“Music is a ghost.” This is a fascinating thought Jill Tracy shares with me as our interview concludes. And she’s onto something. It’s an intangible thing, you can’t touch it, you have to record it to prove it was ever there. It’s a valid point, and the haunting sort of phrase that becomes ensnared in one’s thoughts, to turn over and over in the mind’s web at night, pondering it’s aptness and worth, nibbling to the core of its meaning.
The end of an interview might seem an unusual place to begin. But then again, perhaps not, considering our subject– otherworldly composer, chanteuse, and sonic archeologist, Jill Tracy. After spending an evening in the company of this San Francisco-based singer/pianist and storyteller, and thrilling to her curious passions and strange tales, time-traveling through the delightful highlights of our insightful chat doesn’t seem like a peculiar way to sort it out, after all.
Her darkly erotic, melancholy songs have garnered critical acclaim, and have been featured on Showtime’s Dexter, CBS-TV Navy NCIS, and several feature films. But in recent years, Jill Tracy is also known for traveling to unusual locales to research and compose spontaneous music. This has included a grant project from Philadelphia’s famed Mütter Museum to compose alone amidst glass cases of skeletons and specimens; as well as abandoned buildings in San Francisco’s historical Presidio, a 1700s military base, purported as one of the most haunted locations in the country.
And it is with regard to one of these extraordinary locales that we narrow the focus of our interview. Jill Tracy is currently in the middle of another unprecedented project—”The Secret Music of Lily Dale,” a musical excavation of the mysterious, private town of mediums and Spiritualists in upstate New York. She is recording her singular piano music, channeled at night inside the original 1883 Lily Dale auditorium, site of séances and spirit communication services for over a century. She has captured field recordings from the mystical Leolyn Woods and chilling nighttime rain storms to create an authentic, never-before-heard sonic journey into this strange, little town that talks to the dead. It is my extreme pleasure to share her eerie Lily Dale adventures and uncanny musical insights. Are there ghosts to be found here, of the musical sort, or otherwise? Read on to find out…
HM: Finding beauty and inspiration in the dark corners of history, you’ve composed in the Mütter Museum, and conjured music in all sorts of fantastical haunts—decrepit gardens, cemeteries, murderous mansions, abandoned asylums, ancient redwoods, and haunted castles. Tell me the inspiration behind your Sonic Séance work?
Jill Tracy: It really began as part of my live concert. Performing my songs is always such an emotional experience with the crowd to begin with, I thought it would be profound (and challenging) to create a piece of music right before their eyes, have them be a true part of it. They would give me the energy and I would give it right back to them musically. A composition just for us, never existing again outside of that show. It was an intense, moving experience— people would cry, hug me, and say the music transported them to a place “they never realized existed, but needed to go.”
For me, it was revitalizing— the opposite of songwriting, or even film scoring. There was no set intention, structure, rules, limits. It was all about abandon. Being fully alive in a moment. And sadly, how rare this feeling is today in most people’s daily lives. I wanted to be a gatekeeper to that hidden place deep within.
I began conducting entire spontaneous shows, inviting the audience to unusual locations, where the work was created on the spot, never to be heard again. I call these performances “Sonic Séances.” It’s a gorgeous retaliation to today’s incessant pressure to archive everything— at the expense of living it. Why don’t we create a beautiful secret together just for us? Let’s have a solely interior experience! People were thrilled to put away their phones and simply be. From there, I began to travel alone to unusual locations to research, immerse myself completely, and utilize the particular sonic energy of the space to unearth this secret, spontaneous music. These travel projects would be documented. I refer to them as “musical” or “sonic excavations.”
How did the idea to record in Lily Dale germinate?
For years I had been fascinated by Lily Dale, and hoped someday to visit. Through my Sonic Seance work, I became friends with Brandon Hodge, a renowned collector and expert of antique spirit communication devices. His specialty is planchettes; he lives in Austin and operates the great website MysteriousPlanchette.com. When I was touring in Texas back in 2014 or so, we met and spent hours talking, surrounded by his lavish collection of planchettes, rapping hands, and spirit trumpets— we began talking about Lily Dale. Brandon put me in touch with Robert Murch, who is a Ouija board historian and collector. We ended up all being interviewed together that year by Collectors Weekly for a fantastic article by Lisa Hix, “Ghosts in the Machines: The Devices and Daring Mediums That Spoke for the Dead.”
