Basil Kirchin was a maverick musician and pioneering composer who is credited as a founding father of ambient music. Yet despite being hailed by acts such as Brian Eno and St Etienne, he remains an obscure figure. Now a festival in Hull is casting a light on a man regarded by many musicians as a genius.
In the early 2000s, in a recording studio in Hull, saxophonist Alan Barnes found himself engaged in a particularly odd performance.
“One day Basil said ‘I want you to do a duet’ and I said ‘who with?’,” he recalled. “He said ‘with Hitler’.”
Lo and behold, one week later he found himself “screaming on the bass clarinet at Hitler coming out of a speaker at me” with Kirchin recording it.
“Dueting with Hitler is the weirdest thing you can get really,” added Barnes. “But anything could happen with Basil.”
Kirchin, who died in Hull in 2005, was an eccentric. He was also a radical innovator whose 1971 record Worlds Within Worlds is often cited as the first ambient album – a genre characterised by its focus on mood and atmosphere rather than traditional song structures.
He pioneered techniques which are now commonplace but were considered radical at the time. These included recording sounds he came across and then cutting, splicing, slowing down or stretching the tape to create strange, new noises.
Perhaps predictably, this radical approach did not lead to commercial success. Worlds Within Worlds only sold a few hundred copies upon its release on Columbia Records.
However, Richard Williams, who subsequently signed Kirchin to Island Records in the early 1970s for a follow up, was not put off by this.
“It wasn’t going to be a chart album… but I thought it was worth doing because it was pioneering, experimental and a product of a really interesting man,” he said.
When Kirchin released another Worlds Within Worlds record in 1974, Williams asked a young Brian Eno to write the liner notes. Eno, who would later popularise the ambient genre with his 1978 album Ambient 1, was more than happy to oblige.
“He was always interested in the new and the experimental so I played him Basil’s music and said would you like to write something for the sleeve of the album,” he said.
“He was very, very enthusiastic and keen and did indeed write something.
“I know that Basil’s music certainly affected the way he was thinking, and it was interesting to hear that somebody else was thinking in the same direction that he was.”
But while Eno achieved fame through his work with Roxy Music and later collaborations with David Bowie, Kirchin continued operating on the edges of the music industry.
His subsequent projects and albums, including Abstractions of the Industrial North, Quantum and Particles, all characterise his unique approach and his eccentric personality, but achieved precious little commercial success.
Kirchin’s musical career began in 1941 when, aged 13, he joined his father’s big band as a drummer. The Blackpool-born youngster took to London’s Paramount Theatre, where the Ivor Kirchin band had a long-term residency.
He spent many nights sleeping in a Tube station as the Blitz erupted above. After the war he continued his jazz career, leading the Kirchin band and touring the UK with singer Sarah Vaughan. The band garnered a number of famous fans – including Sean Connery – but Kirchin grew tired of that scene and decided to travel to India in search of spiritual fulfilment.
In the 1950s, he spent time at the Ramakrishna Temple on the banks of the River Ganges, 10 years before The Beatles’ famous trip to the subcontinent.
“He turned his back on the music business in the late 50s because he was on a spiritual quest really,” said Matt Stephenson, director of Nova Studios, which has made a feature-length documentary on Kirchin.
“He got ideas about music and sound and about life that he wanted to find out more about, they mattered to him more than fame and success.”
Kirchin’s travels ended when, on a trip to Australia, the tapes containing the Kirchin Band’s entire back catalogue fell from a luggage net into the sea.
After that traumatic experience, he returned to England, shuttling between London and Hull, where his father’s band had a permanent residency.
It was here that Kirchin met sound engineer Keith Herd in a music shop.
“He had a black Mackintosh, he had very long hair and beard and it was ‘blimey who’s this?’,” recalls Herd.
Together, working in Herd’s studio, they helped develop the techniques that would produce Kirchin’s radical new sound.
He created a series of soundtracks for imaginary films before film producer David Greene recruited him to provide scores for The Abominable Dr Phibes, I Start Counting and The Shuttered Room.
At around the same time Kirchin delved deeper into the foray of tape manipulation and sound experimentation, giving birth to his innovative Worlds Within Worlds series.
Among the sounds he recorded – and manipulated – were those of autistic children. He was living in Switzerland with his Swiss wife Esther, who was a teacher at a school which catered specifically for autistic pupils.
