20 Seconds, Once a Week: No. 7, with Andrea Burelli
The Berlin-based composer and musician speaks on her new album, Sonic Mystics for Poems (of Life and Death of a Phoenix).
Welcome to another edition of 20 Seconds, Once a Week, on Substack. This week, Daniel Melfi speaks with Andrea Burelli about the release of her new album, Sonic Mystics for Poems (of Life and Death of a Phoenix).
In late 2023, Andrea Burelli self-released her second album under her given name, Sonic Mystics for Poems (of Life and Death of a Phoenix). The textural weaving of polyrhythmic vocals, sung in Italian and Spanish, stitches together a series of poems and compositions by the Berlin-based Italian artist. Enlisting the help of cellist Sophie Notte and violinist Mari Sawada of Berlin’s Solistenensemble Kaleidoskop, Burelli shapes her voice around poetic metrics, synth lines and a series of string arrangements by herself and Luca Staffiere, each circling back to an idea and sentiment of spiritual and musical rebirth. Daniel Melfi met Burelli in Berlin this month to discuss the album’s genesis, its difference from Burelli’s previous electronic output as Bodyverse and taking heed to spontaneous inspiration.
Please consider supporting 20 Seconds for continued access to the entire online archive, growing every week.
You can purchase Burelli’s album on bandcamp here.
Photos courtesy of Andrea Burelli
Daniel Melfi: How did the idea of making this album come about? It’s much different than your previous albums.
Andrea Burelli: What happened in the beginning was that I was looking for a way to bring together all the arts that I practice, that have accompanied me throughout my life. I’ve been doing music all my life; I studied music as a child and so on. But I also studied plastic arts, I have always written, I like to write random things, like poems that I even lose sometimes. I'm kind of messy in that sense. I throw down ideas, and I don't publish books of poetry or do exhibitions of paintings or things like that at the moment.
I've been dedicated to music, almost exclusively, for the last ten years. I felt that I wasn't showing my whole creative world in some way. I wanted to find a way through music to express all these things because they're all part of my life. Instead of just working with synthesizers, I thought about bringing in acoustic instruments as well because I play violin, piano, tabla, etc. and about bringing rhythm into my compositions. Simple and complex rhythms, polyrhythms even, because of this influence of Hindustani classical music. Although I studied Hindustani classical music, I'm not a professional tabla player, of course.
I did study it for many years, but I don't do improvisation of Hindustani music or play concerts of Hindustani music. In that sense, I was just looking for my own, personal way of putting all this together.
The same applies to painting. Maybe I don't paint as much as before, but I used to draw every day, paint every day, whereas now I practice music every day. I don't have time to do both. So I thought I would make videos that could gather some of the symbolism of what I wanted to convey. And so, a little bit at a time, with a lot of effort and frustration, the idea of doing something with poetic lyrics came out. The pieces are not music where you find a refrain, they are simply poems set to music. That’s how the idea came about.
Then, the idea of actually doing it, I mean what pushed me to decide, “Okay, it's time,” is that I was talking to James Young from Darkstar, from Warp Records. I had won a residency at Amplify Berlin, when it still existed at ACUD here in Berlin, during Covid I met him there. He had played me “Blurred,” which is this beautiful piece, my favourite one from the album Civic Jams, which had come out that year. He played me the track before it came out and it moved me. It's simply a loop of choruses but it’s beautiful. I thought I'll make some choruses and send it to him, to see what he says. In two days I did one of the tracks on the album, which is “Ali Di Cotone.”
If you go to my Soundcloud there's a version done at Amplify. So, there are two versions of that piece. The first track done for the album is that one. Then I re-recorded it in a professional studio, with a different arrangement for the strings, keeping the structure of the piece, or not-structure of the piece; it's a rubato, in comparison to most of the other pieces it doesn't have a very tight rhythm.
Conceptually, it was a personal process and then the polyphonic choir part came about because I thought That's nice, I want to try to do a choir too. [James Young] inspired me to do that.
DM: That was almost three or four years ago?
AB: About three and a half years ago.
DM: Were you already trying, even before the Amplify residency started, to change your method of making music?
AB: Let's say I was in a comfort zone, it was very intuitive and easy to make experimental electronics.
DM: As you were doing with Bodyverse?
