Talking Film - Composer Basil Kirchin at Hull
This weekend as part of Hull Year as city of Culture 2017, Mind on the Run celebrates the work of composer Basil Kirchin through a series of concerts and film screenings that will feature artists including Will Gregory of Goldfrapp, St Etienne's Bob Stanley and Sean O'Hagen of the High Llamas.
Basil Kirchin was a British composer who was described by Brian Eno as 'a founding father of ambient.
Having started out as a teenage drummer with his father Ivor Kirchin's Big Band, which also featured Harry South, composer of the theme to 1970s TV cop show The Sweeney, Kirchin toured Britain's dance hall circuit, including a year-long residency at Edinburgh's Fountainbridge Palais.
Kirchin's own work straddled jazz, library music and more experimental explorations with musicians that included Led Zeppelin's Jimmy Page and free jazz saxophonist Evan Parker.
Kirchin also composed a series of film soundtracks throughout the 1960s and 1970s.
These included Derek Ford's exploitation flick, Primitive London (1965), The Shuttered Room (1967) starring Oliver Reed, Val Guest's Assignment K (1968) and I Start Counting (1970) starring Jenny Agutter,
Kirchin also scored The Abominable Dr Phibes (1971) directed by Robert Fuest and starring Vincent Price, Freelance (1971) starring Ian McShane and Jack Cardiff's British horror rarity, The Mutations.
Kirchin's work found a new audience through a series of releases on Jonny Trunk's Trunk Records. These included Quantum, Abstractions of the Industrial North and Particles, as well as the soundtracks to Primitive London, Freelance and The Shuttered Room.
A late night screening of The Abominable Dr Phibes will take place as part of Mind on the run, and will feature a live organ performance by jazz musician and composer Alexander Hawkins.
Here, Hawkins and Jonny Trunk talk about what Basil Kirchin means to them.
First of all, could you say how you first came to hear Basil Kirchin's music, and what attracted you to it?
I'm slightly ashamed to say - especially as someone who tries to listen as broadly as possible - that I came late to Kirchin's music. Even worse, I had no excuse, because although I have only recently listened to his music, I was of course aware of his reputation as a fascinating artistic presence before actually listening to his work.
I first came to his work when I was thinking about birdsong in music (I'm a longtime Messaien and Dolphy fan, for instance). I had recently bought a sampler, and was curious about the properties and possibilities of birdsong when manipulated in various ways. For example, pitchshifted, timestretched and looped, might it make an intriguing bass line? And inevitably, when looking for examples of other musicians who had played around with bird and other animals sounds in interesting ways, I came across Kirchin's work. Other ways in included his music with other musicians with whom I am lucky enough to work, such as Evan Parker
What do you think are the important things about Kirchin's work, particularly in relation to his soundtracks?
I have to confess to not knowing his soundtrack work well enough to answer that specific aspect of the question. However: one of the things which I think is particularly interesting in his work is the use of collage techniques in the context of electronic music. Of course earlier musique concrète composers had 'repurposed' sampled sounds, but nevertheless, Kirchin's work feels substantively different to the more austere worlds of the contemporary 'classical' composers, as well as electronic music in other idiomatic streams.
One of the things which is particularly beguiling is the way his work sits precariously between the popular and the avant-garde (and is often both simultaneously). It is also interesting to me how he would collage together improvised performances after the event: essentially composing with improvisation.
Also inspiring to me as someone who is sometimes cast as a 'jazz' musician is the career trajectory of Kirchin. Whilst he began as a jazz musician, unlike a lot of the more conservative stripe of musicians involved in that music, he followed his nose, musically, without any regard for perceived idiomatic borders. He seemed to do what he felt was creative, without any regard for what it might be called. If jazz is truly a music of freedom (as I believe it is), then whatever he did, he remained true to the spirit of the music he came from, whilst at the same time refusing to be boxed in by its cosmetic elements (does it swing? Is it improvised? and so on).
The soundtrack to The Abominable Dr Phibes is a remarkable stand-alone work in its own right beyond the film. What are the challenges of playing it live while the film is shown?
There are several challenges with this particular work. One is that Phibes himself is an organist, and him sitting at the instrument and playing during the film is an integral part of the action. So there is the decision about how much to play, other than when this is happening. Phibes has a mechanical band resident in his house(!), and although I could have chosen to play the part of the mechanical band on the organ, it seemed to make more dramatic sense to leave their deliberately slightly clunky playing intact on the soundtrack.
There are practical difficulties too. Of course, with soundtracks, timing is important; so I have to be precise with speeds. And my interventions have to be decisive. Kirchin makes brilliant use of silence throughout the film, so an important thing is simply not to be tempted to play, when silence does the dramatic job better. Sure, I could improvise an accompaniment to many scenes, but the job of the musician in this situation is not to 'do' because (s)he 'can', but instead to serve the narrative.
