#3 The Caretaker - An Empty Bliss Beyond this World
Lovely painting no? Time as matter (or something).
A couple of weeks ago, I posted a piece about a dementing man I worked with called Gearóid. In that piece I remarked on how my reflections on Gearóid's own memories disturbed me, mostly because he was disturbed himself and those memories were clearly quite traumatising. Yet Gearóid was one of many people in the hospice, and some of them seemed to be fading away peacefully into a sort of bliss. A man called Vinny, for example, loved old showband music and this often played on repeat from a small CD player near his bed. When I'd check on him, he'd sometimes have a look of such faraway serenity on his face that he was somehow outside himself, lost in time, halfway to heaven, or somewhere far beyond the physical world anyway. It was the music. He was traveling somewhere with it.
Kirby's album does something staggering and quite visionary in a way. He takes as his central concept the idea that the last thing people with Alzheimer's remember is music, and he uses that concept to musically simulate the mind of someone with the disease. To do this, he loops carefully curated samples of old ragtime and music hall records from his own collection and treats them with varying levels of distortion, creating an overall impression of the demented mind as a haunted ballroom. Indeed, the samples are treated in such a way that they often sound like they are playing out in a large empty space (think of a gramophone turning by itself in a dusty hall).
In case I have made it sound like a dry exercise in conceptualising, I must iterate that there are many ways to listen to An Empty Bliss Beyond this World. The music has a value that can be separated from Kirby's concept. Like William Basinski's thematically connected Disintegration Loops the tracks can make for meditative ambient listening, not least because Kirby's selections of source material generally tend towards the comforting and serene.
However, I can only listen to this album with characters like Gearóid and Vinny in mind. If I really get lost in this album (and I often do) I wonder what it might possibly feel like to be stripped of all language capability and to have only music left. Imagine that; imagine having no words left in your head to describe things. Everything in the visible world becomes a nameless object, and there is nothing left to guide your consciousness except a few old tunes looping through the waves and static of your disease. Would those tunes still communicate something to you about your life and the human condition? Would they be able to tell you things without words? Sad things? Consoling things? Loving things? And would these associations eventually strip away entirely, leaving just the music itself, free of all association except for the near empty bliss of the thing itself, a simple melody playing in the void.
MP3: James Kirby-Tiny Gradations of Loss