As It Happens

Celebrating the forgotten and 'truly bizarre' music of Basil Kirchin

Ex-Stereolab member Sean O’Hagan tells us about a new conference and film celebrating the influence of "forgotten" music visionary Basil Kirchin, who used the sounds of the world as his instrument.
Musician Basil Kirchin and his wife, Esther. (Basil Kirchin Estate/Iain Firth/Matt Stephenson/Nova Studios LTD)

You've probably never heard of the late British musician Basil Kirchin — most people haven't.

But the lasting influence his experimental music had on artists like Brian Eno has earned him a posthumous conference to celebrate his work.
Sean O'Hagan is a guitarist, songwriter and member of The High Llamas. (Ian Brodie)

"He did it in total obscurity," Sean O'Hagan tells As It Happens guest host Helen Mann. "It's taken almost half a century for people to actually come to realize that this composer was as important as any of the bigger names in jazz and left of centre music." 
Sean O'Hagan is a guitarist and songwriter formerly with Stereolab. He's now a member of The High Llamas. O'Hagan is one of many artists influenced by Kirchin's work who attended the conference in Hull, England.
Basil Kirchin got his start drumming in his father's big band. (Basil Kirchin Estate/Iain Firth/Matt Stephenson/Nova Studios LTD)

​Kirchin started as a drummer in his father's big band. But in the '60s, he turned the world into his instrument and became a pioneer of ambient music — combining musique concrète, minimal and experimental sounds.

"He released himself from [his father's band] and wanted to make music that was from another planet," O'Hagan explains.

"It foresaw all these genres and musical movements that we became familiar with in later years, in the '70s, and in later film music."

Many of the sounds and techniques Kirchin employed may seem ubiquitous now but O'Hagan says Kirchin's music was "revolutionary" at the time.
"He would use street sounds. He would use sounds of people's voices in crowds. He would use engines. He'd use the ambient sounds of the inside of a restaurant, a canteen," O'Hagan explains.
(Basil Kirchin Estate/Iain Firth/Matt Stephenson/Nova Studios LTD)

Although the music can be challenging, O'Hagan says Kirchin's love of melody and harmony provide balance to his catalogue. There are familiar moments in Kirchin's music that are, as O'Hagan puts it, "comforting and spooky at the same time."

Listening to Kirchin's music reminds O'Hagan to be less rigid with the structure of his own compositions.

"There was always something odd and something strange, something slightly peculiar," O'Hagan explains.

"We're not talking about lift [elevator] music here. We're talking about something that's truly bizarre, sometimes slightly disturbing. But also, in isolation, when you listen to his music, I think it's evocative."

For more on this story, listen to our full interview with Sean O'Hagan.

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