Thursday, 15 December 2011

Worlds Within Worlds: Basil Kirchin

This is an interview I did with Basil Kirchin in 2002, three years before his death. Please bear this in mind when I refer to dates. Since I wrote it, Jonny Trunk has done a superb job of sorting and issuing the Kirchin archive, much of which had never been given a commercial release, a favourite of mine being Charcoal Sketches. Oh, and I should say that Basil was more obsessed with music than anyone I have ever met.

Basil Kirchin's home may be in Hull, but he spends most of his time in a place most of us are hardly aware of, in "the 834th of a second before thought comes rushing in. In a state of alert inactivity. I spend 90 per cent of my time there so the other reality, keeping a roof over my head, has to make it on the remaining 10 per cent. Which gets pretty difficult at times. The key is, you have to try and act before there's time to think."

Very charming, very intense, Basil Kirchin, 76, has spent the past 40 years sculpting music from "sounds never before heard by human ears, music from another dimension". His reputation rests on a series of works called Worlds Within Worlds, parts of which surfaced on two albums in the early Seventies and which have remained out of print but highly prized ever since. Brian Eno cites them as a primary influence on his ambient music. At the other extreme, he is praised by industrialists such as Coil and Nurse with Wound. He is one of the great innovators in postwar British music, and he remains - very much against his wishes - a well-kept secret.

This should change with Quantum, the first in a series of reissues from Kirchin's startling catalogue. It's jazz, of a sort. Hornbills replace bassists, a bassoon and some geese overlap until you can't tell which is which. There are guitars, amplified insects, saxophones, trams, lions and the voices of autistic children.

It's thrilling, sometimes terrifying, and - though over 30 years old - feels very new.

Kirchin joined his father's big band, aged 13, as a drummer in 1941. "When the war started, I'd come home from school and my old man used to let me play with the band. I was eaten up with it. For two and a half years I slept in Warren Street station and played thirteen and a half sessions every two weeks. One afternoon off - in which I played with the relief band for free. Insane." After the war, Kirchin played with Harry Roy and Ted Heath before taking over the leadership of the Kirchin Band in the mid-Fifties. They acquired famous fans - Sean Connery, Elizabeth Taylor - while Billy Eckstein and Sarah Vaughan would tour Britain only if the Kirchin Band backed them. "I was the loudest drummer in the world. I was known as the Fall of Tobruk."

Uniquely, the Kirchin Band owned a PA system, which enabled Kirchin to record every show. They broke attendance records and starred in Melody Maker polls, but by 1957 skiffle and rock'n'roll were hitting the band's popularity and in any case Kirchin "realised it wasn't enough, because you're a prisoner of rhythm. And I was fed up playing other people's music."

He chucked it all in and escaped to India, where he spent five months in the Ramakrishna Temple on the Ganges. His next stop was Sydney, where disaster struck.

As his luggage was being taken from the ship, something snapped and it all fell into Sydney harbour. All Basil's tapes of the Kirchin Band, basically his whole life, was lost. It still distresses him.

In 1961 Kirchin returned to Britain to work on a "music that was individual". He stayed with his parents in Hull and worked with a local lad called Keith Herd on electronic music. He made some fabulous music for the De Wolfe library, all with odd time signatures, a Kirchin trademark: highlights were the flute and harpsichord suite Abstractions Of The Industrial North (a perfect, self-descriptive library title) and Mind On The Run, which sounds like an alternative Avengers soundtrack. Film work naturally followed; The Shuttered Room, The Abominable Dr Phibes, and an incredibly beautiful, fragile score for I Start Counting, a Jenny Agutter thriller set in freshly built Bracknell new town.

But it was experimentation with tapes and sound manipulation that created Kirchin's big breakthrough. "There is no such thing as a long note," he explains.

"If you take the human voice and slow it down five octaves, immediately everything you can hear drops away. Take birdsong, all those harmonics you can't hear are brought down -sounds that human ears have never heard before. Little boulders of sound. In 1964 it was hard to capture. There was only reel to reel tape, and it took eight or nine years of my life. It was long and hard and painful. Now with the new technology you can hear these boulders of sound without changing the pitch, which is miraculous!"

On and off through the Sixties and Seventies, Kirchin stayed in an autistic community at Schurmatt in Switzerland. "These autistic children, the sounds they make when they try to communicate are unbelievable. They jabber away and of course it's gibberish and meaningless. But if you record it and apply the techniques I've mentioned...trust me, you can hear what they're trying to convey. There's a lot of them in Quantum."

Since the two Worlds Within Worlds albums, Kirchin has written 40 pieces, 12 of which have been recorded but none released. He's now very ill, but is "still working, still roaring, even if it is three months at a time. People of any age should know never to give up. I'm still young, I can't help it if my body's falling apart." This is the first time he's visited London in 15 years, and he seems genuinely delighted that people want to talk to him about his music.

"I'm only good for two things in this world. One is music and the other is this knowledge. It sounds so pretentious, man, my toes are curling, but I have to say it. I want to try and leave something for young people who are starting in music and looking for something as I've been looking all my life. The challenge is, you have to make your life meaningful. Because life is meaningless, the universe is meaningless. It's hilarious really."

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