Basil Kirchin – composer

Basil Kirchin

In England, jazz drummer Basil Kirchin had established himself as a reliable hand to bandleaders such as Ted Heath, belting out resolutely British jazz stylings to 1950s ‘cats’. Although his success was recognised not just by his contemporaries but also audiences [he was voted ‘best drummer’ by music newspaper Melody Maker readers], he remained unsatisfied with the constraints of what, even now, is considered the most traditional and unchallenging of jazz forms and ,way before it was fashionable, fled to India to study the mysticism of the swami on the banks of the Ganges.

The following early 60s years were spent as musical director of the Pigalle club in Sydney before he finally returned to London brimming with ideas. His first forays into film music are notable for their distinct oddness; H.P Lovecraft-inspired  The Shuttered Room, crime caper The Strange Affair and particularly I Start Counting are blisteringly good but unsettling British films relying on mood, tone and distinct acting rising above extremely modest budgets. I Start Counting’s delicate yet chillingly drifty folk still stands up well today.

It was, however, 1971’s score to The Abominable Dr Phibes that really drove him to the upper echelons of film composers, the swirling, throaty trumpets performing an odd balancing act with staccato strings and trilling flutes. The perfection comes with the romance but the awkwardness of the music reflecting superbly the doomed, chaotic love of Phibes himself, of course, played by Vincent Price.

Prices’ voice could easily be described as a musical instrument itself, quite unlike anyone else, the odd mid-Atlantic crawl of his tones as distinct and welcoming as any score in horror. Kirchin though had found a medium which allowed him space to express himself. His experiments outside of film and traditional composition had led to him recording the sounds of birds and animals in zoos and then manipulating them the create previously unheard worlds. Later recordings used the voices of autistic children counterbalanced with Avant yet fluid improvisation from the likes of jazz guitar auteur Derek Bailey.

These works placed him in a largely unrecognised but hugely influential group. Being regarded as the Godfather of Ambient Music didn’t earn him much. As such, his final film recording, 1974’s The Mutations, a terrific, creepy exploration of freakshows and madness, featuring Donald Pleasance and Tom Baker, was his last.

The sound of the score is very organic and brings to mind the music used on early David Attenborough documentaries to back scenes of time-lapse photographed plants reaching for the sky. The cue used to back the scenes of the freakshow itself is utterly sublime and sound like nothing else in the horror film world, surprisingly joyous, uplifting, familiar yet from another world.

Kirchin continued to work, occasionally for De Wolfe but didn’t receive any recognition for his contribution to the world of film and beyond until just before his death in 1993.

Daz Lawrence, MOVIES & MANIA

MP3 clips from The Mutations courtesy of Fish Man


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