My wife and I arrive at our hotel, nestled in the shadow of the Humber Bridge, just as Chesney Hawkes is having his photograph taken in the foyer with a star struck receptionist. When the One and Only has left the building, she welcomes us and asks if we are visiting Hull for any reason in particular. I tell her we are here to attend Mind On The Run: the Basil Kirchin Story. She looks blank faced. ‘He was a big band jazz drummer and a library music composer who lived in Hull,’ I explain. ‘It’s a big deal.’ She gives an apologetic smile. She’s never heard of him. She turns her attention to the more pressing matter of breakfast. That Basil Kirchin is unknown in his adopted city of Hull will become a familiar refrain throughout the brilliant weekend ahead.
In point of fact, Kirchin was born in Blackpool in 1927, but he had strong personal and professional associations with Hull, ending his days there in the remote, ancient wapentake of Holderness. Mind On The Run: The Basil Kirchin Story is a crash course in all things Basil, three days of performances, screenings and conversations which draw disciples and the curious to Hull City Hall with its magnificent Baroque pastiche interiors.
While Basil Kirchin’s name may draw a blank, the abiding memories of those close to him are that he was hairy and garrulous with a giant spliff constantly on the go. Starting out as a big band jazz drummer – in the newsreel footage that heralds each event, his deranged performance has a manic cartoon-like quality; he became a prolific composer of library music, before turning instinctively to avant garde composition and experimental recording techniques. He was a pioneer and a chancer: Kirchin blagged an Arts Council grant which allowed him to purchase a Nagra tape recorder on which he made early field recordings. These ambient excursions, Kirchin combined with a reading of quantum physics theory – he was quite literally ahead of his time – on the ground-breaking Worlds Within Worlds album.
If the public today is in any way aware of Basil Kirchin, it is largely thanks to Jonny Trunk. A passionate champion of Kirchin’s music – Trunk was once described by Kirchin as his ‘mind-buddy’ – his label, Trunk Records, has been carefully reissuing the composer’s eclectic, diverse back catalogue for over a decade, nurturing an appreciation of Kirchin’s genius. Speaking to journalist Jane Cornwell, at one of the round table discussions held on the second day, Trunk says there is still a long way to go. (He cites the example of his own two solo recordings which generate more income per month than Kirchin’s entire catalogue combined.) To underline the point, Trunk describes a recent interview with a BBC reporter. Asked to name any pop stars influenced by Kirchin, he replies, ‘None at all.’ What about any musicians then? ‘Have you heard of the group Broadcast?’ No. ‘Well, that’s the level of exposure Basil’s music has achieved so far.’ It is a dispiriting story, far from isolated in the narrative of Kirchin’s life.
Sean O’Hagan may well be better placed than most to ponder this paradox. Formerly one half of Microdisney, the High Llamas mainman has spent a lifetime crafting gorgeous, uplifting esoteric pop with criminally scant public cognisance. Like Kirchin, his best work is at once insistently familiar and resolutely alien. O’Hagan’s contribution to Mind On The Run – specially commissioned to launch the weekend – is We Start Counting. It takes the musician’s trademark facility with hooks and off-kilter melodies, and augments it with Kirchin’s innovative chord progressions, dissonant drones and oddball sonic experimentation. It is breathtakingly good, and with its final tip of the hat to Kirchin’s soundtrack work – the other-worldly Jane Weaver delivers a shimmering reading of I Start Counting – nicely sets up the screening of The Abominable Dr. Phibes, complete with Kirchin score and live organ accompaniment, which follows.
In conversation with Cornwell the next day, O’Hagan says he was struck by the lyrical quality of Kirchin’s compositions. He conjectures there is something ‘pastoral’ and ‘essentially very English’ about Kirchin’s use of sustained chords to burrow down into the essence of harmony. The lack of widespread recognition has nothing to do with ‘good’ or ‘bad’ qualities in Kirchin’s music, O’Hagan repeatedly stresses, but with more mercurial, less tangible forces. ‘Why else do bands like Neu or Cluster go largely unrecognised until Bowie and Eno start working with them?’ he says.
