7 Oct 2016

Basil Kirchin – a musical timeline

From big band jazz to experiments in sound, we follow the story of a forgotten musical pioneer.

Basil Kirchin was born in Blackpool in 1927, but lived much of his life in Hull. A drummer by trade, Kirchin went on to record music like nothing else anyone had ever heard.

His recordings from the 1960s and 1970s broke new ground in experimental, ambient sounds, having a profound influence on Brian Eno and paving the way for today’s most experimental composers. And yet, the impact of Kirchin’s music is still far from being fully appreciated.

Kirchin is the founding father of ambient music – that’s why, in February 2017, we’ll be celebrating Kirchin’s legacy at Mind on the Run, a three-day festival at Hull City Hall.

Not sure who Basil Kirchin is, or just want to look back on the life of this musical pioneer? Here’s a quick look at his life and work, in five key pieces of music.

1. The Ivor and Basil Kirchin Band – Mambo Macoco

Aged just 13, Basil made his professional debut on the drums. Ivor Kirchin, Basil’s father, was the leader of a popular big band who toured the UK playing rock‘n’roll-inspired rhythms with a Latin flare. The young Kirchin was to become the band’s regular drummer and occasional band leader, the rhythmic driving force behind a successful big jazz band. This recording, Mambo Macoco, was one of their biggest hits.

2. Abstractions of the Industrial North

Tired of the big band, Basil went in search of something else. He later described feeling frustrated with the band, like a ‘prisoner of rhythm… fed up of playing other people’s music’.

Long before the Beatles made it fashionable, Kirchin travelled the world on a journey that would have a lasting influence on his music. Kirchin’s interest in Indian mysticism led him to a temple on the River Ganges, where he lived alongside Ramakrishna monks during the late 1950s. From there he went to Australia, where, in an accident that would have an impact on Kirchin for the rest of his life, a strap broke on his luggage as it was loaded off a ship in Sydney. Years of recordings from Kirchin’s big band days fell into Sydney Harbour and were never recovered.

Sore from the loss of his archives, Kirchin returned home to his parents in Hull, where he began to experiment with sound. Alongside Keith Herd, owner of the legendary Fairview Studio in Willerby near Hull, Kirchin began developing his own soundtracks to imaginary films, cutting and overlaying his tapes and experimenting with unusual time signatures.

From here he started composing library music for the De Wolfe library, working with (then little-known) session musicians Jimmy Page and Mick Ronson. Some of Kirchin’s tracks from around this time were compiled in 2005 by Trunk Records on the album Abstractions Of The Industrial North – giving us a glimpse into Kirchin’s developing sound in the 1960s.

3. Worlds Within Worlds

By the mid-1960s, Kirchin was exploring an idea that would influence almost everything he would go on to produce – a concept he called Worlds Within Worlds. The idea behind this was to record the hidden, unheard sounds within other sounds by recording them and slowing them down to a fraction of their original speed. After a successful grant to the Arts Council of Great Britain, Kirchin got hold of a Nagra tape recorder and began making his idea a reality. His recordings from the late 1960s often included the slowed down, distorted sounds of birds tweeting, lions roaring, or the chatter of autistic children taught by his wife, Esther.

His Worlds Within Worlds album, mixed at Fairview Studio and released in 1974, shows this technique clearly. Listen out for the sounds of Hull’s dockyards on this track from the album.

4. The Abominable Dr Phibes

After honing his craft with Keith Herd, creating film scores for imaginary films, by the mid-1960s Kirchin was being commissioned to create original soundtracks for (non-imaginary) films. These included Catch Us If You Can, feature-length film for The Dave Clark Five, and 1971 horror flick The Abominable Dr. Phibes, starring Vincent Price.

Dr. Phibes would become Kirchin’s most popular soundtrack, making liberal use of orchestral strings and reflecting much of the dark humour in the film. If this is up your street, you can watch the film in full with live music on 17 February 2017 at Hull City Hall.

5. E+Me

For all of the success that came with Dr. Phibes, Kirchin became disillusioned with cinema. The politics of record companies and last-minute edits of his work by film producers left Kirchin feeling frustrated – one of several things that led him to retreat from the public eye.

Living a simple life in Hull – on Hessle Road, to be exact – Kirchin continued to experiment with sound, but did not release any new material over the next few decades. He developed cancer, and became quietly embittered about the lack of recognition his work had earned him since the 1960s.

Yet, towards the end of his life, Kirchin found himself back in the studio recording and (as he put it) ‘raging’. This final burst of creativity included the release of his album Quantum in 2003, as well as the work that would lead to his final posthumous release, Particles. Kirchin died in 2005.

E+Me is the final track on Particles – a 10-minute reflection on Kirchin’s life with his wife Esther.

Intrigued by this forgotten musical genius? Celebrate Basil Kirchin’s legacy at Mind on the Run – a festival of performances and events dedicated to his work from 17-19 February 2017.

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