Ashfield musician releases CD to honor photojournalist Cynthia Elbaum who died in Russian air raid in Chechnya

Cori Urban | Special to The Republican By Cori Urban | Special to The Republican
on December 29, 2014 at 9:57 AM, updated December 29, 2014 at 10:16 AM 


ASHFIELD –An Ashfield music and video producer has released a CD of music meant not only as a memorial, but a celebration of the life of Smith College graduate and photojournalist Cynthia Elbaum who was 28 when she was killed during a Russian air raid on Chechnya, in 1994.

Tony Jillson, of Birdwaves Media, describes the music on “For Cynthia” as “New Classical,” saying it is rooted in the classical tradition, but has elements of Eastern European folk, rock and electronic music. “The CD has pieces that are very rhythmic and driven. At other times it is soft and introspective,” he said.


It represents many of his thoughts and memories about Elbaum, a Smith graduate who was covering a Russian Federation air raid on the Chechen capital of Grozny.

Russia's invasion of Chechnya, under President Boris Yeltsin, in 1994, to stop the republic's push for complete autonomy, resulted in two years of fighting, and the deaths of more than 40,000 people, and displacement of 300,000 Chechens. Elbaum, who had majored in Russian studies, at the Northampton college, and was fluent in the language, was killed by a rocket, during the third consecutive day of air raids on Grozny, about a week into the war.

Not every song on the CD is a literal translation of a particular event, but is meant to touch on a range of emotions and experiences related to her. “It’s a tall order, trying to encapsulate a lifetime, in 40 minutes of music,” said Jillson, a webmaster, web designer, graphic designer, illustrator and Mac computer consultant. “Of course it can’t be done. But we try to capture some of the essence.”

Both good times and bad times are included in the CD.

“The bad times, for instance, are pretty well represented in my piece, ‘The Phone Call,’” Jillson said. It begins soft and dreamy, and then it gets abrupt and strident. “This mirrors my personal experience getting ‘that’ phone call,” he said. 

He was cooking in his apartment, in Brooklyn, when he got an unexpected call from someone from the New York Times. “They somehow discovered our apartment as Cynthia’s last known address in New York City. They wanted a quote about Cynthia’s death. At first I thought it was a practical joke or something. Then I learned it was real, and it was like the room was spinning and the rug had been pulled out from under me,” he recalled. “I was simultaneously devastated, as well as angered, at how this thoughtless person had dropped this news on me. They did not stop to think that I might be learning about this from them!”

Jillson first met Elbaum when he moved to Ashfield in 1976; both were 10 years old. In grammar school they had an exchange trip to Mexico, and he has a faded color photo of himself that she took while they were there. “It’s probably one of the first photos she ever took,” he said.

Jillson, his wife Martha Lively, and Elbaum, all attended Mohawk Trail Regional High School, in Buckland together, and the couple stayed in touch with Elbaum through the years. He and his wife had an apartment in Brooklyn, and Elbaum stayed with them between trips to Russia.

Another song on the new CD, “Stargazing at the Golf Course,” reflects the good times. It’s a rhythmic acoustic piece, meant to evoke the times the three had in their teens. “We were all good friends, enjoying life, growing up in the country,” Jillson said.

The collection of music “For Cynthia” was written, Jillson said, for love, friendship, and truth and “for us all.”

“Most of us have lost a loved one: a parent, a partner, a friend,” he said. The music is his reflection on loss and the emotions one experiences, both initially, as well as over the long haul. But this is not merely a requiem, it's also a dedication and celebration of Elbaum’s life,he said.

In addition, journalists throughout the world “face incredible dangers to bring us the information that we would never get otherwise,” he said. “The information they deliver saves lives and allows us to make more informed decisions. We need them now more than ever. We should support them and recognize them as the heroes they are.”

Elbaum’s story was already an interesting one, her friend said. “She had many facets and interests. She was incredibly driven, smart and active. She had a terrific sense of humor. She was a talented artist as well as photographer. Whatever she set out to do, she did it. She wanted to visit Russia. No problem, she learned Russian and spoke fluently. She was also very attractive and charming. She could use this charm to get her photo subjects to open up to her in a way that others might not.”

The way she died--where she was and what she was doing there—makes her story even more poignant “in light of the current news and focus on the plight of journalists in war-torn areas of the world,” he added.

There are eight pieces on “For Cynthia,” all written, arranged and scored by Jillson, and all instrumental featuring violin, cello, 6-string acoustic guitar, 12-string acoustic guitar, nylon string classical guitar, electric guitar, electric bass, piano, prepared piano, percussion and computer generated sounds.

In 2012, Elbaum’s mother, Jude Elbaum, asked Jillson to contribute music for a short film about her daughter. The music was well received, so Jillson expanded it to create a full CD.

He had no idea at the time that the next couple years would be an odyssey of sorts for him, struggling to create this music, learning how to score for strings, learning how to tune his own piano, finding musicians to play this music etc. while simultaneously rebuilding his studio and trying to earn a living being self-employed.

Jillson would like to perform the music live if he can secure funding. “Many people don’t consider music ‘real’ until they experience it live. I think this music would sound incredible performed live,” he said, noting that it would be great to perform at the First Congregational Church of Ashfield and in Northampton at Smith College. “And from there, who knows?”

Asked if he thought Elbaum would have liked the CD, he said yes; she had eclectic tastes: She liked music from Crosby Stills and Nash, to Velvet Underground to Run DMC. She even grew to like some of the Prog Rock he played for her. “Grudgingly, but I eventually won her over with ‘Gentle Giant,’” he recalled.

Creating an album to memorialize his friend was not something he had envisioned and pre-planned. “If I had, it could easily have turned out stilted and forced,” he said. “Instead, it came about organically, starting with a simple request from Cynthia’s mother. That simple request planted a seed that grew over time, tended with much blood sweat and tears, into something beautiful. Like Cynthia.”

“For Cynthia” sells for $20 and is available though Jillson’s website, and at Turn It Up! in Northampton and Elmer’s Store in Ashfield.


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