Percussionist Bex Burch was born in Yorkshire and trained at the Guildhall School of Music in London, but her most important musical education came in northern Ghana. She spent three years with virtuoso musicians among the country’s Dagaare people and was introduced to the gyil, a wooden xylophone/balafon-style instrument specific to the area.
Burch returned to London where she made her own 14-note gyil from scratch, featuring a series of tuned wooden slats placed upon two resonant calabash gourds, also attaching pickups to ensure that it could be amplified and put through effects units. The instrument’s muted, thudding sound and the hypnotic, minimalist, pentatonic patterns that Burch creates on it have become central to all of her projects, including her punky trio Vula Viel, in which she is backed by bassist Ruth Goller and drummer Jim Hart.
Boing! is her collaboration with Leafcutter John, a former art student who creates unique electronic sound sculptures in collaboration with various musicians (including Polar Bear, Shabaka Hutchings, Imogen Heap and Talvin Singh), sometimes using visual programming software, sometimes by processing outboard synth sounds in real time. On this improvised collaboration, you might expect the distinction between Leafcutter John’s FX-laden modular synths and Burch’s balafon to be stark – space-age electronic effects set against ancient classical African music – but the results are gloriously confused.
Burch’s percussion – a riot of rattles, bells, textural scratches as well as tuned rhythmic phrases played on the gyil – often sounds electronic; Leafcutter John’s distorted synths sometimes sound like tuned percussion. Together they seem to warp space and time: the title track starts as a gallop in waltz time and imperceptibly mutates into a 4/4 pulse. Sometimes, the sounds they make splutter and chirrup like one of Perrey and Kingsley’s comic pieces of musique concrète; sometimes they throb like a BBC Radiophonic Workshop theme; sometimes the sounds coalesce into a deep, ambient dub chamber. It is a thoroughly compelling session.
Also out this month
After two quizzical solo piano albums and two solo synth LPs, Canadian composer Robin Hatch goes epic with TONTO (Robin Records), using the massive analogue synth rig that Malcolm Cecil and Robert Margouleff designed for Stevie Wonder in the early 1970s. Her compositions lurch between Wendy Carlos-style neo-baroque miniatures, proggy synth pop and Raymond Scott-ish whimsy. London pianist Fred Thomas has long been a fixture of some excellent jazz, world and modern composition projects, but his ECM debut Three or One sees him elegantly arrange and reinvent a series of Bach sinfonias, vocal cantata and organ preludes for piano, violin and cello.