Abstractions of the Industrial North
ith the enthusiastic help of Jonny Trunk and his Trunk Records label, the late Basil Kirchin (he passed away in June) has finally been receiving some of the wider recognition he deserves. Starting out in his father’s big band ensemble and eventually taking it over, Kirchin moved on to creating soundtracks for imaginary films, as well as many quite real British film and television productions, using the proceeds from those efforts to fund his experimental endeavors using Nagra tape recorders. Kirchin’s varied output has been cited as an influence by those in the know—Brian Eno, Broadcast (who are mentioned in the liner notes of this release), and Nurse With Wound, among others—and Trunk’s reissues of fascinating, frightening “journeys” like Quantum and Worlds Within Worlds are helping expose an obscure but nevertheless captivating catalog of music to a wider audience.
Abstractions of the Industrial North is a product of Kirchin’s imaginary film period, compiling both the sessions bearing the title’s name as well as nine miscellaneous library cuts, although one would be hard pressed to differentiate between the two sets of songs without the aid of liner notes. This is partially due to the slack usually given to film soundtracks, which aren’t necessarily expected to seamlessly cohere into an “album” since their purpose is to augment a visual story, but the overall quality here renders such theorizing beside the point—Abstractions is crammed with aching, fuzzy melodies, joyous romps, and a beautiful, melancholy atmosphere. Though these tracks stick close to the jazz format in which Kirchin began his career, the attention to sound, as an element capable of evoking feelings and generating excitement, passion, sadness, or what have you, is as carefully crafted as any of Kirchin’s more bizarre forays into tape manipulation.
The effect of the best film soundtracks can be similar to reading a book—your imagination is stimulated into overdrive, filling in the areas left blank by the lack of imagery. It would be presumptive, then, for me to declare what the imagined film Kirchin is scoring here resembles; still, some suggestions might prove useful. The early tracks here bear a striking similarity to Czech director Jaromil Jires’ Valerie and Her Week of Wonders, a surrealist fable of a young girl’s sexual awakening set in a crumbling, bucolic village. It’s a story of innocence and darkness, vampires and angels, all pervaded by a sense of gold-tinted wonder; the tentative opening notes of “Prelude and Dawn” conjure the image of Valerie, in flowing white, slowly entering a dark room, her eyes wide, a faint smile on her face. It’s easy to imagine her diminutive silhouette beside the dark smokestacks bathed in a ray of light that grace this album’s cover art; were she to take off on an adventure into the industrial north, Kirchin’s compositions would provide an ideal accompaniment.
The trajectory of Abstractions certainly moves in this direction. Where the pastoral flute lines which dominate “Prelude and Dawn” and “Heart of the North” give the impression of a near-mythic mountain spirit (which sounds hokey but is gorgeous in execution), the middle tracks have a more urban swing, with lounging saxophones, jaunty bass, and toe-tapping drums. “Reflection” is just that—a short, wistful telephone call to the folks back home in the countryside. After that, the track titles continue to point toward modernity—“Packing, Printing, and Light Assembly” wouldn’t be out of place supporting Dziga Vertov’s Man With A Movie Camera, “Research Laborator” is an ominous peek into the lair of a mad scientist, “Communication” is a jarring, rush-hour pulse, “Lunch Hour Pops” boogies like a hip teenager, and “Heavy Machinery” concludes the album proper with a brief, dissonant blast.
The library selections, taken from De Wolfe library recordings but recorded in the same period, drop the loose narrative of Abstractions but preserve the feeling. Displaying a poppier side (circa mid-60s, of course) of Kirchin’s work, they still manage to capture the effervescent buoyancy, subtly warped by ghostly tension, that characterizes the rest of the album. “Pageing Sullivan,” even features a pre-Led Zeppelin Jimmy Page and Big Jim Sullivan, but is no less a distinctly Kirchin piece than anything else here.
The possibilities for making a real film from this imaginary score verge on endless—a creative director, working with the mood set by Abstractions and perhaps incorporating these library cuts and Kirchin’s compositions on either the accessible or experimental sides of the spectrum, could create a truly fantastic visual universe. Kirchin lays out a blueprint with these songs, and there lies the heart of this eccentric composer’s genius—in bypassing the typical reliance on the writer/director/cinematographer, Kirchin in effect makes a case for the composer as a co-author of equal importance, an all-too-rare occurrence.
Reviewed by: Ethan White
Reviewed on: 2005-07-14