Shortly after that, Lily Dale reached out to have the three of us come and lecture. In phone meetings with Lily Dale’s great librarian Mandi Shepp (Marion H. Skidmore Library,) I found out she was already a fan of my music (already had my albums!) and really loved what I was doing with my musical excavation projects. She invited me to visit as a guest off-season. (Lily Dale fully opens its doors to the public only a few weeks in summer.)
When I asked, “you don’t happen to have a piano there do you?” she unexpectedly replied, “Oh, there’s a grand piano in the old 1883 auditorium…” It was like (excitedly) “ding ding ding!” Jackpot! I knew what Fate wanted me to do…
I was officially invited by the Lily Dale Town Assembly to begin the project this year (2017.) I pretty much booked a plane ticket and traveled there days later! I had no idea what to expect, but I wanted to experience Lily Dale off-season, with no one around except the mediums and Spiritualists who live there. I had to be totally self-sufficient— just me and the gear I needed. I felt like I was living in my own private little ghost town. My first trip was in early May, NOTHING was open. There was not even a place to buy groceries. I did not have a car. I had to hoard up on food and supplies in Buffalo, on my way in from the airport. I stayed in a medium’s home by the lake. Spent many hours in the woods. It was an extremely solitary and introspective time. Very befitting to begin this work..
I feel one must completely tune out to truly tune in.
You said something in an interview with TOR from 2009 that particularly struck me: “Sometimes I feel that magic and the suspension of disbelief is the only thing that matters….” and that “In the end, it is the mystery that prevails, never the explanation.” In the spirit of “honoring the mystery”, how did you mentally/emotionally/spiritually prepare for approach this sonic excavation of Lily Dale?
I love that you picked those quotes! And that particular interview! Thank you. Two of my constant mottoes.
My life’s work has always been about “honoring the mystery,”— the forgotten, those stories and places lost through time …it’s vital to preserve a sense of marvel and wonder now in a world trying its best to destroy, mock, or debunk it. I feel it’s my duty to be a beacon, a tether to these places. And the greatest thing I can do is to transport my audience there with me— just by listening.
Everything around us is vibrating at a particular frequency, A human’s hearing range is approx 20hz to 20,000hz. That’s a really small bit— we’re missing so much! We’ve all been in a room with a dog. and the dog is going nuts and you know something intense is happening, but we can’t hear it! And you think about everything we’re missing, and what is that dog missing outside of its range? It’s frightening to think of experiencing ALL frequencies that are actually happening around us. Does it go beyond time and space? Is there constant inaudible communication from unknown sources? Could we tune in, if only for a second?
There are studies about 18.9-19 hz, that’s just below the range of hearing– sometimes called the “frequency of fear.” We can’t hear it as tonal information, but we sense it. And it affects us secretly.
I am obsessed with Infrasound. These are sounds which occur right below the threshold of human hearing. We don’t register that we hear them, but we are affected internally. There are interesting studies from the UK, regarding people who were all terrified in a particular building, claiming it to be haunted. They measured some machinery down in the basement of the building, and I don’t know if it was from fans or generators, but all the machinery was vibrating just below 19hz. So, are these people really seeing ghosts or are they just reacting to this “frequency of fear”? This frequency is also where the human eyeball vibrates, so could this account for people seeing spirits out of the corner of their eye?
And certainly with musical notes, there are specific notes, certain scales, melodies— and universally, people will say “oh, that sounds scary!” or, “that’s a joyous piece of music!” But these are just frequencies. Music is merely a selection of frequencies played in a pattern. What gives it such power to evoke different emotions? It’s magical, It really is.