AB: Yeah, with Bodyverse I would go to the studio and record a bunch of improvisations and I had one of my closest friends, Andrea Porcu, founder of Rohs! Records, who was in the studio with me and would say, That’s nice, let’s release it? And I would say, You're crazy, you want to publish that? I wasn’t even thinking about it. But he would say, No, it's beautiful, we'll put it out. So I used to make the first records like that. I made records in a day, really, because they were just free improv. I was studying a lot of piano at that time, I loved it. I was studying Scriabin, Chopin, Bach, and so whatever I was practicing on the piano I would go and play on the synths; I would just let myself go with the chords. Whatever I was studying, whether harmony or continuous bass, all these kinds of things. That influenced me a lot, I would go there and practice on the key synthesizers. But it was not something that I was composing in the classical sense of the word, it was not written music. This record is written music, though it starts from improvisation. I recorded this record twice, once DIY and once in the studio with slightly different arrangements and much better quality.
DM: Did you write all the lyrics?
DM: And the music as well?
AB: Yes, the compositions are mine. Then I asked for feedback and help from Luca Staffiere, who is a friend of mine and a composer of Neue Musik. He's fantastic. He is finishing his Master's degree at UdK and working with some of the most interesting ensembles in Berlin. He is the one who gave me the contact of Mari Sawada, from Solistenensemble Kaleidoskop, a soloist, who is a lovely person besides being a wonderful musician. We are very close friends, Luca and I, and I won this grant from Initiative Musik, so I proposed a job to him. I told him: “I don't have time to transcribe the whole record I've already recorded, so I'll pass you the stems to transcribe what I've composed, because it's all improvised, it's all very intuitive really, and then pass them to me and I'll correct them.”
He transcribed the parts for me very quickly, which is something that would take me months to do, but he had transcribed everything for me in a week. Then I corrected some things, but overall it was super. That gave me a visual structure to see what I had really done.
DM: The relationship between things.
AB: Yes, after seeing the sheet music, I got on the piano, read it to myself, played it and changed some things. Then I asked Luca for feedback to arrange for cello, because I had never yet written for another instrument that was not my instrument. I play violin but I don't play cello. Actually, it's simply bass clef, so it's not that difficult. But I needed to be sure that what I was doing was okay. So he helped me with some counterpoint things, and we re-arranged some of the string parts.
DM: Did you play everything yourself?
AB: No, for the strings I wanted to collaborate with two musicians from the Solistenensemble Kaleidoskop: Mari Sawada for violin and Sophie Notte for cello. I sang, I did the electronics, the effects and the mix with the engineer.
DM: I would also like to talk about the fact that you sang and wrote in Italian, which is an important decision. It's quite common that musicians sing in English, even if it’s not their mother tongue. Was that something significant for you?
AB: Yes, it was a conscious decision, connected with the fact that I write poetry in Italian, I can't write poetry in English. I wouldn't know where to start. I speak fairly decent English, I speak several languages, actually, but the accent is not mine. I don't know how it sounds in English, I definitely make mistakes as a non-native English speaker.
I like to play with languages, however, we're talking about poetry, and so it's a choice in the sense it has to be a language that I’ve mastered. I can sing in Spanish, I can write poetry in Spanish. And there is a piece on the album in Spanish, which is dedicated to my friend Olivia, a dancer. She inspires me as a person because I see in her a lot of poetry, so a piece is dedicated to her; because she is Spanish, it came to me in Spanish, of course. But the rest of it is Italian, because I had written the lyrics in Italian; the poems were in Italian. I just write what comes to me and I respect that.
DM: I also listened to the album De Sidera today. I thought maybe there was an evolution in this album a little bit. It also seemed related to the confidence, or the intention, that you put into the vocal aspects on that album as well. But you also wrote in the introduction that they are not lyrics, they are sounds.
DM: Exactly, but on Sonic Mystics for Poems there is really a narrative. Do you see it that way?
AB: I don't know if I can make a comparison between De Sidera and this album, which is Sonic Mystics for Poems, because it's a really different creative process. De Sidera I did in two weeks and, again, it's still based on free improv. There are only two pieces that are more [defined] productions, which are the two pieces with vocals, “De Sidera” and “Cum Sidera,” actually. Everything else is instrumental. Whereas Sonic Mystics is three years of work, it's totally something else. It's the first studio album that I’ve done, it's the first album where I collaborate with other acoustic musicians, it's not just the first album where I talk or sing, because I used to do that before, but in other projects.
