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Basil Kirchin - Particles

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Artist: Basil Kirchin

Album: Particles

Label: Trunk

Review date: Jul. 6, 2007

In the 1940s and ’50s, Basil Kirchin played jazz, first drumming in his dad’s big band, then recording and ultimately leading it. Then in the late ’50s, he got fed up with his own music, went on a spiritually motivated trip to the South Seas, where he lost all his old recordings in a boat-loading accident. Thus, unencumbered by his own past, he embarked on a second and far more extraordinary musical career. Kirchin composed soundtrack music, mostly for documentaries and horror flicks, and in his spare time developed a wildly creative variant on musique concrete. While the disciples of Pierres Schaeffer and Henry fashioned compositions from the sounds of inanimate objects, Kirchin juxtaposed the voices of animals and the autistic kids that were in his wife’s care with the playing of free improvisers and rock guitarists. Of course, the various volumes of Worlds Within Worlds sold like napalm in an ashram at the time, but they were also championed by Brian Eno, Rudolph Grey and Nurse With Wound. This ultimately lead to rediscovery, reissues and a feature article in The Wire that ran in 2004. Although he was terribly sick when he was interviewed, he was still stoked about the music he was making, whose significance he compared to the discovery of gas or electricity.

Particles is Kirchin’s final work, barely completed before cancer claimed him in April 2005. While I don’t imagine the world will change because of it, I can see how it kept him going. Sandwiched between two ebullient slices of ersatz big band music (besides Kirchin, there are just two horn players and a drummer on the record), the sort of thing you could imagine Robert Wyatt playing if he ever won the lotto and hired a jazz orchestra, are half a dozen tracks that dissolve the boundaries between improvisation and composition, music and speech, electronic and acoustic, now and whenever. Their genesis lies in conversations that Kirchin surreptitiously recorded in his kitchen, then handed to one of the talkers, programmer Iain Firth. Together they isolated phrases and turned them into music, which Kirchin then realized with acoustic instruments and delivered to reed player Alan Barnes and trumpeter Bruce Adams.

The end result is at once familiar and quite strange. “Amundo,” for example, is an elegant bass solo that is nearly all acoustic, but some subtly swollen low notes betray evidence of tweaking. Elsewhere the horns natter away, often at rushed tempos, in cadences equally suggestive of spoken dialogue and freely improvised instrumental exchange. On “We Don’t Care,” a heavily treated bass clarinet burbles like some half-drunk extra from a space tavern scene in Star Wars while drums and trumpets stitch unnaturally hard-angled shapes of natural sound around it. Pizzicato strings swirl through a couple other tracks, glossed with some electronic finish so that they sound like they were conceived and played in a snow globe. Although the music is intensely worked over – Firth writes of spending four hours trying to turn 25 seconds of speech into music – it feels lively, spontaneous, and persistently good-humored. That’s especially remarkable when you consider that it was made in the shadow of death.

By Bill Meyer

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