Kirchin explained his reasons in a BBC Radio 3 interview in 2003, describing how he was “fascinated by the sounds these children make when they’re trying to communicate”.
“No normal, with the greatest respect, human mind could think of such intervals as they pitch and sing… it’s emotional,” he said.
Many years later, a new wave of musicians and artists began discovering his work.
Tim Gane, of Stereolab, said his thirst for the experimental and avant-garde led him to Kirchin’s records in the early 1980s.
“To me it’s experimental, it’s also groovy, very wistful, a flowing kind of melodicism which is really unusual, unique to Basil Kirchin’s music and it has an identifiable kind of charm about the chords and about the instruments chosen – harpsichord and flutes…
“It’s quite exotic, very nice arrangements and very modern melodies. It doesn’t sound really like it was done in the mid-60s.”
Former Stereolab stalwart Sean O’Hagan, now of The High Llamas, describes Kirchin’s music as being “very instinctive”.
“It felt very real, very odd and slightly dangerous.
“It brought me to very odd areas – noisy experimental, totally unmusical forays but also very lyrical songs and some absolutely beautiful film music.”
Bob Stanley, of St Etienne, recalls first coming across Kirchin’s music in the mid-1990s with a track titled Mind on The Run.
“It’s a terrific bit of music. It sounded like possibly something from the Avengers, like a chase scene or something, there’s that really frenetic drumming and organ work. It’s a great piece of music.”
For Kirchin, his unusual sounds and recording techniques were linked to his spiritual beliefs.
“He believed there are several universes going on at the same time,” said Stanley, who interviewed Kirchin in 2003.
“So, like a fly’s world is completely different to our world, it moves at a completely different speed.
“And therefore if you speed up or slow down sound you can find a way into these parallel universes.”
By the end of the 1990s, Kirchin was living an impoverished lifestyle in a two-up-two-down council house with his wife in Hull.
However, he continued to produce music with the help of Iain Firth, a young engineering graduate, and paid session musicians with his dole money and royalties.
At the same time, his material had been rediscovered by jazz enthusiast Jonny Trunk, who released a number of Kirchin’s tracks on his eponymous record label at the turn of the millennium.
But by this point Kirchin had become very ill with cancer.
“It was difficult to see him deteriorating and it was sad to see,” recounts Firth. “It made me really determined to do my best for him.”
Three months before he lost his battle with cancer, Trunk interviewed Kirchin in his kitchen in Hull.
“He was great, he was thrilled to be rediscovered,” he said.
“He had cancer of everything: he had one eye, he was in a very poor, physical state.
“He was full of the most extraordinary energy and passion, [it was] really amazing to experience that sort of raw energy that he had, even in that state where most people would’ve given up.”
For Barnes, Kirchin’s last days were difficult to witness.
“He had this horrible tumour behind his eye so he was visually quite startling,” he recalls.
“Later on he had it removed. Me and Bruce Adams went to do a session, he answered the door and half his face wasn’t there, which was a hell of a shock. It was terrifying and nothing had prepared us for that.
“But typical of him he was just carrying on as if nothing had happened… that was the last time, it was just before he died.”
More than 10 years after his death, Kirchin’s achievements are now being publicly recognised at a festival in Hull celebrating his life and work.
“Some of his music’s pretty difficult,” says Trunk. “Worlds Within Worlds is possibly one of the most radical, hardcore records you could ever, ever hear in your life.
“When I first heard Quantum I thought the house was on fire. No one ever did anything like that until him.”
Writer and BBC broadcaster Stuart Maconie, also a Kirchin enthusiast, echoes Trunk’s sentiments, saying Kirchin was very much “operating on the margins of music”.
“I think there are people out there whose palates are a bit jaded and are looking for something more interesting.
“Basil’s stuff will sometimes frighten you, unsettle you.
“Some of the stuff with the autistic kids – it makes you feel slightly unsettled for all kinds of reasons. You think is this exploitative almost, you think ‘what’s going on here?’.
“But that’s good I think.”
For Stanley, Kirchin’s musical philosophy and innovative techniques made him “without a doubt the most inspiring person I’d ever met”.
“When he was doing it, it was almost impossible. He had to use special equipment made in Switzerland to try and do it.
“It’s something obviously anybody can do now, just get a laptop these days, but it was a lot more difficult in the 60s and 70s.
“So yeah he was very inspirational to me.”
Mind On The Run: The Basil Kirchin Story runs at the Hull City Hall in Hull from 17-19 February.