Another interesting aspect of the soundtrack is that much of the music is not actually Kirchin's. Phibes plays almost nothing but Mendelssohn throughout the film, for example, and the mechanical band plays almost exclusively then-popular songs such as 'Darktown Strutters' Ball' and 'Over The Rainbow'.
Kirchin's input is unmissable, but extremely subtle, so the Mendelssohn feels ever so slightly odd, due to the strange Wurlitzer-like sound of the instrument, and the ever-so-slightly-too-fast performance.
So I'm also faced with having to make the absolutely beautiful organ in the Hull City Hall sound a little wonkier than it should!
What's the process of the Dr Phibes concert for the mind on the Run been, and who else is playing in it?
The performance is just organ solo, whilst retaining various elements of the original soundtrack, such as the mechanical band. Initially, I transcribed various themes from the film, and I'll be improvising on these before the performance. It has also been important to get very familiar with the film, so that the performance is seamless. But apart from that, the process has been little different to preparing for any concert: practise, and then practise some more!
How much of an influence has Kirchin been on your own music, and in what way?
This is difficult to pinpoint. To be honest, I would find it difficult to say he has been a direct influence. Why he resonates with me, however, is his openness, creativity, and lack of concern for idiomatic borders.
What do you think is important about an event like Mind on the Run in terms of getting Kirchin heard by a broader audience than he might have been when he was alive?
I think the event is hugely important. In an era in which music is becoming increasingly commodified, homogenised and commercialised, the event is brave in focussing on the work of a truly sui generis creative individual. The starting point is: 'this is fascinating work, which deserves hearing', and only then is it asked 'how can we attract people to it?', when many curatorial contexts seem to have these questions back to front.
Alexander Hawkins is a British jazz pianist, organist and composer who has released records as part of The Convergence Quartet, Decoy and the Alexander Hawkins Ensemble, as well as in duo with saxophonist Evan Parker and with drummer Louis Moholo-Moholo.
What was your first experience of hearing Basil Kirchin's music?
It was just after he sent me a pile of his recordings, in a broken envelope.
How did you end up releasing his records?
I seemed to be the only person interested in his work at the time.
Am I right in thinking you met Kirchin? What was he like, and how did he feel about you releasing his work?
He was very ill at the time, just lost an eye, riddled with cancer, but he was still “roaring”, full of life and enthusiaism for his work. He was thrilled that some one had finally shown interest. Really thrilled. And energised.
Kirchin's film soundtracks tapped into a very English sensibility, both in terms of the sort of films they were in and the music that came out of them. How much do you think playing drums in his dad's big band influenced Kirchin's own music, particularly the soundtracks?
I have no idea. Everything changed for Basil when he left the band and buggered off around the world. When he came back he was a very different person.
How did Kirchin get involved in film?
I think it all started after he made library music.
Who were his peers at that time?
I don't think Basil had peers. He did work a lot with Jack Nathan And John Coleman who were crucial in his work and rarely get mentioned.
Kirchin's work on some of the music you've released – from the experiments of Quantum to the library music of Abstractions of the Industrial North – has an experimental edge, but there's a depth to his soundtrack work as well, even in an exploitation film like Primitive London. How much did the various strands of Kirchin's music influence each other, do you think?
I have no idea, He had a “sound” and he’s a composer who has a unique sonic signature. I think he just made what he wanted to make when he wanted to make it.
Can you say what attracted you to the soundtracks you've released – Primitive London, The Abominable Dr Phibes, Freelance, The Shuttered Room, and of course the theme for I Start Counting?
The music is amazing. Extraordinary. Different. Influential. British.
Which of the soundtracks stand out for you beyond the ones you've released, and why?
At the moment I am going through his tapes and I find some of the raw landscape recordings the big stand outs. Although The Shuttered Room is pretty heavy.
What do you think the important thing is about Kirchin's work, and what is his legacy, both in his film work and at a wider level?
The most imporatnt thing? Well, it’s unique music. As for legacy, there is a certain distinctive British melancholic vibe that seems to be an influence - I now hear it in other’s work. But it’s hard to really comment at the moment on a legacy as bugger all people really know who he is or what he did. That situation is slowly improving.
Are there any plans to release more of Kirchin's work on Trunk Records?
Yes, lots, but slowly.
Jonny Trunk is a writer, broadcaster and archivist, whose Trunk Records label has focused on releases of neglected soundtracks of cu;lt films and exotica, including the first release of the soundtrack to The Wicker Man. Trunk was key to the rediscovery of Basil Kirchin, and his series of releases on Trunk remains ongoing. Trunk also presents the O.S.T. Show on Resonance Fm.
Mind on the Run runs as part of Hull 2017 on February 17th-19th at various venues. A screening of The Abominable Dr Phibes featuring live organ by Alexander Hawkins takes place at Hull City Hall on February 17th at 10.30pm.