It’s an image as striking as it is deeply haunting. A dapper couple who could’ve strolled right out of an F. Scott Fitzgerald novel clasp hand in hand alone at the center of a depthless black floor, directly facing the viewer. Just beyond their lovestruck embrace, marooned on a semi-circle stage of bruised slate, a white-suited band is rolling through its paces, clustered against a stark background of grave turquoise sky and black columns. Why is this picture so eerie and unsettling?
The faces of these figures, both the dancers and the musicians, are utterly blank, for one. They’re simple black voids marked only in the disturbing contrast of an occasional mustache or pair of glasses, and the dancing woman’s lively, lipstick-lined mouth. Even the instruments the band plays are rudimentary, almost half-erased single-color shapes, as if reality itself is losing detail in the passing minutes, blurring into an unrecognizable mist as the players rustle through “Moonglow” or “The Very Thought Of You”. Faceless, they seem to still be regarding your unexpected presence in their private bandstand, welcoming you with shadow-eyed invitations to join them on their bottomless abyss of a floating dancefloor. You hesitate; you know that once you’re here, you won’t be leaving again.
This is the artwork for We’ll All Go Riding On A Rainbow, an early album by Leyland James Kirby, the British sound artist better known as The Caretaker (among many other aliases). Perhaps no contemporary experimental music project evokes more specific sense associations than this. The Caretaker’s realm is a half-lit landscape populated with tarnished saxophone brass, mildewed velvet chairs, heavy dust settling on a warped Victrola, and shuffling ghosts by the dozens.
The project was initially inspired by Kubrick’s film adaptation of the Stephen King novel The Shining, and like the film, The Caretaker’s work is an interlocking puzzle of mysteries, dualities and symbols, a labyrinthine maze that might not be fully understood after fifty experiences drowning in its depths, let alone one. There’s a simultaneous vacancy and presence to both the film and the music in question, a sense of suggesting half-glimpsed illusions rather than stating them directly. The Caretaker’s work is a mask at the ball, always on the verge of lifting at midnight. What you find might stay with you forever.
Knowing the backstory, of course, it’s hard not to picture these floating sounds in the context of the film’s scenes (“Hair of the dog that bit me, Lloyd!”), with their boundless vistas of creeping hallways and sweeping, devastating snowfalls. But on its own merit, The Caretaker is a riveting project, an exploration of time, memory, and the spiritual quality of both while actively resisting any trace of churlish sentimentality. A sense of the past slipping away is not a new theme in experimental music by any stretch, but this is that feeling crystallized into every warbly note of brass, every vinyl crackle. This music is time trapped in amber. These voices echo down corridors of longing as if paralyzed in an eternal purgatory.
At times it’s interesting to consider what my grandparents would make of The Caretaker. They were of this prewar generation, after all, and probably spun around a dancefloor or two to these solemn notes of whimsy in their younger days. Would they resent the appropriation, even consider it ‘music’, one man processing the sounds of the past through layers of reverb and pitch effects, at times rendering the songs unrecognizable, other times leaving them strangely intact beneath clouds of filmy hiss and crackle? Maybe it depends on when you’d ask them. This is how these songs would seem in their memory as they aged: decayed, distant, and unreachable. As with The Disintegration Loops, it’s the music of mortality, but in an entirely different context and intention. If Basinski’s loops represent the death of obsolete technology itself, then this is the sound of time slipping out of gear and rendered in bone and ash. This is the reality of time travel to a distant past.
Al Bowlly is one of the restless phantoms that stirs to creaking life in both the film and this music. Bowlly was an early popstar in an age when star bandleaders were given credit over singers (when singers were credited at all) and hearing him here, it’s hard not to consider his sad, brutal death, killed by a German parachute bomb that landed outside his London flat during the war. These are the ghosts with whom Kirby keeps company, figures like his high-contrast dancefloor band and his amorous couple, seemingly vanishing before our eyes, soon claimed by time and recollection entirely. Jaunty titles such as “By The Seaside” and “Roll Up The Carpet And Dance” are rendered sinister by their proximity to those such as “Driven Beyond The Limits” and “Malign Forces Of The Occult”. The carefree trifles of yesterday are rendered mysterious and spectral by beds of static and noise.
As time goes on, Kirby has left the haunted ballroom aesthetic behind for deeper ruminations on amnesia and memory (such as the concept of ‘theoretically pure anterograde amnesia”, where patients are able to recall memories occurring before the onset of their illness, while anything beyond their immediate attention span soon withers and disappears forever). He’s recorded a brilliant score for one of my favorite documentaries, Patience: After Sebald, about the late, unclassifiable writer, and these pieces represent a new frontier for Kirby’s work, made up primarily of re-imaginings of a Schubert song cycle. And of course, Mr. Kirby continues with his many other projects, including his bleak and often terrifying recordings as The Stranger, his gentler, ambient-minded releases under his own name, and his long-running project of striking pop-song demolition as V/Vm. His live performances remain legendary in experimental music circles for their exhausting inventiveness.
But it’s to The Caretaker that I keep returning, a ghost myself, isolated in some cobwebbed ballroom with little chance to escape and only time and recollection to linger and languish over. In the version of “Friends Past Reunited” that appears on A Stairway To The Stars, what sounds like a boys’ chorus sweeps upward into a bat-strewn Gothic cathedral, pealing higher and higher until the voices begin to clip, blur and decay, driven to the limits of technology and disintegrating age. In an era of smartphone obsessions and fear-strewn media overload, we should all be so haunted by the past and its implications.
Perhaps the winding down of time itself is akin to the jarring, unidentifiable noise at the center of “The Revolving Bandstand”, a rusty wooden creaking, in wider and wider circles, echoing through the halls until we’re gone. (Zachary Corsa)