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CD for Cynthia: Musician remembers photojournalist friend, Smith grad, killed while covering Chechen-Russian War



Last modified: Thursday, April 02, 2015
Tony Jillson can still remember the moment, in late December 1994, when the phone rang in his Brooklyn apartment. A reporter from The New York Times was on the line, asking about a childhood friend of his, Cynthia Elbaum, a freelance photojournalist. Did Jillson know that she had been killed, just the day before, during a Russian air raid in Chechnya, where Elbaum was covering the early stages of the First Chechen-Russian War?

Jillson, an Ashfield musician and recording engineer, has never forgotten the shock and despair of that day. He and Elbaum had grown up together in Ashfield, and Jillson’s wife, Martha Lively, also from Ashfield, had been a great friend of Elbaum as well. Now Cynthia was gone, killed at age 28 by a Russian bomb in the battered Chechen capital of Grozny.

To mark the 20th anniversary of his friend’s death, Jillson, 48, recently released a CD of original music, an instrumental album that blends classical, pop, Eastern folk and electronic elements. Jillson, who composed all the music, played most of the instruments himself — including electric and acoustic guitar, piano, bass and drums — and brought in guest musicians on cello and violin to add textures.

The CD, “For Cynthia,” was two years in the making, a busy period during which Jillson was also rebuilding his studio, called Birdwaves Media, and taking on numerous recording, video production and web-design projects to make a living. Composing and recording the music also brought back a flood of memories about Elbaum, a 1989 graduate of Smith College in Northampton, where she majored in Russian and film studies.

“She was a hoot — just a great sense of humor,” Jillson said during a recent interview. “She was always an artist, too, first as a painter. She got into photography more when she was in college. And she was always adventurous, very gutsy.”

Elbaum, who was of Russian descent herself, learned to speak Russian while at Smith and later during a scholarship program in Moscow; she also taught English to Russian immigrants in New York. She was one of the first journalists killed in the First Chechen-Russian War (1994-96), in which Russia’s attempt to surpress the breakaway republic in the Caucasus Mountains led to tens of thousands of civilian deaths and displaced as many as 300,000 Chechens.

In a story in The New York Times that appeared Dec. 23, 1994, the day after Elbaum was killed, she was described by another of her high school friends, Wilson Beebe, as an “aggressive photographer who was not deterred by danger,” someone never hesitant to go “where the action was.”

In this case, Elbaum, on assignment for Time magazine, was photographing the aftermath of a Russian attack on Grozny from the previous day; she and several other victims were caught outside when Russian jets returned and bombed the same area the afternoon of Dec. 22.

For Jillson, memories of that time are especially poignant. Several months before his friend’s death, he and Elbaum had squabbled. He explains that during her time in Russia, Elbaum would periodically come back and crash with him and his wife — sometimes for long stretches — in their Brooklyn apartment before moving on to her next job. At one point, Jillson says, he told his friend she was overstaying her welcome; he and his wife had little income at the time.

“Like friends everywhere, we sometimes butted heads,” he said. “She was pissed at me, and I didn’t hear from her for a long time after that. But I always assumed we’d patch things up — and then I got this phone call. They called because (our apartment) was her last known address in New York. At first I thought it was a prank call. Then I found out it wasn’t.”

First, a film

Much of this was in the back of Jillson’s mind when, in 2012, Elbaum’s mother, Jude Elbaum, asked him if he would compose music for a short film she was making about her daughter for the Ashfield Film Festival. He did that and, along with several of her friends, appeared briefly in the movie; each held a small sign describing her in a few words. Jillson, with a wry grin on his face, holds a card saying “Beautiful, articulate, wise-ass.”

His film score was well-received, and Jillson began thinking about expanding on it, putting together a full CD of music that would reflect both his memories of Elbaum and something of her personality and experience — a memorial to her but also a celebration of her life. He also wanted to compose music that would have hints of things Elbaum liked, like the Velvet Underground, though the CD was “not necessarily geared to make her like it,” he said. “The whole thing came about organically. It just seemed like the time and place for it. It also seemed like a good way to remind people of the danger so many journalists can face.”

Along the way, he ran his ideas past Jude Elbaum, who fully supported the project. Jillson’s music is “beautiful,” says Elbaum, who still lives in Ashfield. “I can just feel the changes in Cynthia’s life (through the music). Tony and Martha have been there for me all this time, which I really appreciate,” she added. “I have for years tried to keep her memory alive, and (the music) is very much a part of that.”

Jillson’s an experienced musician who’s played guitar, bass and drums in various art-rock and progressive rock bands over the years, both in New York and western Massachusetts, But composing some 45 minutes of semi-classical music posed new challenges for him, like learning to write scores for violin and cello. He had use of an old piano, too — but first he had to learn how to tune it.

He was influenced in part by modern classical composers like Steve Reich and Philip Glass who first pioneered so-called minimal music, using repetitive phrases and slow harmonic rhythms. For instance, the CD’s opening track, “For Cynthia,” begins around a simple, repeated piano arpeggio, which is followed by quick bursts of cello and violin, as if to showcase Elbaum’s energy.

“The Phone Call,” Jillson’s evocation of the terrible news he received in December 1994, begins on a quiet, almost dreamy note, then becomes dark and dense; a flurry of electric guitar notes abruptly concludes the piece. And on “Stargazing at the Golf Course,” a composition that recalls his teenage years with Elbaum and Lively, Jillson picks a series of rapid leads on acoustic guitar, giving it a bit of gypsy jazz flavor, with cello and violin swirling around the riffs.

“I wanted to work in some Chechen folk music, some Eastern European folk sounds,” he said.

Jillson says the CD is not a literal interpretation of events, nor has he attempted to capture every part of his past with Elbaum. They had been friends since they met at age 10 in 1976, after Jillson’s family moved to Ashfield; they went to school together for years, with Jillson graduating from Mohawk Trail Regional High School in Buckland in 1983 and Elbaum (and Lively) the following year.

Jillson says he’d like to arrange a concert and have the music played live at some point, though so far he’s been unable to secure funding to stage it; he’s also still trying to recoup some of the funds he invested in producing the CD.

Jillson has donated more than his music to the CD. On the cover of his disc is a picture of Elbaum that he took in high school, when he, she and Lively made a trip to Martha’s Vineyard and visited a mud bath. Elbaum, with matted, greasy hair, and mud streaked across her nose and cheeks, smiles playfully at the camera, seeming unconcerned about looking less than well coiffed. Her mother says she used that picture for her high school yearbook portrait.

“She was smart, she was beautiful, she was funny, and she was a great friend,” Jillson said. “It’s the way we’ll always remember her.”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.



“For Cynthia” is available at Turn It Up! in Northampton, Elmer’s Store in Ashfield and through Jillson’s website at www.birdwaves.com.