The first album I actually put out was with a project called Veka, which was experimental pop with some friends from Pakistan. It was released on tape, maybe in 2015, I don't remember, ten years ago almost. I had read poems in Spanish by Latin American writers, like Horacio Quiroga, that I liked at the time. I like to work with words.
Maybe in my mind there is the desire to come back towards something abstract. I don't know if now I will always make music that is with words and poetry. I also like to have the freedom to work with the voice or with sounds, so it may be that I will make something melismatic in the future, I don't know.
DM: How do you see the collaboration between these things, between the lyrics, between the written music, between the strings and the electronic music. Is there a priority for you?
AB: It all starts from the polyphonic vocal structure. I composed everything from that. But maybe the bone is really the words, it's really the lyrics, even before the music, because I wrote some of the lyrics without even knowing that I was going to use them for the record.
I wrote some of the lyrics during the making of the record but others were already there. They were poems that came to me spontaneously, as a melody that can come to me while I am asleep. I recorded it at home first, because for me it's important to hear if the melody and the harmonies work together. It’s a pretty intuitive work, and I kind of didn't give a damn about the classical structure of the music. Nowadays you do what you want in contemporary composition, the rules don't exist anymore.
There's one piece that's all parallel fifths, it's very difficult to sing. It's a mess to sing parallel fifths, with three voices, it's delirium, but I did what sounded good or fun to me. Then I structured it more, especially through rhythm, as I wanted to do pieces in three, in six, in five, in seven, and some in four. I tried to vary a lot. However, as I said, it's all based on poetic metrics.
Collaboration to me is a way to be able to materialize the ideas I have which I might not be able to complete alone. The priority is the idea, always.
DM: These are things you have to record right in the moment, or you have to write right in the moment, right? In my experiences I don't know where the inspirations come from and I just have to write them immediately. It usually happens in dreams as well. For example, I wake up during the night, I take my phone or a piece of paper and I have to write. After two weeks I might re-read them realizing I had forgotten about them.
AB: Yes. I really believe in this thing. I like this thing of ideas that have to be, that come like this.
DM: Maybe it's normal for poetry. I also read an interview with Patrizia Cavalli a few years ago, where she said exactly the same thing. There's only so much you can do. If you start changing a lot of small things, it becomes a different thing.
AB: That's right, absolutely. I had everything structured in the rhythm; I did that to not change stuff, to not add words. I just shaped some parts of the words to the rhythm. For example, the “la-ah-ah-ah” is the article la (the), however I structured it in a way so that it would fit in the rhythm, and so it was with many of the words. I worked with the poems in that sense, chopping and multiplying syllables.
DM: Is there a theme to this album? I have some ideas, but I don’t want to say anything.
AB: Tell me your thoughts.
AB: Yes, that's right.
DM: At least the processes related to a conception of a rebirth. The moments before, the moments after, the moments during that process, of the conclusion, of the emotions.
AB: When I thought about the metaphor of the phoenix I was convinced but then I felt worried, because there were various artists that worked on this idea already. But I chose it anyway and I called the record Sonic Mystics for Poems (of Life and Death of a Phoenix).
I put it in parentheses because I wanted to talk about the main thing, the poems, but at the same time I wanted to give a clear conceptual line to the record, I wanted people to understand. You know when you go to see a work in a contemporary art museum? I tried to set it up a little bit like that, the title is very important to understand the work.
Everything there is to understand about the work is in the title. All the words in that title encapsulate the conceptual parts of the record.
And as for what you said about rebirth, yes, that's exactly right. I mean, it's a musical rebirth because it's a very different record than what I did before, as you also said. But it's also something that happened on an emotional and personal level, somehow, personal choices that have to do with my private sphere.
DM: It was also a choice to release it on its own, this album, independently.
AB: Yes and no. I wanted to release it with two specific labels, I didn't want to release it with anybody else. It's also true that I won funding and they paid for this record. I actually really like working independently, so it was kind of connected to the circumstances that I found myself in.
If one of those labels that I love very much had proposed working together on it, I would have said yes right away. I chose not to collaborate with other labels I already had worked with for this particular record, given the unique sonic nature of this project, I mean, they have a different style. Even though maybe they offered me support, it didn't make a lot of sense, because it's kind of a difficult record in terms of the genre. It has to be a very free label in that sense.
At that point I decided to release it myself, and I had the opportunity to do that.