Exploring the life and work of the musician and artist Paul Burwell

Last year we were privileged to be able to finish work on a 40 minute documentary ‘Mind On The Run’ rediscovering the life and work of the amazing and pioneering composer and musician Basil Kirchin who died in Hull in 2005.

Supported by Hull 2017, the project was a labour of love for Nova and the film has been shown to acclaim at festivals and screenings in London, Manchester, Belfast and Newcastle.

Our work on Basil’s life was a great springboard into our next creative documentary project which will explore the life and work of the musician and artist Paul Burwell.

Paul shares man parallels with Basil – he started out as drummer, moved deeply into the world of experimental music and sound art, and took his life off-the-beaten track creatively, spiritually and geographically, eventually settling in the old Kingston Rowing Club, next to the River Hull at the far end of Oak Road, where he sadly collapsed in 2007 and died of hypothermia soon after.

If you don’t recognise Paul Burwell’s name and you’re not familiar with his work, that’s not entirely surprising… achieving fame was never his intention, but Burwell was part of creative movement that has had an enduring influence on British art and music.

In the late 1960s he began a musical partnership with the musician and writer David Toop (later a member of The Flying Lizards – who remembers their brilliant cover on Money?). Burwell and Toop worked closely with leading British avant garde poet Bob Cobbing and created mad, magical, sound experience that truly pushed the boundaries of musical performance. 

Burwell became a founding member of the London Musicians’ Collective, a group of improvising musicians and sound artists including Evan Parker, Peter Cusack, Lol Coxhill, Sylvia Hallet, Max Eastley and many others who are now regarded internationally as leaders of a unique and inspiring underground music movement.

Through the 1980s Burwell worked closely with artists Richard Wilson and Anne Bean as one third of the Bow Gamelan Ensemble who travelled the world creating huge theatrical, pyrotechnic, percussive performances using mad sculptural instruments made from junk, described in the New York Times as an “industrial strength racket” and in the Sunday Times as: “a delight to behold, a strange beauty where you never would have expected to find it.”

However, for all of Burwell’s undoubted creativity and unique ideas, he wilfully refused to take an easy route through life, deliberately and consistently seeking out spaces where he could give rein to his wild and often self-destructive nature.

Which may explain why, in 1999, after winning a Year of The Artist grant, he moved himself lock, stock and barrel into the dilapidated Kingston Rowing Club boathouse in a forgotten corner of Hull, itself at that time a forgotten industrial city.

Burwell had a great love of water, boats, fire, magic and noise – not to mention whisky – and at the boathouse he could go as deeply into all of those things as he liked without fear of scaring the neighbours. The Boathouse became a haven for Hull’s creative underground; like-minded people finding in Burwell an inspirational kindred spirit who really had been-there-and-done-that – someone who valued freedom of expression and who genuinely believed that performance and art really can change lives.

In February 2007, Burwell, fell over in the night in the garden of the Boathouse and couldn’t get back to his feet. He was discovered the next morning suffering from hypothermia and died in Hull Royal Infirmary days later with Richard Wilson and Anne Bean at his side, drumming as he left.

Burwell left a huge and scattered archive of material – from audio recording, notes and sketchbooks, to masses of photographs, film and scratchy video footage of performances along with documentary films about his work that appeared on the BBC and Channel 4. We’ll be using plenty of that in the film.

But it is through the stories, recollections and thoughts of those who knew Paul that his story will be told. We’ve spoken to many of the people who knew Paul, both here in Hull and in his earlier years in London, and the enthusiasm we’ve found for the project has been wonderful.

So many of the influential and internationally renowned artists and performers who worked with Paul over the years were inspired not only by his ideas and work, but by his personality and his wild passion for both art and life. In a world where the true value of art – it’s ability to transport and transform us – is often forgotten, Paul Burwell’s life can be an inspiration to emerging artists to remind them that success shouldn’t always be measured in numbers.

We are delighted to be supported in our work by the radical arts funding body Future’s Venture Foundation and we will be working closely with the University of Hull, J-Nights and Freedom Festival to develop a programme of talks and live performance inspired by Burwell’s life and work, to coincide with the release of the film next year.

Just like our Basil Kirchin film Mind On The Run, it will be fascinating for Nova to find out more about Paul Burwell and to play a part in ensuring that his work, the way he lived his life and Hull’s role in his story is not forgotten.

The photo above shows Paul Burwell on drums , poet Bob Cobbing, and David Toop on guitar.