Chain D.L.K.: You just announced at the Mütter Ball in Philadelphia that you received the Wood Institute Grant – something unprecedented for a musician. Can you tell us a little bit about how you got involved with the grant and the project you’re currently working on at the museum?
Jill Tracy: Yes, I’m honored to make history as the first musician to be awarded this grant, which is enabling me to compose music inside the Mütter Museum, a series of compositions directly inspired by pieces in the collection. It was vital for me to be in the presence of these long-lost souls, as I composed and recorded. I needed to immerse myself in their world. There is so much lurking here. This glorious synergy– the collection of souls together from various time periods and walks of life, most who endured extreme and rare medical conditions. I needed to be with them as I composed and make them a real part of the creation. This is my gift to them.
Chain D.L.K.: What inspired you to want to compose with the museum as a backdrop?
Jill Tracy: 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.
As you explore the Hyrtl Skull Collection, for example: Each has a brief story written in meticulous cursive on the side of the skull: Suicide by gunshot wound of the heart because of “weariness of life.” Lovesick teenager, a soldier, a shoemaker, well-known murderer, a tightrope walker who died of a broken neck, a hanged man, and a famous Viennese prostitute. All this life and death shared together in one glass case. It’s phenomenal.
There is such a brave beauty in these souls who had to endure these afflictions. I want to bring them to life through my music—peel away the clinical guise, dwell deeper, find the voices hiding within these walls.
All of my work will be factual. I’m in the throes of extensive research at the museum, even utilizing excerpts from letters and doctors’ records. My goal is to evoke the spirit, set a mood that transports you inside just by listening.
Chain D.L.K.: You’ve worked in several different mediums – film, music, voiceovers, performance art – what is your favorite method of expression?
Jill Tracy: Music has always been magic to me. I’m evoking emotion solely out of sound– and transporting myself and others instantaneously. It’s a true slice of Time archived, never to be heard the same way again– especially with my “spontaneous” pieces. Both the fragility and immediacy are my greatest pleasure and challenge– as I’m not really a composer as much as a portal, conjuring this dark and elegant place with just my thoughts and fingertips. It’s both empowering and humbling to become the gatekeeper to emotions, and inviting the audience to join me there.
Chain D.L.K.: Is there any type of performance art that you’d like to try and haven’t yet?
Jill Tracy: I would like to do more theatrical live performances that incorporate various elements, storytelling, memoir, film projection, music, lecture, revolving around one particular theme. I also have had some TV projects in development, trying to find the right home for them. They deal with my penchant for the dark corners of history and science.
Chain D.L.K.: I love the way you had this very dark, bluesy, 1920s lounge singer look for your performance at the Mutter – if you could live in any other time or place to make music and art, what would it be?
Jill Tracy: The theme to the Mutter Ball this year was “Medicine and Electricity in the Roaring Twenties,” so the crowd was resplendent in their costumes, and the Ball featured odd electrical devices from the time period like violet ray generators. There was even bathtub gin amidst pipes in an old ornate claw foot.
Ideally, I’d build the ultimate time machine, and experience many periods and places. That would be fantastic. Although the 1920s was such a vibrant era of art, fashion, decadence—and the Victorian era abundant with aesthetic and ingenuity—I really feel like I’m in the perfect period now, as I am fortunate to employ technology, modern conveniences, communication. Plus being a woman was terribly tough during those times– especially as a fiercely independent artist who has no interest in marriage or having children. It’s hard enough as it is now. I would have been locked up in an asylum for sure.
Chain D.L.K.: How did you come up with the idea of “spontaneous musical combustion,” your improvised performances that are all unique? Did the way you involved the audience (like asking for a valued object) ever vary?
Jill Tracy: My music and live performances have always been so emotionally driven to begin with– I would see people sometimes crying in the front row, or they’d come up to me after a set relating how a particular song got them through a rough time, or helped them find their true path, etc. I’ve realized I’ve become a beacon for so many kindred souls. And that’s very important to me. That genuine direct connection with an audience is such a rarity these days—in a world where entertainment has become vacuous and superficial. Most live shows are anything but—you’re watching a lip-sync to a prerecorded track. On the other hand, I am about as real as it gets!
