Written by Joseph Marcello
New instrumental CD honors Ashfield journalist killed in 1994
“I became a journalist to come as close as possible to the heart of the world.”
— Henry Luce
I have just listened to Tony Jillson’s recent CD, “For Cynthia.” It is a set of eight instrumental works featuring Daniel Plane on cello, Kelly Halloran and Joe Jewett on violins and Jillson himself on guitar. It is available on Jillson’s website, http://www.birdwaves.com/, Elmer’s Store in Ashfield and Turn It Up in Northampton.
The CD honors the memory of Cynthia Elbaum, a 28-year-old photojournalist from Ashfield who was killed on assignment for Time magazine, along with many other civilians, in a bombing in Chechnya in 1994, shortly after arriving there. A graduate of Smith College who majored in Russian studies and film, there is a potent irony in the sense that, in spite of her tender years, her life and even her death were somehow a certain fulfillment of her chosen destiny.
And, given the testimony of this album, almost two decades after the fact, clearly, she is one whose memory still fuels ardent feelings in the hearts of those who knew and loved her.
To judge by her visage in various album and online photos, as well as a sweet retrospective video created viewable at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TRAjDwBmhFU, Cynthia was a precocious, knowing soul — my mother might have said “an old soul” — whose presence far outweighed her years and whose spirit powerfully affected all who came within its orbit. An evocative perceptiveness gleams from her eyes and plays out in a smile both subtle and confident; there is the palpable sense of an underlying wisdom and playfulness, inviting deeper exploration; that is, if one dared risk doing so, given the sturdy sense of self that clearly lay just beyond.
In the title cut, “For Cynthia,” the textures are pungent and percussive, charged with not grief and remorse but rather dance-like vitality. At times there is an energetic exuberance reminiscent of Celtic dance music — muscular and determined, even unrelenting.
The next, “Phone Call,” which presumably describes the moment of fatal discovery, is much more impressionistic, beginning with a shiver of string tremolos into which a reflective guitar melody insinuates itself, buoyed up by cello and violin. At length these quiet reflections go into a rhythmic drive mode, with the addition of drums and synthesizer tracks. “Solo Cello” is just that, an angular soliloquy almost like some lost Bach meditation searching for a home.
“Stargazing: Prelude,” all electronics, is an intriguing unearthly meditation, alternately eerie and mysterious. “Stargazing at the Golf Course,” however, is all-acoustic, a lively, dance-like tryst between violin, cello, guitar and percussion and is quietly infectious and attractive.
“The Seaweed Monster vs.
Clay Girl” is a dream-like idyll featuring piano, intermittently commented upon by strings, shot through with empty spaces and rhythmic unpredictabilities — yet pleasant throughout. “Grozny” evokes the dance ethos of Eastern Europe, intense and insistent, driving and dangerous, skateboarding on a razor’s-edge percussion line.
“Stargazing/Postscript” brings us to electronic hyperspace again, full of question marks and unknowings, the edge of the cosmos and, perhaps, the eternal “Why?”
Following, a conversation with Tony Jillson:
JM: How old were you when Cynthia passed?
TJ: We were all 28.
JM: Have you been a musician all along or did your desire to create this move you into music?
TJ: No, I’ve actually been a musician for years. I’ve been in bands in the area, but this was pretty much a departure from the stuff I’ve done in the past, which has been more the rock and pop side of things. I’m completely selftaught. I start by playing the stuff into the computer and that’s what we used for the short film about Cynthia from two years ago. It was an earlier version of the music on the CD, which ended up extending and fleshing out. Cynthia’s mother, Jude Elbaum, and Kate O’Shea originally asked me to do something for the film. My wife, Martha Lively, and I were also interviewed for the film and it was entered into the 2012 Ashfield Filmfest.
JM: What are the major differences between the film soundtrack and the CD?
TJ: I also set about re-recording anything digital with real instruments if I could; I replaced the sampled strings with real string players.
JM: How did you originally put those tracks down, did you play them in on keyboard?
TJ: Yes, I would program them in playing on a keyboard at my computer, some parts at speed, some parts slower — I’m not a very technical keyboard player. And, then, I edit them down. I had to figure out how to make the computer score look right for instrumentalists.
JM: I found “Stargazing” one of the most intriguing tracks, especially since I usually don’t respond warmly to non- acoustic sounds. I think the human nervous system is thousands of years old and that it’s normally not a happy camper when it’s hearing sounds that it knows are not from natural sources. But those mechanical, humming, hovering, ominous sounds in “Stargazing” seem to summon up a world that is both alien and immanently at risk from forces beyond its control. Is any of this remotely close to what you had in mind when you created it?
TJ: Well, I will see you that thought and add that when you look up at the stars, you see lots of results from violent collisions and explosions, so both of those impressions could be true.
JM: Maybe it’s hard to ask you to step outside yourself and share your take on something you’ve created, but, in listening to that track, does it summon gazing into the night sky, as its title suggests?
TJ: To me it does ... like on a nice night when I can really see the Milky Way, it evokes that to me. And, those noises that dart by might be some falling stars or a meteor shower.
JM: So to you there’s nothing particularly ominous or threatening or warlike in those low, vibrating textures?
TJ: Yes. I do think so, especially some of those low tones toward the end, that can signify definite conflict or the end of some event.
JM: Is there anything in the eight cuts that’s particularly “Cynthia-like” in character? TJ: Gosh, probably ...
“Stargazing at the Golf Course” perhaps evokes a feeling of hanging out together. But the take-away is this is about celebrating Cynthia.
I don’t want it to be a “down” thing, it’s part of the celebration of her life.
According to the New Yorkbased Committee to Protect Journalists, 693 journalists have been killed on assignment between Jan. 1, 1992 and June of 2014.