Hull celebrates Basil Kirchin, the forgotten genius of post-war British music

With performances from fans such as Jerry Dammers, Matthew Herbert and Bob Stanley

The late composer Basil Kirchin had a boundless imagination, yet his work remained relatively unknown until recent years – which is a surprise considering he was labelled “the founding father of ambient music” by Brian Eno.

Having spent a large portion of his life in Hull, the city will now recognise Kirchin's contributions with a three-day event celebrating his life. – as part of its programme as UK City of Culture 2017. Mind on the Run: The Basil Kirchin Story will include performances from fans such as Jerry Dammers (The Specials), experimental composer Matthew Herbert, Bob Stanley (St. Etienne), Sonic Youth’s Jim O’Rourke and the BBC’s Orchestra. Expect to hear fresh arrangements of Kirchin’s music and film scores.

Born in Blackpool, Basil Kirchin started as a jazz and mambo drummer, playing for his dad’s orchestra and the bands of Ted Heath and Harry Roy. After a sabbatical in India and then Sydney, Kirchin returned to Hull in the 1960s, composing pop songs, film scores and even library music with session musicians like Jimmy Page and Mick Ronson, before they were famous.

His breakthrough came in 1965, when he composed the soundtrack to the British mondo film Primitive London – its main theme, for no particular reason, echoes in Bernard Hermann’s score to Scorcese’s Taxi Driver, released seven years later. He also wrote for the Dave Clark Five’s film Catch Us If You Can in the same year, and three films by the British director David Greene: The Shuttered Room (1967), The Strange Affair (1968) and I Start Counting (1970). In 1971, Kirchin famously composed music for the hit horror, Robert Fuest’s The Abominable Dr. Phibes.

His early scores bent the rules of traditional jazz, with peculiar time signatures and sounds. But this mild form of experimentation didn’t last long. Around the mid-1960s, Kirchin started to really push the envelope. After being awarded a grant from the Arts Council, he bought a Nagra tape recorder, which was battery operated and professional grade. With that, he recorded animals at London Zoo, autistic children and ambient sound. He slowed down the tapes and began using them as samples for his personal compositions.

In an interview with Bob Stanley for The Times, in 2003, Kirchin described these recordings as “Little boulders of sound[...] Take birdsongs, all those harmonics you can’t hear are brought down – sounds that human ears have never heard before.”

These remarkable experimentations were used for two collections in the 1970s but only one of them was released at the time. Worlds Within Worlds was came as two albums, one from EMI, the other Island Records. Quantum, although recorded in the 1970s, was not released until 2003, by Trunk Records.

But, after Worlds Within Worlds, Kirchin became embittered by record company politics and went into seclusion. He continued to make music for himself and eventually moved back to Hull, where he lived until his death in June 2015.

Just before he died, Kirchin’s work resurfaced after Jonny Trunk, a fan of his early recordings, got in touch with Kirchin through the Musician’s Union. This was in 2002, when Kirchin was sick with cancer and had lost an eye. Trunk began releasing Kirchin’s work, starting with Quantum in 2003, followed by five other records.

For his Times interview with Bob Stanley, Kirchin said: “People of any age should know never to give up[...] 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.” He would be happy to know then that everything he accomplished, albeit posthumously, is capturing fresh minds.

[Mind on the Run: The Basil Kirchin Story opens at Hull City Hall from 17 to 19 February (