Basil Kirchin

Experimental composer and author of the soundtrack for 'The Abominable Dr Phibes'
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The Independent Online

Tthe composer Basil Kirchin devised a series of works in the early Seventies called Worlds within Worlds which took listeners on an "inner sound" trip and proved a great influence on the ambient music of Brian Eno. Other musicians including the American singer Jim O'Rourke and the British groups Broadcast and Coil also drew inspiration from Kirchin's experiments, while film buffs enjoyed his soundtrack work on 10 movies, most famously his score for the cult-horror classic The Abominable Dr Phibes (1971) directed by Robert Fuest and starring Vincent Price.

Starting out playing with his father Ivor's big band, Basil went on in the Fifties to lead the Kirchin Band and cut several rock'n'roll-flavoured singles and EPs for Parlophone before developing new composition and recording techniques. "The challenge is to act before thinking," Basil Kirchin told Radio 3 in 2003 - as if to demonstrate the origins of the oblique strategies Brian Eno used when producing U2, Talking Heads or James.

Born in 1927, Basil Kirchin was a precocious child who showed such musical ability that he began playing drums professionally in 1941. At the end of the Second World War, the teenage drummer joined Harry Roy and his Orchestra and made regular broadcasts on BBC radio before moving on to the even more popular Ted Heath Band. By 1952, Basil was back with Ivor, co-leading the Kirchin Band and playing dance halls up and down the country. To circumvent the ban on jiving at the dawn of the rock'n'roll era, they specialised in Latin American selections which went down well with the younger crowd. Indeed, the Kirchin Band's first release for Parlophone in 1954 was "Mambo Macoco" while follow-ups, recorded under the aegis of the future Beatles producer George Martin, included "Mambo Rock" (1955), "Rock Around the World Medley" (with Shany Wallis), "Calypso", "Teenage World" (1957) and "Rock-A-Conga" (1959).

The Kirchin band backed the jazz superstars Billy Eckstein and Sarah Vaughan on their UK visits and were the first big outfit to take its own public address (PA) system on the road, enabling Basil obsessively to record rehearsals and live shows. He also compiled reels of his own orchestral compositions - sadly lost when they fell into Sydney harbour while being hauled off a ship. The drummer/composer had left Britain to expand his musical horizons at the end of the Fifties and travelled to India, the United States and Australia before returning in 1961 and settling with his parents in Hull.

He began writing scores for television as well as the De Wolfe music library and slowly broke into film soundtracks too, starting in 1965 with Arnold L. Miller's "Swinging London" documentary Primitive London and the Dave Clark Five vehicle Catch Us If You Can, the first feature film directed by John Boorman.

However, Kirchin's eerie, dreamy compositions seemed best suited to the peculiar brand of creepy, Gothic horror which flourished in Britain towards the end of the Sixties and into the Seventies; his work duly featured in The Shuttered Room (starring Oliver Reed, 1967) and I Start Counting (with Jenny Agutter, 1968) as well as the thriller The Strange Affair (with Michael York and Susan George, 1968), all directed by David Greene. He also composed music for the action film Assignment K (1968), the ménage à trois drama Negatives (1968), the gangster picture Freelance (1971) and Dr of Evil (also released as The Mutations, 1973) starring Donald Pleasance and Tom Baker.

But it is the motion-picture score Kirchin wrote for The Abominable Dr Phibes in 1971 that has entranced film fans the most, especially now that it's available on CD in its original form. Robert Fuest had liked the composer's work with David Greene and Kirchin created two principal themes for Dr Phibes and his assistant, Vulnavia. Sadly, as Kirchin recalled,

There was political in-fighting between the producer, the director and the man with the money. They took out a lot of my serious music and spoofed it up with other pieces. That hurt at the time. I was in Switzerland and I came to deal with it as only being a movie after all.

Indeed, John Gale composed a new Vulnavia theme and went on to score the inevitable follow-up, Dr Phibes Rises Again (1972), while Kirchin's original score for the first film assumed legendary status.

Sadly, the original release of Kirchin's Worlds within Worlds in 1971 proved equally cursed. Thanks to an Arts Council of Great Britain grant, Kirchin had acquired a new Nagra reel-to-reel recorder in the mid-Sixties. He began experimenting, recording animal and insect noises as well as autistic children in Switzerland and then slowing the tape down to stretch the sound sources until they became other-worldly. "There is no such thing as a long note," he explained:

If you take the human voice and slow it down five octaves, immediately everything you can hear drops away. Take birdsong, all those harmonics you can't hear are brought down; sounds that human ears have never heard before, little boulders of sound. It was hard to capture; it took eight or nine years of my life. Long and painful.

Adding various horn instruments, cello and organ, the composer created two highly original, groundbreaking musical suites. But Columbia tinkered with the material before issuing it and Kirchin was disillusioned, especially when Island Records also managed to botch the release of a follow-up album in 1973. Still, Basil Kirchin carried on "working and roaring" well into his Seventies.

In a long and varied career, he travelled all the way from the mainstream and the age of the vinyl 78 to the outer reaches of the avant-garde and the CD era. Belated recognition finally came in the new millennium when the left-field label Trunk Records issued the I Start Counting soundtrack and albums entitled Quantum: a journey through sound in two parts (2003) and Charcoal Sketches/States of Mind (2004) as well as Abstractions of the Industrial Mind (2005), the last a compilation of library tracks composed by Kirchin in the Sixties with titles such as "Viva Tamla Motown" and "Pageing Sullivan" (featuring a pre-Led Zeppelin Jimmy Page and fellow session-man Big Jim Sullivan).

In his last interview, Basil Kirchin said:

I wanted 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. The challenge is to make your life meaningful.

Pierre Perrone