When I begin a musical excavation in a new locale, I first like to discover the resonant tones, or close to it. I will go in and explore on the piano to see where I’m getting some kind of activity. And it could just be to my own ears, something that conveys a sudden emotion… does it make something in the room vibrate when I get to a certain place in the keys…does the building make a sound or seem to react? You can find it pretty quickly, where this response is coming from, and then I’ll start to hone in and play in that tonal space to begin. It’s the way in. Think of it like tuning in a radio, connecting with the signal.
The compositions I create in these kinds of projects, are all instrumental spontaneous music. It’s just me, reacting authentically. I can’t prepare anything. It’s not like I sit there with paper, and try to write a piece. That just blocks you, really. I stood in my own way for years with this, because my brain was full of useless noise. I thought— “this is crazy, what am I going to play? I’d better do all this research, sketch it out, have a plan, bring tons of notes,”—and you know what? That’s the worst thing you can do. You’ve already removed yourself from the moment. You’re nowhere near anything real if you clutter your thoughts like that.
You must turn your mind off and become the antennae. Melodies do begin to reveal themselves. They are fragile, living things. Almost like stream of consciousness or automatic writing. These pieces become talismans of actual moments in Time and Place.
I’ve never been to Lily Dale (although in central FL, we do have Cassadaga, a spiritualist community that is somewhat related to Lily Dale and where I make an annual pilgrimage). I’d love to hear your impressions of the place.
The two are related. Lily Dale, NY is on Cassadaga Lake. Spiritualists settled here in the 1800s because it was so picturesque and inspiring. Like a storybook. Woods, lake, even a tiny beach. There are indigenous mute white swans on the lake. I would drink coffee and watch the swans swim outside my window.
But if you just arrived to the tiny town, you might say “This is all there is? This little place??” For me, the power of Lily Dale was what I discovered delving deeper— lurking between the cracks and the quiet. The unseen. it made me tap into a part of myself I wasn’t sure existed before.
On the surface, the town has a very home-spun “Mayberry” quality. For example, the gentleman who runs the museum, Ron Nagy, was kind enough to unlock and open the museum for a private visit, so I could research there off-season. Ron called me and said, “Where are you? I’ll come and pick you up in the truck!” And I replied “ I can probably walk there.” (The entire town is just a few small blocks.) And he said “no, no I’ll come and pick you up.” OK, so then here comes this truck and I’m thinking well, who knows, maybe he’s going to take me outside the grounds or something… but I get in, and he drives to the end of the block, and he says, “…here we are!” I could have walked there quicker than waiting for him, it was so funny.
All the residents were very gracious and welcoming to me. Even as the outsider musician alone in a town of Spiritualists and mediums. The mediums really respected and were fascinated with what I was doing. They would constantly tell me I had mediumistic power, and I learned much in turn from them.
One thing that took me a couple of days to get used to—It was awkward, but then I started to love it— was the idea of “Spirit.” The fact that they believe in an ever-present Spirit, and are constantly getting messages from “the other side.” Spirit is used as plural. You or I might probably say the “Spirit World” or “Spirit Realm”, but Spirit, to the residents of Lily Dale, is akin to the all-knowing power of the Universe. When I first arrived, the medium I was staying with said, “Oh, Spirit told me you would probably love to stay in THIS room.” I thought to myself, “…ok?” And I replied jokingly, “Well, Spirit has good taste!” But then you realize quickly to them this isn’t funny, this is just daily life as a Spiritualist. Those “on the other side” were constantly with us, even blamed for unlocking doors and leaving dimes on the living room carpet. I began to find it enchanting. Much like when you were a child and had an invisible friend who was always with you.
And then there’s the architecture. The eccentric, charming clapboard houses, very Victorian, they look like dollhouses! The proportions are quite strange. They’re small, and often the windows appear too big for the house. The history is that Lily Dale began as a camp with tents, these Spiritualists and free-thinkers wanted to meet and share ideas. But then there was a desire to settle and create an actual town— and it wasn’t like they were able to bring renowned architects in there. So it was essentially the local folks and craftsman building these homes. They would borrow trends of the time— some have Roman columns, and some very classical or Greek looking facades, and then others very Victorian in appearance. So the proportions are all very strange and whimsical.
