INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
Record Collector FEBRUARY 2017 - by Bob Stanley
A PINCH OF BASIL BRINGS FRESH FLAVOUR TO YOUR LIFE
Living in close proximity to Muswell Hill, I often get a Kinks or Fairport Convention song stuck in my head; their music is there in the Edwardian brickwork, the trees and slopes, and the vista from N10's Broadway. I couldn't say the same for this year's city of culture, Hull - I'm sure Michael Chapman, David Whitfield, The Beautiful South, Mick Ronson and The Watersons all drew inspiration from the flat panorama of the East Riding of Yorkshire and its connection to the North Sea, but it doesn't really sing out to me on Rebel Rebel or Cara Mia.
Basil Kirchin's music is entirely different, and is the subject of a dedicated weekend at Hull City Hall in February. The fabled jazz man who wrote several terrific lm scores (I Start Counting, The Abominable Dr. Phibes, The Shuttered Room) and made some fine library records for De Wolfe, was born in Blackpool, spent much of the war in London, but settled in Hull, where he died in 2005. Taking a drive down the side of the River Hull, seeing the surviving mills and factories, the first thing that pops into your head is Kirchin's masterly Abstractions Of The Industrial North album. Using the non-obvious instrumentation of harpsichord, marimba and penny whistle, the opening Prelude And Dawn is the definitive sound of urban East Yorkshire.
I came across the album via Trish Keenan from Broadcast who was a huge fan (its influence is all over the second Broadcast album, Ha Ha Sound). This happily coincided with Jonny Trunk's Kirchin reissue campaign, which has slowly been unveiled since 2003 (see last month's atypical but charming Silicon Chip 45). Through Jonny, I interviewed Kirchin for The Times and he was the single most inspiring interviewee I've ever met. Nearing the end of his life, he wanted to explain what he had learned in his seven-plus decades - inside an hour. Firstly, first thought is best thought. Secondly - and this is what he spent a lifetime getting across in his music - there are worlds within worlds. A bee, for instance, is living in a parallel but quite different world to us, much faster. How would it hear or relate to sound?
In the late '60s, Kirchin had got hold of a Nagra tape recorder, with help from an Arts Council grant, and this enabled him to explore his theory. He could now discover previously unheard sounds - boulders of sound, as he called them - by recording birds, trams, children, whatever took his fancy, and playing the recordings back at a fraction of their original speed. This may be easy and seem obvious in 2017, but it was entirely new at the turn of the '70s. Journalist Richard Williams and Brian Eno were among his acolytes following a brace of albums called Worlds Within Worlds (one on Columbia in 1971, one on Island in 1974; a third volume remains unissued). Trunk issued Quantum in 2003, which is a bit easier to come by and uses similar techniques, with a spooky spoken intro by Kirchin's wife Esther over a simple organ drone - "something special will happen". Here is a bird appearing to sing God Save The Queen - and is that a lion, or is it something Kirchin heard and captured at Hull docks? He also recorded the voices of autistic children, taught by Esther, whose unique use of language fascinated him. This is beautiful and unique music, but it is deep Kirchin.
At entry level, I'd recommend Charcoal Sketches, a short series of tunes he wrote apparently as a blueprint for Quantum, which include manipulated birdsong over some gorgeous melodies, evocative of the open landscape of the Holderness peninsula, east of Hull, where he spent time in the '70s and '80s. On the sweeter side of the Kirchin sound is I Start Counting, the soundtrack to a Jenny Agutter film set in the brave new world of Bracknell new town - the theme tune, sung by Lindsey Moore, was covered by Dusty Springfield. (Moore herself cut a gorgeous non-Kirchin related 45 for Pye called Lindsey's Song, which is also recommended.)
I'm genuinely thrilled to be part of the Mind On The Run weekend, alongside other Kirchin devotees like Jim O'Rourke, Will Gregory of Goldfrapp, and The High Llamas' Sean O'Hagan. A Kirchin documentary will premiere, and there's going to be a screening of The Abominable Dr. Phibes. Basil's old jazz mates and the BBC Concert Orchestra are also appearing.
His name may not be that familiar outside of the worlds of free jazz and library music obsessives, but I'd rate Basil Kirchin very highly indeed. He was a British sound pioneer to rank alongside Joe Meek or Delia Derbyshire, and his inspiration will continue to grow.