REVIEW: Mind on the Run: The Basil Kirchin Story in Hull

Sean O'Hagan and Friends, Friday 17 February 2017, (c) Thomas Arran
Basil Kirchin
Mind on the Run: The Basil Kirchin Story
(Hull City Hall. 17th-19th February 2017. Review by Tony Dudley-Evans)

This wonderful weekend was devoted to the memory of Basil Kirchin (1927-2005), originally a drummer, but latterly a highly regarded composer of large scale compositions, film music and a pioneer of the integration of natural sounds into written composition. Kirchin spent all his later years in Hull. 

Since I had known next to nothing of Kirchin before signing up to go to Hull, I learnt a lot from this weekend with its excellent panels and associated literature. I was particularly struck by the loyalty of the various musicians, recording engineers and record label owners present at the weekend to Kirchin and his work. This also came across strongly in the documentary Mind on the Run: The Basil Kirchin Story made by Hull’s Nova Studios, which was premiered at the weekend festival. A very clear picture emerged from this of an intense but very likeable man devoted to his music who had led a Spartan existence in a small house in Hull, but who had achieved his goal of creating a large body of work that clearly influenced and inspired a large number of fellow musicians and composers – Brian Eno is, for example, quoted as acknowledging Kirchin as a major influence.

Kirchin’s work remained largely unknown outside the group of committed musicians during his life, but this weekend celebration and the gradual re-issue of key albums by Jonny Trunk of Trunk Records, plus the championing of it by key musicians such as Evan Parker, Alan Barnes and Sean O’Hagan of the High Llamas group, plus young innovators such as Liam van Rijn aka DJ Revenu and Joe Acheson of the Hidden Orchestra may well lead to a revival of interest. Certainly Kirchin’s music with its focus on texture and on the integration of electronics within those textures is increasingly relevant.

I also learnt a lot from a very entertaining two hour DJ set by Jerry Dammers who played excerpts of Kirchin’s ‘library music’, the music written for film but never issued as an album, within an overview of the whole library music scene. He commented that Kirchin’s music is often a cross between middle of the road music and the avant-garde.

Friday: Sean O'Hagan and Friends
Photo credit and (c) Thomas Arran

The weekend, brilliantly curated by Serious and J-Night for Hull 2017, had many musical highlights. Each set focussed on new work inspired by one or more aspects of Kirchin’s work. On the first evening DJ Revenu’s quintet concentrated on the use of electronics while Sean O’Hagan’s nine-piece group drew on Kirchin’s film music especially I Start Counting written for the film of the same name. This led naturally into the showing of the horror film The Abominable Dr. Phibes with Alex Hawkins playing the pipe organ parts on the City Hall organ integrating these sections into Kirchin’s score. The power of the live organ played by Alex in a flowing cape added a stunning extra dimension to the showing of the film. Joe Acheson and the Hidden Orchestra, on this occasion a 7-piece band with trumpet, cello, violin doubling keys, harp, bass doubling electronics and two drummers, played an electrifying set on the Saturday that seemed to capture something of Kirchin’s methods with layers of percussion driving over strongly integrated textures from the rest of the band. Acheson also demonstrated very effectively Kirchin’s technique of making recordings of natural sounds, e.g. birdsong or sounds from Hull’s dockland, and altering these sounds by slowing them down to produce different textures, which were then integrated into the compositions.

Saturday: Hidden Orchestra,
Photo credit and (c) James Mulkeen


The final concert with the BBC Concert Orchestra played various pieces of Kirchin’s own work, plus commissions from Matthew Herbert, St Etienne’s Bob Stanley and Pete Wiggs, Jim O’Rourke and Will Gregory. The piece featuring Evan Parker integrated birdsong with the sound of Evan’s soprano saxophone and this was followed by Gregory’s piece that made similar use of birdsong this time blending it with the sound of Charles Mutter’s violin and Brigitte Beraha’s voice. O’Rourke’s piece captured the mix of the mainstream with the avant-garde characteristic of much of Kirchin’s work with Raymond Macdonald’s spiky solos on alto and soprano saxophones contrasting with the gentle melodic drone of the strings. The concert built up to a tremendous climax with two big band like pieces in which Alan Barnes’ storming alto saxophone featured strongly.

The musical highlight of the weekend for me, however, was a beautifully controlled improvised set on the Saturday night with Evan Parker on soprano sax and the sounds of Spring Heel Jack (Ashley Wales and John Coxon) plus Matt Wright on turntables and Adam Linson on double bass and electronics. Evan introduced the concert by relating how Kirchin had defied Alan Barnes to distinguish between the sound of a wild swan and that of Evan’s soprano improvisations. The first part of the improvisation built on this by creating a situation in which Evan reacted to the birdsong generated by Spring Heel Jack thereby producing a quite unique blend of sounds. As the set developed, the music moved on to other textures, but throughout maintained a gentle but always inventive interaction between the electronics and the acoustic instruments.

I very much hope that the Mind on the Run weekend will lead to a wider recognition of Kirchin’s music.

LINK: Basil Kirchin at Hull 2017

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