The Missing Musician
There are a handful of modern composers whose identity can be clearly established across a crowded room. Obviously Phillip Glass is one, and Shostakovich perhaps. A recognisable style is presumably formed when a musician is compelled to reproduce their mental rhythms.
Such a musician was Basil Kirchin. I had heard his music a very long time ago, it turns out, but it was not until much later when I overheard an unmistakable second piece, ‘Abstractions of the Industrial North’, that I recognised him for what he was; a kind of rogue genius. Tracking down other compositions, I then read up on his background. Born in 1927, the son of a bandleader, he seems to have been spiritually tortured. He recorded music, spent time in Indian temples seeking the Big Something and moved to Australia (having presumably given up), but as his possessions were being unloaded from the ship a strap broke and everything, including all his original recordings, was lost in the sea. He never got over it.
In Switzerland he noticed from days when he picked his wife up from work that her autistic pupils would use musical phrases. ‘I was fascinated by the sounds they make when they tried to communicate,’ he said. ‘The melodies that they sing – no normal, with the greatest respect, human mind, could think of such intervals as they pitch and sing. The flood it comes out with is so emotional.’
Brian Eno was taken aback when he met Kirchin in 1974. ‘Basil just wasn’t part of any scene that I knew,’ he said. ‘The British avant-garde music scene in those days was a tiny group of about 31 people. Everything you went to, they were there. Basil didn’t belong to any of those groups.’
Through Kirchin, Eno realised that he’d been wrong about music for years. ‘When I started working in recording studios, I realised that the picture people had of how music was made – of someone with an idea in their heads standing in front of a microphone doing something, was less and less what was actually happening. You’d go in and put a background down one day, then try something else the next day. You’re not linked to a moment in time as you are with performance, because you keep returning to it and you can change things.’
Although he constantly experimented with new sounds I first heard him on the soundtrack of a horror film. ‘The Abominable Dr Phibes’ had a swooping choral score full of suspended, unfulfilled notes. It was a sound you grew used to hearing in his other work.
Kirchin’s music became progressively more mysterious and experimental as he added sounds from his life. The sound was more primal, more spiritual and perhaps just too far ahead. He sold only a handful of copies and vanished into obscurity, living a life of genteel poverty – but not before establishing himself as a musician’s musician and a unique composer who did not quite fit in. He died in 2005.
So it makes me a tad uncomfortable that he has now been ‘discovered’ (Guardian articles, tribute concert, praise from Wilco, Goldfrapp and St Etienne) as a forgotten genius. Here he is in straighter mode as a film composer for ‘Dr Phibes’ (his experimental compositions are too long to post).