Harrow County School for Boys

Chris Elvin

Obituary by John Clayton

Chris was a brilliant mathematician and musician, but the distinguishing characteristic that will be remembered by all who knew him was his refusal to be bound by convention. This was no temporary adolescent rebellion in Chris’s case, but a lifelong crusade until his sudden and untimely death at the age of 56.

I stayed in contact with Chris intermittently over the years, mainly as a result of our shared interest in various topics both musical and mathematical. In a typical phone call from France, where he'd moved with his young family in the 1980s, he would launch into an explanation of some abstruse theory or a discussion concerning a new mathematical treatise that he'd been working on. Traditional pleasantries took second place to the subject matter that was on his mind on that particular day. That’s not to say that these conversations were dry and without humour, quite the opposite in fact. I would picture him on the other end of the phone, looking rather unconventional, as he was on the day George Cowan encountered him wandering barefoot around Harrow many years ago.

Chris worked as a computer programmer for much of his life and in the last year or so had turned his attention to some typically esoteric software applications, purely for his own interest. One recent development was aimed at extracting musical notation from audio sources, to allow some of the trickier passages in his favourite recordings to be transcribed, practised and played. The extraction of a particular instrument's contribution from the many components found in an audio mix is a daunting task and, as far as I'm aware, one that no one else has entirely successfully accomplished.

He called one day to announce that he thought that his software had managed to extract a fair approximation to one of Ernie Watts' more outrageous tenor solos in an early Frank Zappa track. As it turned out, it certainly had, but stopped short of producing a file in any sort of conventional format, so the final result was sent to me by post in the form of handwritten musical manuscript. After some practice, I was able to play this cacophony on a keyboard at reduced speed and capture it as a MIDI file on the computer. On playing the end result synchronised with the original recording at the correct speed, I realised that his software had done what I would have thought to be impossible - Ernie's absurd tenor solo was rendered absolutely note-perfect in every respect.

Chris’s musical prowess encompassed a wide range. His blues harmonica, first heard in the school band "The Brethren" at the Christmas Entertainments, and his boogie-woogie piano styles ranked with the best and were featured on many recordings over the years. At one musical session in the late 'sixties, Chris produced an alto sax that he'd learnt to play remarkably well in the previous few weeks. He continued to play alto and tenor for many years, but I remember him once telling me that he had to go to the nearby woods to practise in order to avoid upsetting his neighbours.

During the Harrow County years, his piano teacher was Arthur Haley, and I remember hearing Chris playing impressively at several school concerts. Many could manage a passable rendition of the first two movements of the "Moonlight" Sonata, but Chris carried on to the third, undeterred and with gusto. His daughter Heidie now carries on that part of the Elvin tradition as a very proficient classical pianist and says that she will now learn to play the boogie, to maintain the full musical complement. Both she and her brother Alexis played and sang at Chris's funeral and, with the aid of Chris's younger son Boris, ensured that his memory will live on.

This event was evidently in keeping with Chris's style, featuring as it did several tracks from various Zappa albums and at least one from a CD of his own songs. Chris had performed these songs using home-made keyboard and footpedal contraptions plus neck harness for 'mouth harp', in various venues on both sides of the Channel, under the name of Loony Bo Lockson. The end result has been described as occupying a position in the musical spectrum somewhere between Ian Dury and Chas & Dave. I can imagine Chris approving that choice of music to set the right mood for his departure.

Chris died during a stay in Paris and his funeral took place in Père Lachaise, in the company of Frédéric Chopin, Stéphane Grappelli, Edith Piaf and Jim Morrison.

Rest in peace, Chris. The world will be a far more boring place without you.

John Clayton, Nov 2005


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