfortable. Love can feel true—but I’m still practicing saying it out loud because it doesn’t feel comfortable.
I’ve been thinking about the etymology of words associated with playing music. A lot of the things applauded or celebrated are, etymologically, more masculine things, like “virility” or “virtuosity.” Someone brought to my awareness about how something has to be “gripping.” I’d never even questioned that. Why do we have to use that word? What does that mean for the music? Is it good?
People use the word “killing” when talking about a performance that’s really good. It’s a death language. Someone recently told me, out of love, that I’d killed it with something recently. And what came out—it wasn’t a defensive trigger or anything—but I was like, “Actually, I didn’t kill anything. I created it.” It felt really nice to say that and I hope that person took it the way it was meant.
AD: Your record is called There is only love and fear. Love is a word that can be used a lot of different ways, but in a basic way, I think of it as solidarity with somebody, it’s what you want to extend to them that you hope they would extend to you too. But fear is very interesting. You recorded parts of this record in LA, some in Chicago, and all these different places. You went in fresh, not having played with these folks before. That sounds daunting. So was “fear” a part of that?
Bex Burch: Always. I guess that’s what the title is nodding to, what I’m saying about the work of choosing. It’s not just fluffy love, like, “Oh, everything’s love!” It’s about facing the shadow, the fear. For me, going into those sessions is a really good example of this bigger picture we’re talking about. It’s [about] feeling the fear and all the reasons for that and being aware of the choices I had in that moment, the ways that I could have reacted to that feeling, to the feeling of fear, and seeing that there was another way, and trying at least, in every moment to choose another way and rather than stay in the fear or let that be this fog to try and go, “Okay, I see you, and you’re part of me and you can be part of this,” from love.
When I first took the title to International Anthem, Alejandro [Ayala] said, “Ah, she’s asking us to choose.” It was like, “Yeah. Well actually, I am asking myself to choose.” Those sessions were a great example of it. My only intention for the making of this was to be as present as possible. That means more and more trying to choose the other thing that’s not fear, and I think that both of these are true, that the absence of fear is love and the absence of love is fear.
By inviting more love into my body and my life, everything that’s unlike it must leave: so all my fears and sadness and anger, it’s not that it just disappears. It’s actually all coming up, in a way, and I’m seeing those parts of myself more clearly, so, in fact, when we’re talking about facing the shadow by inviting light in—this is super cheesy—by having stronger light, you have stronger shadows. That’s the visual thing.
AD: What does it take to prepare for the sort of spontaneous collaboration at work on this album?
Bex Burch: Playing-wise, it’s the same openness as any improvisation. Perhaps the preparation is more about self-awareness and self-acceptance so that I wouldn’t get into my head about why I was there. Music and art are such simple things, we are all creative beings. And practicing listening to the quiet voice, that’s all I need to prepare. Simple but not easy…think it’s taken and taking a lifetime.
AD: You use the term “messy minimalism” to describe your work.. How did you come up with that term, “messy minimalism?”
Bex Burch: I mean it’s every musician’s least favorite question: “Oh, what kind of music do you play?” Genres have their place, to help people find the records in the store. It was a way of answering that question. I heard someone’s music described as “maximalism” the other day and I was like, “Oh, yeah! That’s kind of the same as messy minimalism.” For me, “minimalism” needs to be more than what you get when you search it online. It’s more than a decade in New York of music made by white men, essentially. That’s not entirely what you get on Google, but the first few things are going to be like Terry Riley and Steve Reich…
AD: …La Monte Young. It’s going to take a minute to get to Julius Eastman or somebody like that. I know what you mean.
Bex Burch: But I find that as I’m learning what kind of sounds and fundamentals of sound really resonate with me—and that can change, but in 39 years, so far there have been a few things that have stayed—those fundamentals feel like minimalism to me. It’s about how not playing is as important as playing. The space and silence. Of course, I’ve learned that when I stop making sound that there is no such thing as silence. That’s when I realize that I can listen to everything else, and there is no such thing as silence in this world. Did you know that? I didn’t know that. I’d never thought about that. I love that. That’s the part of messiness.
For me, messiness could also be the word “chaos.” As a recovering control freak, I really enjoyed the feeling of letting go. It feels like an exhale. The fear, the contracting feeling, that for me is also connected to control. The minimalist fundamentals do not need to be controlled. That is just how music works for me. Asymmetry and space and groove, the breath, the cadence, the phrasing, and that doesn’t need to be contracted by control. I think that’s why “messy” is so important, it’s chaos.
AD: This album incorporates field and bird recordings. What is your relationship with bird watching and listening?
Bex Burch: Have you seen this meme something like “you spend your whole life being indifferent to birds, then one day you’re like “damn is that a green spotted woodpecker”? I can somewhat relate. I’m not sure when it happened. And I wasn’t indifferent [before], but my gaze to the sky has gotten more conscious. I especially love woodpeckers. And cuckoos and wood pigeons. I listen to wood pigeons from my apartment. Such a wonderful tone. Cuckoos have an even deeper and airy round tone. It’s like the song makes everything else quiet to make space for this tone. Woodpecker’s rhythms, inside or outside the trees, is so so wild, simple, out, and rhythmic. I love finding phrases and cadence in nature. We were talking about improvisation in the last question: sounds in nature, including birdsong, really strengthen my understanding of myself as part of nature, and the necessity of sound and cadence and breath.
AD: What inspired you to include those recordings on the album?
Bex Burch: I don’t know exactly the moment. I think I was mixing and trying a sequence really early on, asking which parts of the recordings wanted to be on this album. I had these recordings from some walks too and started very early on including them in the puzzle. I remember for example hearing the cuckoo in “Dawn Blessings.” This was perhaps the more obvious moment where a bird song fitted so perfectly, it seems like we were improvising with the cuckoo. But in fact, this came later. Same with the waves on “When love begins.” It feels so much like the waves to me.
The connection of free playing and nature’s phrases is of course there whether you add the recording or not. We hear it all the time. I am part of nature singing my song. Finding the right balance of how many and which places to bring in the collaborator of heard sounds was a gradual thing over six months mixing and editing. My journey with that was that the whole album felt like one sound walk, one piece. Silence doesn’t exist. When I remember to stop making sound myself, I can listen more and hear the depth and breadth of the sounds in the world not made by me. The record also has moments celebrating the stopping, and then we can really listen, all of us.