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"Craft is what enables you to be successful
when you're not inspired." - Brian Eno
The Guardian FEBRUARY 17, 2017 - by Richard Williams
BASIL KIRCHIN: THE FIRST PAINTER OF MUSIC
Long before Brian Eno and others realised it was possible, Basil Kirchin was manipulating sounds to create a new and pioneering form of music.
When Brian Eno met Basil Kirchin for the first time, in a London recording studio in 1974, he realised that he was encountering a true outsider artist: someone doggedly oblivious to the wider world as he pursued his unique musical vision. "Basil just wasn't part of any scene that I knew," he says. "The British avant-garde music scene in those days was a tiny group of about thirty-one people. Everything you went to, they were there. Basil didn't belong to any of those groups."
Kirchin, born in Blackpool in 1927, had begun his career conventionally enough as a thirteen-year-old drum prodigy with the successful dance band led by his father in the wartime West End before spending much of the 1960s writing music for British films from the Dave Clark Five's Catch Us If You Can to The Abominable Dr Phibes.
In 1967 the Arts Council granted him the money to buy a Nagra tape recorder, of the type used by musicologists making field recordings, and Kirchin's work took a new direction. It enabled him to pursue his vision of a sound world in which everything around him - birdsong, abstract jazz, children's voices - could be made into a new kind of music.
By the time he met Eno he had taken a leap into the future, devising a complex and painstaking method of manipulating taped sounds - both musical and natural - that went beyond the work of the pioneers of musique concrète.
"Basil realised long before the rest of us did that sound could become a malleable material," says Eno. "He was like a painter. That idea of music as painting was something that became very important to me. When I started working in recording studios, I realised that the picture people had of how music was made - of someone with an idea in their heads standing in front of a microphone doing something, was less and less what was actually happening. You'd go in and put a background down one day, then try something else the next day. You're not linked to a moment in time as you are with performance, because you keep returning to it and you can change things. When we [Eno and David Byrne] made My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts, with the idea of using found voices as the centre of the piece rather than having them as an ornament, I'm sure the boldness and confidence I had for that partly came from Basil."
Kirchin's 1971 album Worlds Within Worlds embedded the free improvisations of saxophonist Evan Parker and guitarist Derek Bailey in the mosaic of altered sounds. I first met Kirchin when he visited Island Records to offer me, their then head of A&R, a second set of tapes: this time he was doing without musicians altogether, but making affecting use of the voices of autistic children with whom Kirchin's wife, Esther, was working in Switzerland, where they were living.
Neither of the Worlds albums sold more than a handful of copies and they would be his last official releases for thirty years, until Jonny Trunk, a writer and DJ who runs a label devoted to rescuing British film and library music from the vaults, released the first of a series of CDs devoted to his often wildly original output.
Kirchin's extraordinary musical journey will be explored this coming weekend during a series of concerts and talks in Hull, the city where he went to live in 1979. Hull was where his parents had made their home, and it was where he spent his last two and a half decades working at his music in complete obscurity, collaborating with local musicians and sound engineers, living mostly on benefits, until his death in 2005, at the age of seventy-seven. Titled Mind On The Run: The Basil Kirchin Story, the weekend is a component of Hull's year-long UK City of Culture programme.
Among the participants, who include members of the High Lamas, Wilco and St Etienne, is Will Gregory of Goldfrapp, whose composition for an ensemble including members of the BBC Concert Orchestra pays homage to Kirchin's use of birdsong. "I hadn't heard of Basil until I was approached about this project," Gregory says. "I listened to his music and became interested in its colours, layers and shadings. It's quite a mysterious voice. He seems to have been a very primal, earthy person who was coming at music from a spiritual end of things."
Kirchin had begun exploring his spiritual side during a visit to India in 1958. His studies of philosophy and music put him, as usual, ten years ahead of the curve.
Evan Parker first worked with him in 1968 on a film called Negatives, a piece of Edwardian erotica starring Glenda Jackson. Parker and several fellow members of the Spontaneous Music Ensemble were called to the studios to do their free-jazz thing when Kirchin needed music to accompany depictions of psychotic states: "He called us the Paranoia Boys."
Those who encountered Kirchin recall his intensity and his lack of interest in the outside world's opinion. Parker remembers a "mildly obsessive" character, determined to pursue his own personal development. "He wasn't humourless. Not at all. But perhaps the things that amused him weren't everybody's idea of funny."
Mind On The Run: The Basil Kirchin Story is at Hull City Hall, February 17-19.