the shining, ambient music, and forgetting
The first time I ever watched The Shining, it was well past midnight. I was wedged in between my best friends on a couch in a New Hampshire cabin, the stars alight outside. This was last December—during a brief weekend respite amid finals week, when I could concern myself with nothing but the sound of ping-pong balls hitting the table and the solace of cigarette smoke on the porch. Our first evening there, we foolishly threw on Kubrick’s famous horror movie on the small, old-fashioned, box-style television.
I was a newbie to the world of horror movies, so I expected a vapid story—an excuse for jump scares and gore. Instead, I encountered the harrowing tale of Jack Torrance—a man fighting his alcoholism-ridden past, hoping to move on and make life better for his family. A caretaker job at the Overlook Hotel is supposed to be his fresh start, but the hotel doesn’t work like that—it taps into the ghosts you are trying to forget and swallows you whole if you aren’t strong enough to fend it off. I found myself clinging to every scene, wanting to inhabit the walls of the Overlook so I could hear what the spirits whispered at night. I wanted to enter the ballroom and sit at the bar with Jack as the nighttime danced around us. The eerie universe of the film called to me like the hotel itself, begging me to spend a night there, leave something of myself behind, and come back again soon. I spent most of winter break thinking about it, wondering what the Overlook would dig up about me if it ever had the chance.
One night back on campus the following January, hoping to fill the empty space of my room as I did a philosophy reading, I decided to play an album that I’d been meaning to listen to for months—An Empty Bliss Beyond This World by The Caretaker, a.k.a. ambient musician Leyland Kirby. Though I’d later learn that Kirby chose this name as a reference to Jack Torrance’s job at the Overlook, my selection at the time was pure coincidence (with ambient artists having names like A Winged Victory for the Sullen and Ricky Eat Acid, there’s simply no time to dissect every name you encounter). So understand that when I found myself transported back to the Overlook within the first few moments of the album, I was completely unprepared. Once again, I was dancing with ghosts at the edge of the universe as the snow outside laughed coldly on. This was not music I would be able to blindly absorb while reading some Noam Chomsky. This was music for letting the deepest side of myself take hold—the part that daydreams about being the last person left alive on Earth as music somehow rises from the rubble.
Since 1999, Kirby has been making hauntingly evocative ambient music that attempts to mirror the aesthetic of The Shining’s famous ballroom scene. And I’m not being speculative; his first album is literally named Selected Memories From the Haunted Ballroom. The music of his early projects is composed primarily of samples from 1930s ballroom jazz music, manipulated to sound staticy and far away. It is unsettling and captivating, and though it almost verges on artistic thievery (the music is not even his own, but borrowed for his personal aesthetic project), it is so damn effective that I don’t care if it’s not wholly original.
I discovered something else upon listening to this album and exploring The Caretaker further: I had arrived just as he was nearing the end of his story. In 2016, Kirby announced on his Bandcamp page that he was embarking on a six-album journey called Everywhere at the End of Time, to be released in stages over the next few years, tracking the progression of dementia—not in himself, but in the fictionalized Caretaker alter-ego. What had begun for Kirby as a fixation with the ghosts of the Overlook turned into an expression of what the hotel embodies—who we are, what we leave behind, and what we have left. Kirby was going to become The Caretaker, fully and completely, until there was nothing left of himself to give. Stages 1-5 had already been released, and Stage 6 was slated to come out in March. I had arrived just in time to watch The Caretaker die. But Kirby was going to be kinder than the hotel: The Overlook brought Jack Torrance’s demons back from the dead and consumed him whole, never allowing him to escape. Kirby was going to show us The Caretaker’s memories, and then let him slowly forget, and forget, and forget.
The journey begins rather simply in Stage 1: The ballroom music that I had grown to love is present in full force, hardly manipulated at all. Stage 1 doesn’t feel like memories—it feels like life is still happening, simply, plainly, right in front of you. Artistically, this rehash of Kirby’s old themes is kind of cheap, but at the back of my mind, I know that this will all come crashing down, and I cling to every note I am able to hear clearly. Stage 2 leaves me speechless; the sampled songs are heart-wrenching, and the audio is the perfect level of hazy and brooding, never letting me get too comfortable. By Stage 3, the ballroom schtick feels almost like a crutch, like Kirby doesn’t know where else to go from here. The music is fuzzy and further away. I know the descent from here on out will be full of a chaos that the music will never recover from, but I am ready.
Stage 4 begins with two tracks, both entitled “Post Awareness Confusions.” The melodies are becoming obscured, replaced by harsh, horrific noise that makes me long for the serenity of the stages I had been so ready to leave. Unlike previous stages, there are not dozens of tracks on Stage 4; instead, four tracks compose an 87-minute-long horror show of an album. Stage 5 is more of the same, adding to the chaotic crescendo of forgetting who you are and forgetting who you have been and wanting, desperately, to find yourself again. I finish Stage 5 two days before Stage 6 is meant to be released, fully expecting an album of pure sonic terror. All Kirby has revealed is this: “ Stage 6 is without description.”
It is now March. Stage 6 is released, and out of the madness emerges an unexpectedly sparse atmosphere, only the faintest remembrance of melody haunting the backgrounds of the hollowed tracks. I turn the lights off and let the music fill the space between my dorm room walls for an hour and a half.
I shut my eyes as any lasting trace of the ballroom fades into obscurity and an hour passes and then a sudden nothing and I gasp—the needle audibly falls off the record, and there is nothing but silent static. And somehow, there are still seven minutes of the album remaining. As those final minutes play through my laptop speakers, the world outside stops. A faint cough is heard in the background of the track. A soft piano melody is introduced, a hazy and obstructed chorus entering a few moments later. At the end of everything, the ethereal takes over, and the final minute is pure silence—wholly without static. As I listen to The Caretaker die, I experience a melancholy so profound that it feels like soaring.
Leyland Kirby does not know exactly how it feels to die, and neither do I, but I know that when he first encountered the Overlook Hotel he had the same paralyzing realization that I did: We want our ghosts to leave us alone, but we’re afraid of who we are without them. Kirby knew what the Overlook would reveal about him, and decided that forgetting and losing everything was the better bliss. The Caretaker may be dead, but as Kirby says: May the ballroom remain eternal.