Basil Kirchin's unsettling sound-world

Primitive London
By Jude Rogers

Basil Kirchin's unsettling compositions scored the films of a changing Britain in the 1960s, from mondo documentaries to handmade horror and suspense.

His career proper begins here – a bright blue and yellow Troubadour Films credit, an elegant biplane rising from the tarmac. Then a high, keening melody lifts us into the air, a shrill, wailing theremin against a marimba beat. Persuasive, percussive, insistent, desperate, Basil Kirchin's first full film soundtrack (after some work on the 1965 Dave Clark Five vehicle, Catch Us If You Can) was unmistakably for a Sixties that swung – a form of cocktail jazz, with a twist of John Barry – but there were other desires lurking behind its themes and its pulses. but there were other desires lurking behind its themes and its pulses. Peel back the curtain, and here was a mission to reveal what lay behind both the movements of hands in a sine wave, on the wood of a mallet, in the streets of grubby London. Arnold L Miller's rawly British take on the mondo film, 1965's Primitive London, full of strippers and swingers, beatniks and twisted businessmen, was the perfect match for a composer who wanted to unravel the world we thought we knew. Soundtracking footage of bloody births and ignominious deaths, Basil Kirchin's music revealed the dark matter beneath every sight, every sound.

Kirchin was born in 1927, the son of band leader Ivor, who had a long-term residency at London's Paramount Theatre. At 13, the young Basil was playing drums for eight hours every day, honing and exploring the Latin-flavoured fashions of the time, then sleeping in Warren Street Underground station as German bombers railed above. After the war, he toured ballrooms and broadcasting studios, and despite massive success with his own group – putting out singles produced by George Martin, and backing singers like Sarah Vaughan in the 1950s – he became fascinated with the marriage of music and moving image. Also intrigued with sounds and styles from other cultures, he spent five months at the Ramakrishna Temple on the River Ganges in 1958, before going to Australia in 1960. Here, he experienced two traumas that would change his life completely: the loss of his band's complete catalogue when it fell from a ship's luggage net into the sea, and a near-fatal blow to the head. Ever the perfectionist, ever the experimentalist, he returned to Britain, wiped the slate clean, started again.

In his hometown of Hull, Kirchin wrote imaginary soundtracks for films with his old friend, Keith Herd, the pair playing with tape-cutting techniques and peculiar time signatures. A spell writing library music for De Wolfe followed in the mid-1960s (later compiled on the 2005 Trunk Records release Abstractions Of The Industrial North), featuring young session hands like the young Jimmy Page. Back then, his work played with the traditions of pastoral jazz, but after 25 years of performing, he was now set on exploring, and bending styles into shapes both unfamiliar and unsettling.

After he scored Primitive London – its theme echoed, unconsciously or not, in Bernard Hermann's score for Taxi Driver seven years later – he started to experiment much more widely, and wildly. Recording and slowing down the sounds of growling lions and screeching birds, and his wife Esther's class of autistic pupils, he tried to isolate the intangible terrain of the inner ear. He would merge the results with free work by jazz musicians like Evan Parker, which would lead Kirchin to his life's grandest project, Worlds Within Worlds. Next to this, his film credits were canvases on which he could try his techniques.

But one could argue that the intense, revelatory strain of British film-making at the time helped Kirchin understand something crucial – the way in which harmonic language could connect with humanity. His style found a home in the kind of handmade, raw British horror that darkened the turn of the decade, and he also found a soulmate in British director David Greene. They worked on three films together – 1967's The Shuttered Room, 1968's Strange Affair, and 1969's I Start Counting. All of them are disturbing explorations of female sexuality, the first an eerie precursor of Sam Peckinpah's Straw Dogs.

In The Shuttered Room, a beautiful woman (Carol Lynley) returns to the village where she was brought up, and the local men, including a young Oliver Reed, start to widen their eyes. Kirchin responds by exploiting the otherworldly sounds of the soprano saxophone, popularised by the John Coltrane in the late 1950s. He uses the instrument to stress Lynley's sweetness, but also her strangeness. Lynley's physical movements are also accentuated by the plucked double bass, a sound which would become Kirchin's trademark. In one scene, the notes follow Lynley swinging her arms on the shore, but suddenly cymbals are clashing discordantly. As we flash between the images of Lynley on the beach, we cut to the dunes above, where Reed is unbuttoning the shirt of a woman who looks just like her, and the metallic sound blisters and builds to an intangible climax. We know what feelings are being echoed, but also how wrong they are.

This experimentation with percussion continued throughout the former boy drummer's career. The theme to Strange Affair  – soft flutes supporting a freely ranging tenor saxophone, and the story of a young London policeman coming to terms with corruption – is driven forward by insistent, minimalist textures. His work for I Start Counting, however, was altogether softer – using the pulled strings of a harp to illustrate a girl's passage from childhood to adulthood, in this case the 15-year-old Jenny Agutter. “This year, next year, sometime, never”, go the lyrics of the main theme, as Agutter puts on her underwear in her council estate flat. Nevertheless, there are tiny, awkward flourishes in the arrangement that suggest we are seeing too much. We soon know we are, too. Kirchin's music is all about this paper-thin line between loveliness and licentiousness.

Kirchin also famously contributed music to 1971's The Abominable Dr Phibes, the orchestra kept afloat by a deep sea of wurlitzers and music boxes. This both echoes Dr Phibes' old life as an organist, and presages the minimalism of Steve Reich. (And again, Kirchin's pizzicato bass suggest pace and menace.) He also worked on The Freelance in this year – Ian McShane plays a conman to a freewheeling, nearly-keeling soundtrack – and released the first volume of Worlds Within Worlds. The sequel followed in 1974, its liner notes by Brian Eno. But Kirchin would soon became encumbered and embittered by record company politics, and ambient music would go on a very different trajectory. His star, against his wishes, would slowly lose its clear light.

 

But as the 21st century began, Kirchin was brought out of the dark matter. In 2002, Jonny Trunk, a huge fan of Kirchin's library recordings, found his hero through the Musicians' Union. By then riddled with cancer and having lost an eye, Kirchin was nevertheless still making music. Trunk released his album, Particles, the next year, a record still building on ideas and fragments from the 1960s and 1970s. “People of any age should know never to give up,” Kirchin told the Times in 2003, before offering a statement which stands for all he was, and still is. “I just 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.” That theremin again, that elegant biplane, a death no longer ignominious, a life worth proclaiming.

 

Jude Rogers writes about film, music and literature for various publications including The Guardian, The Word, The Quietus and the New Statesman. She currently teaches Arts Journalism at London Metropolitan University. See http://www.juderogers.com for more details.

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