Interview

Interview

Beauty Found in Darkness: Exclusive Interview with Composer Jill Tracy

up
51

I first came across the music of Jill Tracy when I reviewed a compilation of “Dark Cabaret” artists from renowned gothic label Projekt Records, and her song “In Between Shades” was one of the album's most memorable tracks. As fate would have it, while exploring more of her music (including an incredible live score to Nosferatu), I learned that she was closely involved in the short film The Fine Art of Poisoning, which is featured in FEARnet's ever-expanding horror shorts collection. One thing led to another, and soon we were chatting about her involvement in the film, her “musical séance” project, and her latest and most ambitious undertaking – a Musical Excavation of the Mütter Museum in Philadelphia, with its intriguing collection of medical oddities.

 
FEARnet: Hi Jill, thanks for taking time out to talk to us. 
 
JILL: Thank you, same here!
 
First off, I have to say The Fine Art of Poisoning is one of my favorite shorts in FEARnet's collection.
 
Thank you so much! 
 
The song itself feels like a creepy short story, and the visuals are reminiscent of early silent horror films. 
 
I grew up loving Poe and Lovecraft, and the visual style of Fritz Lang and Jean Cocteau. It's that beauty found in darkness that I find so compelling. Horror fans have really embraced my work, but I don't necessarily view it as horror except in the old-fashioned sense, finding the romantic, alluring side, as opposed to the shock value. With Poisoning, we wanted to create a piece that was very dreamlike. In fact, when I wrote the song, I wanted to create the feeling of being poisoned... the piano was recorded on old two-inch tape, and we played with the tension on the tape machine so the piano induces a seasick, wow-and-flutter effect, creating this subtle feeling of becoming intoxicated as the poison takes you under. [Filmmaker] Bill Domonkos heard the song, and wanted to bring it to life, so he contacted me. What's fascinating is that I was already a fan of his work, and I'd bookmarked his website about three years before, hoping I could work with him someday! Then out of the blue, I get an email saying he wanted to make this film. It was just all very magical.
 
I love it when the stars align like that.
 
Yes, the Universe lets you know when the time is right. I think what gives the film the emotion that it has, is the song came first. Bill was very empathetic to it, which then inspired him to create the visuals. The animation is also timed to the song in a musical way that emotionally locks you into it.
 
Right, it's like the heartbeat, the pulse of the film.
 
Exactly! Everything grew outward from that heartbeat.
 
 
You and Bill worked on a second film together, NERVOUS96... what was the genesis of that project?
 
NERVOUS96 was made up mostly of old archival footage, which Bill edited and manipulated to create a completely different story. The music comes from my Musical Séance project, which I recorded with violinist Paul Mercer, and Bill wanted to utilize elements of that... I sent him close to six hours of live music from different séances, and he edited all that together to create one score! He made it work perfectly, and Paul and I were laughing at how he'd used the violin as the voice of the robots. We had no idea that it would be this kind of '50s sci-fi theme. I adore it.
 
 
I'd love to hear more about these musical séances. How did the concept come about?
 
It really began as just a part of my regular concert, because my live performances can be so emotional in the first place. I wanted to bring people into it more intimately, so Paul and I would begin channeling music with the audience... we'd all concentrate collectively on something, like a wish, and I would compose on the spot in front of them – just using what we were feeling at the time. We started thinking of how we could involve the audience even more, so we created this shared experience where audience members would bring objects with them to the show, unique treasures of significance to them like a photograph or a piece of jewelry or a toy. We create an altar with these objects and learn their stories, and the music is manifested through the energy of the objects, their history, the enviroment, and emotions behind them. These compositions are delicate and glorious living things – they materialize, they transport, and in the same second they vanish. No two shows are ever alike, we have no control, that is the rare beauty of it. You're very vulnerable when you're playing the music, because you're not in charge of it; you're just a portal that the music comes though, and you can't prepare for that. We don't even know what key we're going to start in. In the early days, Paul and I would have these little signals so that we'd know what key I was going to play in, so I would look at him and say [whispering] “A Minor!” Then as we did this more and more and really got on top of our game, one day I looked at him waiting for the key and he looked back and said, “No key," and then he just laughed! That ended up being one of the most amazing pieces we ever played! So from then on, we don't even converse about it. It's pure and exhilarating, and you don't know what's coming next.
 
Since you've recorded these séances, are you planning on releasing an album of them?
 
Yes, Paul and I are assembling them right now for an album to release next year. It's been amazing revisiting this stuff, because I don't even remember playing it! I'm listening to it now as more of an audience member, and we're completely blown away by it. We're also hoping to go on tour, holding musical séances in unusual locales.
 
[For more info, visit MusicalSeance.com]
 
Speaking of unusual locales, that brings us to the 
Mütter Museum project. You've mentioned before how 
you like to draw energy from your surroundings when you're creating music...
 
Yes, I call it “spontaneous musical combustion” – immersing myself in these strange environments and composing music on the spot, just reacting to my presence in the place, and they're usually places with a mysterious history. I wanted to conjure music inside the wondrous Mütter Museum, because when I first went there, I was overwhelmed. You just sort of hear a buzz...all of these specimens, skeletons, skulls, fragments from long-lost souls from various decades and walks of life. They’re all together. They have stories to tell... you can almost hear them whispering to you. I needed to know their stories, and I’m so honored to have received a grant from the College of Physicians of Philadelphia to compose a full work while inside the museum, based on pieces in the collection. I needed to be in presence of these long lost souls, to have them with me so they become an actual part of the work and not merely the subject matter. It's been a dream come true. I'm making history as the first musician to do this.
 
