Thanks to a rare screening at Home in Manchester a few days ago, I finally got to see Mind On The Run, Matt Stephenson’s affectionate documentary about the life and music of former big band jazz drummer, Basil Kirchin, frequently cited as the greatest British composer you have never heard of…
In February I travelled to Hull for Mind On The Run, a weekend of performances, films and seminars devoted to adopted local music legend, Basil Kirchin. It was wonderfully curated throughout – with one significant exception: unexpectedly high demand for Matt Stephenson’s specially commissioned, eponymously-titled documentary meant the tiny venue’s capacity was soon breached and ticketholders turned away at the door. With no contingency plans for a repeat screening, it seemed as if the film might simply disappear from public view, a fate all too familiar to its maverick subject.
For its presentation of Mind On The Run, Home coupled the film with another Kirchin piece commissioned for Hull 2017, Abstractions of Holderness. A collaboration between musician and journalist Bob Stanley and filmmaker Esther Johnson, this rather lovely little film originally felt cast adrift when it was screened as part of Will Gregory’s uneven closing symphonic tribute earlier in the year.
Within the intimate confines of Home’s Marina’s Cinema, Abstractions of Holderness proved an excellent primer for the main event. Gentle and contemplative in tone, it is beautifully shot by Johnson who makes real virtue of the sparse, down at heel East Yorkshire locations. Seizing upon the peninsula’s wilderness misrule, her eye is magnetically drawn to unusual or overlooked details, imbuing them with the patina of exiled melancholy. Fans of Patrick Keiller’s Robinson films will note the quiet desperation that hovers just beneath the film’s brilliant surfaces.
Playful and allusive, the visual nods to Kirchin’s distinctive motifs carry over into the evocative soundtrack which comes courtesy of Stanley’s Saint Etienne bandmate Pete Wiggs. Working at a similarly rich imaginative seam to the one he struck for How We Used To Live, Paul Kelly’s lyrical love note to Britain’s metropolitan municipal past, Wiggs allows for an interplay of organic and pastoral elements culled from Kirchin’s library and film soundtrack experiments.
Stanley also pops up in Mind On The Run – The Basil Kirchin Story. Like others from the period, he was alerted to Kirchin’s music in the 90s by the band Broadcast. Together with another early convert and acolyte, Jonny Trunk, whose Trunk Records imprint has been restoring Kirchin’s back catalogue to something like availability, they ensured the composer’s name was not subsumed in the fog of permanent obscurity.
In 2002, Stanley interviewed Kirchin for a piece in the Times newspaper, fondly recalling him as ‘more obsessed with music than anyone I have ever met.’ The interview was a one-sided, non-stop flow of ideas about music and composition. Kirchin was a free-spirit who, having read extensively about quantum mechanics, had become convinced that sound was a form of time travel. Where others conceived music in terms of conventional notation and time signatures, Kirchin conceived it in terms of quarks. (Whoever conceived the idea of animating Kirchin’s complex theories about music and time in the style of Charles and Ray Eames’s classic film, Powers of Ten, deserves a medal.)
Obsessed with drilling down into the very essence of sound itself, he blagged an Arts Council grant to purchase a Nagra tape-recorder with this express purpose in mind. It was on this tape recorder that he captured the sounds which would comprise his most important album Worlds Within Worlds. With no clear marketing campaign, the record somehow managed to make it into shops, though rarely made it back out again, says journalist and former A&R man at Island Records, Richard Williams.
Today, original vinyl copies of the album carry a hefty pride tag, as do Kirchin’s other profoundly individualistic albums. Despite being highly prized and keenly sought after by a growing band of aficionados, it is probably fair to say Kirchin’s influence exceeds actual album sales. Interviewed in the film, Trunk confesses that re-releases of the artist’s work have yet to turn a profit, not that that has ever been the point.
Perenially skint, with a mane of coarse dark hair and a fulsome beard, Kirchin saw out his days living a low-key existence with his young wife Esther in a terraced house off the Hessle Road. There he presided over a chaotic makeshift recording studio, smoking his own personally blended hashish, and commanding a loose, but fiercely loyal, collective of musicians – amongst them Evan Parker and Alan Barnes – to create sounds for which even they had no terms of reference. In some regards, the composer stands comparison with that other eccentric genius of outsider sonic experimentation, Joe Meek. ‘He was a nutter,’ explains keyboardist Danny Wood of Kirchin’s often intense working methods, ‘but he was a nice nutter!’
Perhaps most incredible is the realisation Kirchin achieved all this outside the reach of the music industry. He was an early DIY provocateur, refusing to be bound by convention or rote. He saw through the low lights and trick mirror philosophies of The Man.
While Stephenson’s documentary is a lot of fun, there is the occasional niggling gap. Why no mention of the incident in which Kirchin’s entire worldly possessions – including compositions and recordings – found themselves at the bottom of Sydney Harbour, an event which the composer claimed literally changed the course of his life?
In the end, Kirchin’s life was simple, his one truth derived from experiences travelling about India in the fifties (even in this he was ahead of the curve). “Life is essentially meaningless,” he says in the closing moments of Stephenson’s film. “The meaning of life is to give it purpose.”
Basil Kirchin – definitely the greatest British composer you have never heard of – was not afraid to let his mind run – and run and run and run. Catch him if you can.
Neil Mudd, 2017
Enjoyed this? Read my review of Mind On The Run at Hull UK City of Culture 2017 here.