Home Music Basil Kirchin and John Coleman: Mind on the Run

Basil Kirchin and John Coleman: Mind on the Run

The world of library music is an odd, even paradoxical one. Ostensibly made to be rented and used as incidental music for TV, radio and film when budgets don’t allow for original compositions, these albums should by rights tend towards the conventional, towards characterless pastiche for the widest possible application. In fact, though, especially in the ‘60s and ‘70s, the non-commercial―or more accurately, the differently commercial―library music industry was notable for the fertile experimentation that its often unrecognized or even uncredited composers and musicians indulged in. One of the key figures attracted to the field was English jazz drummer Basil Kirchin.

A true one-off, Kirchin had started out as a drummer in his early teens, working with his father Ivor Kirchin’s big band during World War II, before drumming with some of the biggest names in British jazz after the war. An early countercultural instinct took him to India on a spiritual quest of self-discovery in the late ‘50s, after which he relocated to Australia and then back to England again at the turn of the ‘60s, pursuing the parallel interests of jazz drumming and sonic experimentation. As rock ‘n’ roll and skiffle overtook jazz as the youth music of the era, he continued to work with his father, but his passion became the experimental music he was simultaneously working on, experimenting with tape recorders and found sounds to create new and unusual music. It was this strand of his work which would lead to his collaborations with De Wolfe Music, the production company that pioneered library music in the UK.

Kirchin would make six library music albums with De Wolfe in an intense period of creativity, Mind on the Run, made with fellow composer/arranger John Coleman, being one of four LPs he made in 1966 alone. At once identifiably a product of the mid-‘60s and unlike much else, It’s typical of the accessibly avant garde music that library recordings made possible. From the start, the album is a mix of the surprisingly conventional and blithely unorthodox, opening with the glitzy, movie theme-like title track. Very ‘60s indeed with its skirling horns, jazz clarinet and romantic twangy guitar, it’s bright and catchy, but with an oddly relentless beat and Bernard Herrmann-esque intensity that marks it out as the product of an avant-garde sensibility. Likewise, the dramatic romantic theme “The Scene Around” could equally be used in an advertisement or a particularly intense and obsessive love scene. Naturally, the music on the album ― 24 tracks, from full-blooded themes to tiny segues and snippets ― is diverse, but it’s united by an almost manic quality that informs the rhythms, even on a to-all-intents-and-purposes sultry jazz piece like “Ticking Over.” The music evokes a wide range of moods familiar from Hollywood movies, French and Italian cinema and cheesy mainstream showbiz TV, but always with that ― you might think unnecessary ― intensity that makes it more than just muzak, even if that’s technically exactly what it is.

Throughout his career, Kirchin had an interest in the new sounds that were revealed by altering the speed of recordings, in musique concrète and found sounds and often the music on Mind on the Run has the peculiar swimming quality of sounds that have been slowed down to expose new and different frequencies. The album is built around a core of 10 substantial compositions, but there are also 14 short ‘links,’ mostly utilizing the same palette as the rest of the albums ― brass, vibraphone, harp, piano, organ ― but there are also more minimalist links featuring just marimba, bass and piano, covering a variety of moods from tension and suspense to gameshow-like segues and fanfares. If Kirchin, still an unfairly obscure figure, is known for anything, it’s his more outré experiments with found sounds, including the notorious recording where he made music from the nonverbal speech of autistic children. Those experiments would go on to influence a younger generation of musicians, but although there is plenty of evidence of the composer’s untrammeled creativity here, it’s never the main focus and doesn’t quite undermine the all-purpose purpose of the music.

Library albums by their nature were never really designed for immersive home listening, but Mind on the Run maintains interest surprisingly well. Its abrupt shifts in mood are offset by a sustained unearthly tone, energy and textures, and ultimately it works almost like a soundtrack, albeit a schizophrenic one where John Barry and Ennio Morricone meet Dave Brubeck, Pierre Schaeffer and Stockhausen. While obviously not for all tastes, as library music it necessarily wears its experimentalism lightly and it’s never impenetrable or inaccessible. Although in some ways it looks back to the tightly orchestrated jazz of the ‘50s that Kirchin had grown up with, it also, more relevantly, looks forward to the very different ambient experiments of Brian Eno, where the listener almost imperceptibly becomes attuned to new and unorthodox sounds without ever really being forced out of their comfort zone.

In this 1966 library recording, Brian Kirchin and John Coleman create a sound-world that is conventional and unorthodox in equal measures, but which never feels difficult.
85 %
Masterly sonic experimentation

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