On the wall just to the left of my computer screen, there’s a black-and-white photo by Ashfield-raised Smith alum Cynthia Elbaum, the subject of Tony Jillson’s For Cynthia. In it, three men — or more precisely, what looks like the ghosts of three men — walk toward the photographer. Behind them is a very bright patch of light and a street scene. The street is wet, strewn with unidentifiable debris, and in the background a small crowd is also approaching. The only location clue is a Lada, one of those distinctive automobiles that filled the roads behind the Iron Curtain.
The image so struck me when I first saw it that it’s adorned the office wall for a good few years. There’s something haunting about it, a perfectly captured sense of unrest and impermanence. It’s made more poignant yet by the fact that Elbaum was one of the first journalists killed in the Chechen/Russian conflict of 20 years ago. In December, 1994, then 28-year-old Elbaum, on assignment for Time, was covering the aftermath of a Russian bombing when Russian bombers returned.
A couple of years ago, Tony Jillson, a veteran of musical projects St. Mix and Oxtrich Farm, composed music for a short film about Elbaum, whom he had known since childhood. For Cynthia contains re-recorded music from that project with real stringed instruments replacing computer-generated parts, as well as newly composed pieces.
Jillson is a self-taught rock and pop musician, but the range of sounds and influences on For Cynthia is far broader than you might expect given that background. Cello lends a melancholic air to the more introspective tunes, but frequently drives songs with rhythmic hits.
The lead piece, “For Cynthia,” is propelled by a stolid, repetitive piano part underscoring string-driven melodies that range from drawn-out cello swells to brightly played violin melodies.
It’s followed by “The Phone Call,” a tense work revolving around an unadorned electric guitar melody. At other points, surprising elements enter, pushing the songs into territory more akin to folk dances of an Eastern European persuasion. Jillson wanders far in these instrumental pieces, and proves adept at employing these rather un-rock instruments to create an intriguing variety of textures. The result is, at times, a hybrid of pop, folk, and classical concerns. The whole forms a purposeful wandering, an exploration of moods and textures tied to Jillson’s remembrance of a life cut tragically short, a life that clearly continues to inspire those who knew Cynthia Elbaum.