The Missing Musician

The Arts

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).

14 comments on “The Missing Musician”

  1. Stu-I-Am says:

    I can see where Arthur Bryant’s penchant for the arcane and obscure comes from. Part of Kirchin’s obscurity as a composer was willful, of course; he simply was not bothered about being ‘discovered.’ And yes, his music was unconventional (though, in fact, it has antecedents dating back to 19th c. France), but perhaps the bigger factor was that it could not be conveniently categorized — at least until Brian Eno coined the catchall description ‘ambient music.’ And therein may be the ‘rub.’ One man’s ‘genius’ in this broadly inclusive ‘genre’ is another’s electronic ‘fiddling.’ I share your unease (if that’s the word…) about him suddenly being ‘outed’ as this forgotten genius. He has been hiding in plain sight, waiting for the next music critic or other ‘influencer’ to proclaim him their newest discovery.

    What I find perhaps even more interesting, are the number of seemingly well-known, but strangely (to my mind) underrated British composers like Gerald Finzi, Max Bruch and yes, even Arthur Sullivan, whose bodies of work, except for a relatively few pieces, is largely forgotten — or at least also hiding in plain sight.
    And just to bring this disquisition on the ‘disappeared’ of music to a close, I would be remiss if I did not note that Beethoven’s long lost (and still ‘lost’ to some cynics) 10th symphony is scheduled to have its world premiere in Bonn tomorrow (9 Oct.). A first recording of which will soon follow. It was composed from fragments and notes left behind by Ludwig von B almost 200 years ago, all ‘knitted’ together by a team of music historians, musicologists, composers and computer scientists. Most fascinating (for some of us…) is the Artificial Intelligence (AI) effort that went into the project, using the composer’s notes and and his entire body of music to teach the AI system his creative process. Which, in turn, raises the question of whether the arts should be off limits to AI — perhaps the subject of another overly long discourse.

  2. BarbaraBoucke says:

    Thank you for this. It started my morning off on a wonderfully melodic note – irregardless of the title of the film it came from.

  3. Bob Low says:

    The pairing of Anton Phibes and Basil Kirchin seems almost too good to be true. Kirchin’s music is one of the major factors that make “The Abominable Dr Phibes” such a uniquely strange and wonderful film. There is no dialogue at all for the first ten minutes or so of the film, just bizarre spectacle with musical accompaniment, and the bizarre stuff just keeps coming. It’s hard to think of another mainstream genre film of its era – or any era – like it, certainly not one made by AIP.

  4. Stu-I-Am says:

    Correction: Although he did compose while in the UK and the body of his work is rarely performed, Max Bruch is not technically a ‘British’ composer. Allow me to substitute Sir Malcolm Arnold for him in the list of well-known but underrated British composers.

  5. Roger Allen says:

    Going back to an earlier post,having just seen The Green Knight, where was Tim the Enchanter? A talking fox is a sad comedown from “the most foul, cruel, and bad tempered rodent you ever set eyes on.”

    Sidney Lumet’s The Offence must have one of the oddest scores of all time: Sean Connery got the film (based on a relentlessly downbeat play by John Hopkins) and directed by Sidney Lumet made in exchange for doing another James Bond film. The producers agreed to make it, but they weren’t going to help it succeed. I don’t know if this was Connery or Lumet going all out or sabotage by the producers, but it’s the only film ever made with a score by Harrison Birtwhistle, and very Birtwhistling it is.

  6. Stu-I-Am says:

    @Roger Allen Now, now be nice to Sir Harrison. Fortunately his foray into film scoring did not put him off his considerable game otherwise as a leading contemporary voice of British opera and classical music. And just to tie things up with a bow, he composed the opera ‘Gawain’ (1991), based on ‘Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.’

  7. Valerie Weber says:

    Unknown to me. Very atmospheric. Dare I mention, to add to the recognisableness of Shostakovich, I had the pleasure of being introduced to his son Maxim at a performance of his opera The Nose at ENO. Can’t help myself.

  8. Paul C says:

    Thanks for that fascinating post – I love the 2 Dr Phibes films and watch them every year. Will be tracking down this music. I hope someone makes a third Phibes film one day,……….

  9. Stu-I-Am says:

    @Paul C Both soundtracks are available from Amazon. As you probably know, John Gale scored ‘Dr. Phibes Rises Again.’

  10. Stu-I-Am says:

    It strikes me another ‘music-forward’ composer whose ‘identity  can be clearly established across a crowded room ‘ would be the American John Cage, whose ‘4’33”’ consists only of the ambient or environmental sounds of where it is ‘performed.’ You thus might be forgiven for thinking you’re hearing Cage across every crowded room, especially if you happen to see several musicians loitering without intent.

  11. Stu-I-Am says:

    For something a perhaps bit more ‘accessible’ from Kirchin — and for those who miss the wonderful voice of Dame Dusty Springfield — Kirchin’s ballad, ‘I Start Counting.’

  12. Helen+Martin says:

    Very much enjoyed the music clip, although the action I imagined went more with the music than anything that was likely to have happened in the film.
    I have heard a performance of the John Cage 4’33”. Best in live performance I think so that you have time ahead to focus into the site.
    Bellingham ran the original Frankinstein with an intro to warn you. Even spoofs seem to stick pretty tightly to that original script. I remember my husband complaining at a play about the mixture of Irish accents used, but they were as nothing to the ones in Frankenstein. Where did those characters come from? They were all German and would have been speaking German so a socially appropriate set of accents would have been all that was necessary. Instead we had some people speaking with assorted German accents while the leads have various American or upper class English ones, not necessarily fitting.

  13. Stu-I-Am says:

    @Helen Glad you were able to hear ‘4’33”’ live. They are several versions circulating on the Internet purporting to be bootleg recordings of performances by famous ensembles.

  14. Wayne+Mook says:

    I found Kirchin through a love of horror films, in SF and Horror and other lower budget films there are some odd and splendid scores Delia Derbyshire The Legend of Hell House (Who.) and Elisabeth Luytens for The Skull. As noted Phibes had Kirchin score it, but it’s from the film I Start Counting I learnt about him. It’s not really a horror film but has a serial killer on the lose, Jenny Agutter stars as the daughter, it’s an enjoyable film but the thing I find fascinating is that the family have moved into a modern tower block from and old terrace house, Agutter goes to visit the now ruined old house. It’s a snap shot of a changing world. The original song is by Basil Kirchin & Lindsey Moore, there is a demo on the loose on the net too.

    Gawain by Birtwhistle was shown on TV in 1991 same year as another Gawain, the David Rudkin one that was mentioned. Of the 2 Weekes versions I remember the ’73 version most vividly, Nigel Green was aptly the Green Knight nad rather odd and splendid it was, the film version is more dreamy feeling than the Dusty cover, it is a lovely version though.


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