Later in the day, writer and critic Richard Williams picks up on this point. He expresses a sense of guilt for not having done more to promote Kirchin’s music. As A&R man at Island in the seventies, Williams took a punt on Kirchin’s follow-up to out-there masterpiece, Worlds Within Worlds: ‘You could do that kind of thing in those days,’ he says. Despite Brian Eno writing the sleeve notes and giving the album a thumbs up, the record sold poorly – ‘maybe thirty copies’ – which accounts for its scarcity and high asking price today.
Incredibly Kirchin was not embittered by his experiences, just disappointed. Bob Stanley, who interviewed him in 2003 for an article in The Times, says the composer seemed disinterested by money or celebrity. He was grateful for an opportunity to speak, which he did so uninterrupted for nearly an hour, expounding his quantum theories of music composition and recording. ‘It was like he was using the interview to get everything he had ever thought about music into print,’ says Stanley. Asked if he recalls any reactions to his article about Kirchin, Stanley shakes his head – the same familiar story that resonates a little more profoundly each time it is told.
Free jazz saxophonist Evan Parker collaborated with Kirchin on a number of compositions, including Worlds Within Worlds. At the start of Journey To The Unknown, Parker’s appearance on the second night, he relates a story told him by fellow sax player Alan Barnes: ‘Kirchin said to him, ‘I’m going to play you a track which combines the sound of a swan squawking and Evan Parker playing – and I defy you to tell me which is which!’’ Parker’s performance, with electronic duo Spring Heel Jack, takes Kirchin’s avant-garde, experimental pieces as its template. It is wonderfully instinctual, soaring and transcendental, frequently threatening to tip over into chaos, yet somehow managing to pull back. The telepathy between all five musicians onstage – the line-up also includes Matt Wright and Adam Linson – is almost supernatural, the interplay between Parker’s abstract blowing and the various electronic treatments mesmeric.
The final day features an unlikely lunchtime DJ set of library music by Jerry Dammers, founder of The Specials and the 2-Tone label. It is perhaps not as unusual as all that: More Specials, the band’s second album, owed a clear debt to Musak and the synth weirdness the best library music has to offer. Celebrating Kirchin’s library music credentials, Dammers also takes the opportunity to extol the genre’s wider virtues, mixing the half-familiar – Dave Richmond’s ear-battering Confunktion, better known as the theme from the Denim advert – with more brilliantly oddball examples of the form from the likes of Peter Thomas and Roger Roger. “Don’t worry if boredom sets in,” quips Dammers at one point. “It’s cosmic boredom.”
For the weekend’s finale, Kirchin gets the full scale treatment: Musical Modernism, curated by self-confessed Basil Kirchin novice, Will Gregory, features special guest appearances backed by the BBC Concert Orchestra. Opening act, synth maven Matthew Bourne, performs solo, seated cross-legged before his beloved Moog synthesizer. Appropriately enough (this being a Sunday afternoon), Bourne strikes a sacred, meditative tone, opening up the spaces in and around the notes themselves. His performance is punctuated by the sound of Kirchin’s voice being interviewed about Quantum, a career high point; a stunning coming-together of all the composer’s musical ideas and obsessions.
The remains of the concert includes guest spots from Kirchin collaborators Alan Barnes and Evan Parker, both of whom are clearly moved by the love in the room. There is a short film, Abstractions of Holderness, by Bob Stanley with a lovely Kirchin inflected score provided by St Etienne bandmate Pete Wiggs. Matthew Herbert’s piece fuses Kirchin’s working methods into a witty refraction of the infamous biographical incident where a quayside accident meant Kirchin’s worldly possessions – including all his recordings – ended up being dumped into Sydney Harbour. Jim O’Rourke draws on the crystalline abstract beauty of albums such as Abstractions of the Industrial North and Quantum for his contribution. Best of all by far are the stunning arrangements of Kirchin himself – heard with a full concert orchestra probably for the first time – including an incendiary reading of Special Relativity that sends chills down the spine.
Kirchin’s friend and musician, Alan Barnes, says that, had he still been alive, Basil would have loved Mind On The Run. “But that nothing would have got done because he would still be talking and we would still be in rehearsal.” It is a fitting tribute to a man forever looking forward, whose mind was always on the run.
Mind On The Run – The Basil Kirchin Story (17th-19th February 2017, Hull City Hall)
To hear music from Basil Kirchin, visit Trunk Records.