[14 April 2011]
Basil Kirchin was a genuine musical pioneer. Starting in 1941 in his dad’s jazz group, he began the revolutionary practice of bringing their own sound system to all performances, which he subsequently recorded—also unheard of at the time. The Kirchin Band evolved a highly percussive Latin-flavor so popular and respected that neither Sarah Vaughan nor Billy Eckstine would tour England unless guaranteed their backing. They had studio time with George Martin, topped music paper polls, and their movie star fans included Sean Connery and Elizabeth Taylor.
However, Basil Kirchin wasn’t content being what he called “a prisoner of rhythm”. He explored other musical directions, journeying to India, Australia, and the US before returning to England and embarking on various projects, including music for imaginary and real films, and for the De Wolfe music library (with artists such as Big Jim Sullivan, Jimmy Page, and Tubby Hayes). Kirchin also created his Worlds Within Worlds concept, after getting a grant to purchase a Nagra tape recorder. This cutting-edge technology allowed him to slow the recordings of insects, birds, autistic children, gorillas, or whatever, to reveal sounds previously unheard. His work in this field (later acknowledged by Brian Eno) involved slowing the source material, then adding cello, horns, and organ. He produced two albums of pioneering musical soundscapes which have never heard been as intended, since Colombia and Island took turns to betray him and ruin his recordings.
This fine release is made possible by the notorious excavator of lost sounds, Jonny Trunk, and includes film scores for Primitive London (1965) and UK gangland movie The Freelance (1971). The album demonstrates Kirchin’s highly inventive approach and the perfectly contradictory elements in his music: the eerie yet peaceful moods, the balanced sense of the futuristic and the nostalgic, and the dreamy yet off-kilter textures.
The banal and sordid images in the film Primitive London are matched by Kirchin’s weird but breezy music: A great fit for the inherent tension between scenes of a chicken factory, fashion shows, wife-swapping, car wreckage, mods, rockers, beatniks, and strip clubs. In his hands, simple, insistent musical themes create intensity through repetition and achieve contrast through variation of pace and texture. The score swings from sleazy to mundane and back again with touching melancholy, melody, and a sense of the sinister. Like a drunk in heels staggering home with the sun coming up on a beautiful day, Kirchin’s atmospheres teeter on the edge of repulsion and optimism, without slipping completely into either. The Freelance is also brilliant, with lovely sparse atmospheres conjured from brass, electric bass, percussion, and strings.
Basil Kirchin’s haunting, spacey music was included in television productions and at least ten movies, including Catch Us If You Can (a vehicle for Dave Clark Five, 1965), I Start Counting (with Jenny Agutter, 1968), The Shuttered Room (Oliver Reed, 1967), and perhaps most famously The Abominable Doctor Phibes (starring Vincent Price, 1971). Also available on Trunk Records by Basil Kirchin are Quantum, Charcoal Sketches/States of Mind, Abstractions of The Industrial North, and Particles. Trunk always do a fine job with photographs and affectionate, enthusiastic, and unpretentious sleeve notes for their releases, and a feast of rare treats awaits you at their website. As a prominent figure in the histories of “ambient” and “library” music, Kirchin deserves far more recognition and appreciation. He worked until well into his 70s, always hoping to guide people out of their creative constraints, and believing, as he remarked in 2003: “the challenge is to act before thinking.”