How did you go about digging into the history behind the exhibits?
 
Well, usually when you read a case study about someone with an unusual affliction, you mainly hear about the disease. You don't hear about the person, how they endured, what their life was like. There’s a brave, strange beauty within these patients. I wanted to give an emotional context to something so clinical. The Mütter has been kind enough to let me go though all the old libraries, case files, doctor's reports, old photographs, everything. When the museum closed at night, I asked them if they could turn off all the lights except for the exhibit cases, and I moved a little piano in there and sat in the dark with my notebook and a pen. Some of the wording within the doctors’ reports was so absolutely poetic, I lifted some phrases directly for the lyrics. That was thrilling for me.
 
It must have felt like another world entirely...
 
I know, it's like something out of Lovecraft!
 
 
Can you share some examples of the exhibits you wrote about?
 
One of the most fascinating is “The Ossified Man,” a vibrant, handsome young man named Harry Eastlack who had a rare condition that caused his body to turn to bone, essentially growing and encasing himself within a second skeleton. He's on display there – the only full skeleton in the nation of someone with this disease – and I wanted to be with him while I wrote. This is my gift to him, honoring his life, a piece called “Bone by Bone.” There's also an entire wing devoted to Teratology, where they have babies in jars, which are horrific, but at the same time fascinating, because due to advancements in medical science we don't usually see these kinds of deformities anymore. In fact, I will say that the impetus for this entire Mütter project came from a particular mermaid baby (a syndrome called Sirenomelia). That little baby became my mascot. I wanted to do a series of lullabies, because they've never heard music! As strange as that sounds, it was touching for me each night to come down there and just say aloud, “Okay, I'm going to play some music for you.” I just wanted to give them something, because they certainly were inspiring me. There's the Hertyl skull collection; on each side in cursive writing, it lists the name of the person, the date, how they died...a tightrope walker who broke her neck, a criminal who was hanged, suicide due to a broken heart, a murderer, a shoemaker... you're with all of these people, it’s intense. One of my favorite pieces, which was difficult for me to work on, was about Chang and Eng, the original Siamese twins, whose autopsy was performed at the Mütter, and their death cast, and still-conjoined liver is in the museum. I had certainly heard the legend about them, but I had never known how they died. That tale was just unfathomable to me. This is about that terrifying three-hour period on a cold fateful January night. I won’t give the rest away. But I sat beside their death cast and liver and wrote this piece, called “My First and Last Time Alone.”
 
Just the research itself sounds emotionally overwhelming. Have you begun the recording process?
 
I've recorded some sketches in the Mütter, and some of them I'd like to release as-is, because people would love hearing this old piano within the ambiance of the museum. But the rest of the songs themselves, I'll need to finish and record. Some will be solo piano, but I'm thinking of arranging some to be played with fuller orchestration. That wasn't my original intention, but... I'm so proud of them that I feel like some of them need to be lavish and big. What do you think?
 
I think that your music has a kind of cinematic quality, with all the dynamics that you would experience in a film, so that would include those big moments of grandeur. You've done it before in your score to the original Nosferatu, which is one of my favorite musical interpretations.
 
Thank you so much! I do want to release a DVD with our score – the version on the album Into the Land of Phantoms won't sync up to the film if you just start both of them at the same time. The main reason is because during the live performance, there were several intentional moments of silence. As a composer, I use silence as an instrument; often times silence can be the loudest thing imaginable, especially during a moment when everything suddenly stops – a shadow approaches, or a hand reaches through a doorway and you hear nothing... it can be terrifying, but doesn't translate to an audio CD very well.
 
You also just performed alongside Steven Severin’s new score to Vampyr...
 
Yes that was an amazing night. I got an email from Steven, the legendary co-founder of Siouxsie and the Banshees, saying he's doing a new score to Carl Dreyer's 1932 classic Vampyr, and he asked me if I'd like to open his screenings in San Francisco with some of my elegant otherworldly piano music. He’s been a supporter of my work and it was a thrill to share the stage, conjure the mood to intro the film, which is one of my favorites. It's such a validating feeling to reach a point where your work is being admired by people whom you've admired yourself growing up.
 
It's like what you said about crossing paths with Bill... timing like that may not be accidental, you know?
 
That's right, and it's been a thread in my life. It even happened the same way with violinist Paul Mercer, who's now my musical partner in crime... I heard him play online, was thinking I'd love to work with him, and don't you know, just a few days later I got an email from him saying how much he was a fan of mine... and to top that off, about a week later we realized we were going to be playing the same festival together in Portland! I really believe the Universe will rise up and give you what you need, but you have to be open, observant and allow the magic. 
 
 
Be sure to visit Jill's blog entry “An Excavation of Musical Spirits” for more stories from the Mütter Museum, and check out her official site JillTracy.com, where you can find all of her released music and her fascinating writings. We'll also be bringing you more Jill Tracy news soon, so stay tuned!
<none>