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. It’s a perfect circle. 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. 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. The intense purity and immediacy is so exciting. You are hearing my raw response at the piano. I call it “spontaneous musical combustion” (as homage to “spontaneous human combustion,” and my affinity for peculiar history and science tales.) I’ve found myself conjuring the hidden score inside haunted castles, abandoned asylums, decrepit mansions, gardens, and theaters. It’s definitely one of my greatest pleasures right now.
The “Musical Séance” (which I most often perform alongside violinist Paul Mercer) is a collective summoning inspired by beloved objects. Audience members are asked to bring tokens of special significance, such as a photo, talisman, jewelry, toy. This is a very crucial part of manifesting the music. Every object holds its story, its spirit. Energy, resonance, impressions from anyone who has ever held the object, to the experiences and emotions passed through it.
Often, these curiosities themselves are just as compelling as the music they inspire. We’ve encountered everything from cremated cats, dentures, haunted paintings, 16th century swords, antlers, and x-rays.
The lovely and difficult thing about this work is that I can’t prepare for it, as I never know what to expect. I must allow myself to be completely vulnerable; simply feel, and react. It’s not about me anymore; it’s about the music, the story. It becomes so much bigger than any of us. That’s the beauty of it.
Chain D.L.K.: You’ve said in the past that the current focus on instant gratification has damaged people’s desire to use their imaginations – do you think your music would be different if you’d had the internet and a similar environment growing up?
Jill Tracy: That’s a brilliant question. Yes, absolutely I would be a different person. The Internet is both a blessing and a curse. The ease and ability to obtain information is indeed wondrous. But, at the same time, it creates a laziness factor. The great “connection” we think we have achieved is actually destroying our distinct awareness because everyone is getting their information/views from the same sources, not looking outside or challenging themselves to think further.
Online marketing and social media creates a troubling herd mentality. When you purchase something, you are told, “Well, you will like THIS artist or product or friend.” Not giving you a chance to discover what you like on your own terms. Listening to radio like Pandora, etc is only playing things for you that it thinks you like, culled by very narrow factors. We think these tools are making our world bigger, but in essence it’s stifling us, making it much smaller. Only giving us a glimpse.
There has never been a greater need to venture outside the cage, to seize our true passions and shape ourselves authentically. Where’s the triumph of discovery, or empowering sense of identity when the same crap is being pushed down everyone’s throat? To be an individual now takes a great deal of effort, and sadly most people are apathetic, too buried in it all to even try or care anymore.
It’s the stepping away from the virtual Petri dish that’s vital to self-discovery. Great art was never created on a consensus.
Chain D.L.K.: One theme going through your work is the concept of “the legend” and maintaining a sense of the unknown as we grow, yet the Mutter Museum and its research is geared toward dispelling much of that mystery as it relates to our bodies; how do you see your music combining these concepts?
Jill Tracy: Well, for many, the study of science and disease is viewed as quite dry and clinical. There exists a strong disconnect with the examination of the disease itself and the dear souls who had to endure these afflictions. The personal saga of these brave patients is not often well documented, nor discussed. I remember as a child being obsessed with old medical textbooks and tomes, and upset that I could never find out more about the people in these books, but merely the disease.
But the Mütter is a different experience. It is indeed a medical teaching museum. But, Dr. Mütter’s entire point for starting the museum was to teach empathy and compassion. There lies in that a tremendous sense of marvel for me.
I want to honor the emotional side, the human experience from the Mütter’s collection. 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 Mutter collection, letters, photos, extensive doctors’ records.
I composed and recorded the work “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.
Personally, 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 extensive 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. Their autopsy was performed in the museum gallery of the College’s previous building, which was located at 13th and Locust St. Abiding by the twins’ wishes, the liver was never separated, even after death.
Chain D.L.K.: I’ve read you love the Bay area and have had a great reception there – could you see yourself living anywhere else?
Jill Tracy: I adore San Francisco and the Bay Area; it will always feel like home. But I’m certainly open to adventure. I would love residing in other places if there was an intriguing project or circumstance beckoning me. The allure of new possibilities. Change is an integral part of feeling fully alive.
Visit artist on the web at: jilltracy.com
(All photos courtesy College of Physicians of Philadelphia.)