Welcome to the next installment in our series of interviews with the fine folks behind Death Salon. In this case, we’ll be getting to know one of the musical performers gracing the stage of the Death Salon Cabaret at Bootleg Theater on Friday, October 18 (get tickets here). Each subject was interviewed by a fellow organizer or event coordinator. Here, you will learn more about each participant’s contributions to the Salon, their own fascinating body of work, and more about Death Salon itself.
Jill Tracy is a San-Francisco-based “neo-cabaret” performer who brings a darkly intellectual spirit to her theatrical performances. This year Jill played a “musical séance” in Los Angeles with Death Salon writer Colin Dickey. Jill is being interviewed by Death Salon organizer Megan Rosenbloom.
The wonderful Mütter Museum in Philadelphia has awarded you a grant to compose music inside the museum based on its medical oddities collection. Tell us about working there and the music that’s emerging from working in this rarefied atmosphere.
Yes, I’m thrilled to make history as the first musician to be given a grant to compose inside the Mütter. It’s been my dream come true to be alone at night in a museum in the dark with nothing but a piano, and an audience of skeletons, specimens and souls.
The Mütter Museum has always been one of my favorite places on earth. When I first visited, I remember vividly standing on the red-carpeted steps leading down to the lower level and hearing the buzz. It was overwhelming. All these people, all these stories, together—yet apart, remembered—yet forgotten. I was swept in a whirlwind of feelings: admiration, pity, fright, shock, respect, repulsion, sadness. I just wanted to sit and listen, to hear their tales, to know them.
It was vital for me to be in the presence of these long-lost souls, as I composed. I needed to immerse myself in their world, and make them a real part of the creation. This is my gift to them.
You may read about Harry Eastlack, the ossified man, whose rare disease (FOP) caused his entire body to slowly transform into bone. Young, handsome, vibrant– painstakingly trapped beneath a second skeletal cage. In the end, he could only move his lips. What was he like? How did he cope? What was his day-to-day experience? It’s unfathomable to me. I was thrilled to be able to read through Harry’s private files in the Mütter collection, letters, photos, extensive doctors’ records.
I composed and recorded the song “Bone by Bone” as I sat next to Harry’s famed skeleton. I needed him with me, to truly be part of the song, and not just the subject matter.
One of the most moving pieces I’m creating is entitled “My First and Last Time Alone,” about conjoined brothers Chang and Eng Bunker. Most of us know them as the original Siamese Twins, gloriously renowned performers who toured the world (even appeared before presidents and Queen Victoria)—married sisters, fathered 21 children, and employed the use of a “privacy sheet.” But after doing research, I was completely devastated when I read how they died. The song is about that heartbreaking 3-hour period on a cold January night. (I won’t give the rest away!)
I was with Chang and Eng’s actual death cast, and their conjoined liver as I composed the piece. This was one of the most compelling experiences I’ve ever had. Abiding by the twins’ wishes, the liver was never separated, even after death.
The impetus for this whole project was The Mermaid Baby, housed in a jar in the Mütter’s Teratology collection. That little baby became my mascot, my confidante— I heard the theme in my head as I peered through the glass cabinet. The first piece of music I composed when the lights went out became a series of Teratology Lullabies.
I will be creating a full length album based on the Mütter collection (some instrumentals recorded within its walls, plus fully arranged songs) and accompanying book— with photos, history, and memoir of my chilling experiences in the museum after dark.
I plan to perform some of this work-in-progress at Death Salon.
How did you get involved with making music for Dexter? How has it impacted your career?
I guess it can now be officially added to the Jill Tracy resume: “Created Dexter’s Final Bloody Requiem.” (How perfect is that for Death Salon?) Over the years, of any show on TV (and I don’t even own a TV) I always thought Dexter would be the perfect fit for my work. And obviously so did Showtime Networks—they sought me out to use my song “Evil Night Together” for a trailer called “The Final Symphony” to promote the show’s wildly anticipated last season. I’m thrilled with how they edited the piece so musically; it really brings the song to life. I hope it brings a lot more people around to discovering my music. It’s been interesting reading diverse online comments and tweets (over half a million YouTube hits)—from people asking what the song is—to my favorite: “Screw Dexter, I was into Jill Tracy way before HE was!”
Has your interest in the macabre always coincided with your musical interests?
I’ve had a life-long romance with the shadows—the allure and seduction with the dark side, marvel, the ecstasy of melancholy. My work is about honoring the Mystery, and stories lost in Time. My music is indeed dark, but devastatingly beautiful.
“I was given the book The Mysterious World when I was a child and when I first opened it, there was a picture of spontaneous human combustion. I had never heard of such a thing in my life. There’s that wonderful old photograph of Dr. John Irving Bentley who suddenly burst into flame. There’s a bit of his leg, with his foot still in a slipper, his walker, and cinders everywhere. This fascinated me. I was obsessed with Alfred Hitchcock, Bernard Herrmann, Ray Bradbury, Rod Serling, Jean Cocteau. I just wanted to live in those worlds. I still do.
Music allows me to create the emotional undercurrent, the portal to transport the listener into that magical place with me. I call it my “elegant netherworld.” Like peering through a keyhole to a world just out of your grasp. That’s what makes it seductive; creating that place––familiar yet oddly intriguing.
In recent years, I wanted the audience to become even more a part of my process, and actually compose pieces in front of them, culled from their energy. The audience gives to me, and I channel it musically and give it right back, creating a piece that will exist solely for us in those few minutes, and then vanish. It’s the most powerful thing I’ve ever experienced. A musical umbilical cord.
That led me to immersing myself in unusual locations laden with mysterious history, and manifesting music from my reaction to the environment. You are hearing my raw response at the piano. I call it “spontaneous musical combustion.”
I’ve found myself conjuring the hidden score inside haunted castles, abandoned asylums, decrepit mansions, gardens, theaters, and of course, now the Mütter Museum. It’s definitely one of my greatest pleasures right now.
What part of being involved with Death Salon are you looking forward to the most?
JT: Finally meeting so many of my internet “darklings” in the flesh! And meeting new kindred souls. Through the Death Salon community, I’ve become acquainted with the work of many brilliant artists, writers, historians, and have been fortunate to collaborate with a few (Colin Dickey, Bess Lovejoy, Mel Gordon, Annetta Black, Atlas Obscura, Loren Rhoads, more to come.) The thought of having everyone in one room together is downright swoon-inducing. Oh, the tales we’ll tell…
Megan Rosenbloom is a librarian, photographer, Order of the Good Death member, and Chair of Death Salon LA (2013). Follow @LibraryatNight
JT with skeleton photo by Farika
JT sepia on chair with bird photo by Michael Garlington