Evan Parker Among Hull City Hall Ambassadors Of Basil Kirchin's Exotic Muse

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Many of those with their digits usually found firmly on exotic pulses weren't so familiar with the achievements of Basil Kirchin, prior to the announcement of this extensive Mind On The Run tribute weekender. Even some of its participating musicians confessed ignorance, until being invited by Hull's UK City Of Culture organisers. Perhaps this ultra-low profile was due to Kirchin's passing relationship to multiple musical forms, including jazz, electroacoustic, free improvisation, movie soundtracking and easy listening (though often faintly sinister and surreptitiously experimental) library music. Kirchin was fully fluent in all of these languages.

Although born in Blackpool, Kirchin grew up in Hull, returning to that city periodically, and finally settling there during the last years of his life, until his demise in 2005. At age 13 Kirchin played drums in his father Ivor's big band, soon moving on to play with Ted Heath and Harry Roy. A couple of decades later, Kirchin was employing the talents of Derek Bailey and Evan Parker, developing his powers as a composer. It's rare to observe Parker and Alan Barnes chatting together in a hotel bar, but here they were, during this weekend, swapping notes about their time playing for Kirchin.

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Parker occupied a prime Saturday night position, reviving a partnership with the Spring Heel Jack duo, augmented by Matt Wright and bassist Adam Linson. All except Parker were cloaked with electronic effects, their individual sonic output often hard to untangle. Parker was originally approached by Kirchin to help sculpt film scores, so it's appropriate that this quintet's extended improvisation amassed a sense of pictorial development, nodding to the original Hullster's love of environmental birdcall capturings. Back in the day, Kirchin had challenged Alan Barnes to discern the individual contributions of Parker and a whooping swan. He failed! Parker rippled his soprano saxophone through the wash of intensified turntable surface scurf, as Linson bowed his bass, its sound finally being recognisable as such, through his veil of electronic transformation. Parker receded for a spell, then returned, leading the structural way, as heavy bells tolled through the Hull fog, his chirruping repeats welcoming a lighter patch. This was a lesson in finely-crafted restraint and long-distance atmospheric pooling.

Late on the Friday night, a screening of The Abominable Dr. Phibes (a 1971 British horror flick) was accompanied by Alexander Hawkins on the mighty pipe organ of Hull City Hall. A kitsch classic, this Vincent Price vehicle also possesses a genuinely unsettling sense of terror, as Phibes triumphs over all in his drive to discover ever more imaginative murder methods. The presence of Hawkins didn't rule out an airing of Kirchin's original ensemble score, as the organist was used sparingly, only during the parts of the film where Phibes is actually sitting at his own instrument. This was a canny strategy, as Hawkins suddenly and sporadically became visible, lit up in a crimson glow, behind and below the frontal screen, draped in his silken cape. Like the movie, this was at once dramatic and amusing in its spectacular thrust.

Since 2003, the raising of the Kirchin presence can almost single-handedly be attributed to the informed efforts of Jonny Trunk and his Trunk Records empire, as he's gradually worked through a self-admittedly meandering album reissue schedule. Here was Jonny, right down on the front table at the early Sunday afternoon Jerry Dammers DJ session, calling out facts and exchanging anecdotes with the vinyl-spinning Spatial Special. This two-hour set was an excellent display of mood-altering library music exotica, with Dammers rambling verbally between each selection, a mixture of erudite historian and absurdist comedian.

Sunday afternoon's Musical Modernism concert brought this bountiful weekend to a close, with Will Gregory (half of Goldfrapp) leading the BBC Concert Orchestra through a maze of Kirchin and Kirchin-inspired works. A virtual jazz big band swelled the usual ranks, with Parker, Barnes, Raymond MacDonald, Eddie Parker, Dudley Phillips, Ralph Salmins and Martin France.

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Matthew Bourne opened up with a solo performance, sitting cross-legged at his synthesiser, forming a multi-tiered drone foundation for the triggering of snatched Kirchin dialogue. A deep bass pulse grew, eventually turning higher and higher in pitch, making a strange alternative to the hall's own organ. Bourne talked about the autistic kids that Kirchin's wife Esther had taught, bending his own pitches in sympathy with the sounds of those children, as recorded and utilised by Basil. Bourne added Moog oscillations to the recipe during his second piece, freed up to fly over them on his keyboard.

Matthew Herbert's 'Primitive 5 Remix' sampled rustling-of-plastic-bag, tooth-brushing, torn newspaper, cello, and then further orchestra instruments, built up on the spot, as the composer arranged these sonics from the back of the hall, a plexiglass water tank at side-stage, with a brick-weighted plunger taking a platform down to its depths. Herbert was inspired by the possibly apocryphal tale of Kirchin's early tapes being lost at harbour. Despite this weight of construction, the actual piece was pleasingly impressionistic rather than strikingly bold.

Barnes was back, remembering his duet with the voice of Adolf Hitler, prompted by Kirchin as an alternative to the whooping swans. "He would have loved this," says Barnes, of the weekend's celebration (Kirchin, not Hitler). The next Basil barrage married the feels of Colin McPhee and Arthur Lyman, moving into fragments of Philip Glass and Ealing comedy pastoral scenes. A particular highlight of the programme was 'Abstractions Of Holderness', a pictorial documentary set to music by Bob Stanley and Pete Wiggs (of St. Etienne). Kirchin dwelled in this remote zone during the 1970s, the Holderness images strolling by, mixing zoom-grain with further-away scenes, always perfectly framed, toned and textured in lovingly miserable monochrome. Jim O'Rourke's '12 Dollars Is A Lot' featured MacDonald's spiral soprano, then Parker spoke of Kirchin calling himself, Bailey, Kenny Wheeler and Dave Holland his "paranoia boys". Kirchin's 'L'esprit d'Amour' closed the set, spotlighting Barnes in a loungey latin trotter. On a riser up at the back of the stage stood an empty drumkit, reserved for the doubtless smiling spirit of Kirchin himself.

– Martin Longley
– Photos by Tom Arran

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