There are no sidewalks or curbs. So it feels like a movie-set. Everything is all inclusive, open, and connects to everything else. Even without knowing these facts, you subconsciously get a peculiar sense of connection, whether via otherworldly forces or otherwise.
What can you share about the energy in Lily Dale and how it shaped the music you created? How did you begin the process?
When I first walked into the empty 1883 auditorium. I felt enveloped by this energy, like a welcoming fog. Imagine the particles of memory in this place—the site of historical spiritualist gatherings, séances, lectures, for over 100 years! I don’t believe energy ever truly leaves a place, it all becomes collective. Time is non-existent. Susan B. Anthony spoke here, as Lily Dale was very supportive of the Suffragettes and the Women’s Movement. Harry Houdini supposedly walked these grounds in his ongoing hunt for fraudulent mediums. Sherlock Holmes creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was a devout Spiritualist— the home I stayed in was actually one of his favorites on his beloved trips to Lily Dale. And now I was here too…
The grand piano sat on the stage — a very old, rare instrument made locally in Buffalo, NY by C. Kurtzmann Company. I was told it was the only piano on record being purchased for the auditorium. I think of all the people who had touched this piano, and sat on this very stage summoning spirits for over a century. I was altering the very dynamic of the place now, adding my imprint just by being there.
I would spend my days doing research and exploring, and then enter the auditorium alone, just before sunset. I had a key, and would lock myself in. I would rarely turn the lights on. I loved playing the piano as the last shards of sunlight cut through the vast room (with about 300 empty seats and massive angular ceiling.) I felt like I was performing for an invisible audience, which slowly faded into complete darkness.
At first I began setting up the microphones as I would do in a professional recording studio, attempting to get a clean, close sound from the piano. But as I began to listen back to the tracks, I became more and more enamored of the tremendous watery echo of the room itself, the hollow sounds of the building, and the birds outside. In fact, I went completely against my original idea, and began setting up mics all over the auditorium, so the piano was set into the scene— instead of trying to disguise or hide the background noises. These textures were so compelling to me, they began to drive the actual work. The environmental and unidentified sounds are as much the orchestration as the music. As you listen, it’s like you’re there WITH me as it happens.
At dusk, the birds would always go crazy, and gather around me in the auditorium— in almost an Alfred Hitchcock-like fashion. It got to where I would sometimes play a melody, and then a BIRD would sing it right back to me! I couldn’t believe it. So there are lovely moments of compositions featuring call-and-response from native Lily Dale birds.
I like to surround myself with significant objects that hold the story of the location. I was given an antique spirit trumpet and also an actual piece of stone from the cottage of the legendary Fox Sisters. (The remains of the cottage, which burned down in 1955, are in Lily Dale.)
I kept them with me on the piano.
Lily Dale dislikes paranormal investigation and does not welcome it on the grounds. As Spiritualists, they believe spirits are everywhere, communicating with the dead is part of daily life— so why disturb our tranquil, private community with noisy crews and electronic gadgets? It seems invasive and pointless to them.
Mine is a more parapsychological approach. It’s not about chasing or “hunting a ghost,” but rather to bask, and gently immerse in the collected energy of the place—be part of it. Allow it to mingle with me as it chooses. My piano is the portal.
I’m fascinated with what I call “sonic residue,” echoes, and impressions that remain in environments, buildings, and objects. For me, uncovering the hidden music within these spaces is the closest thing to time travel or channeling. It’s it own ghost.
I would say every night aloud— as I sat alone inside the auditorium: “ I am going to play some music now. Any spirits here, are welcome to join. Any spirits here, are welcome to make their presence known.” And things do happen.
One night I became very frightened; there was this odd melody appearing in my head— constantly, as I walked the narrow Lily Dale streets, and in the woods. When I was in the auditorium later that night, my mind found it again and automatically started to play it on the piano—a key I’ve never played in— and the building just started to—react. I’ve never gotten scared doing these projects, but I suddenly became terrified— but forced myself to keep going. And it was not an evil-type of feeling, but just pure magic. I knew I had discovered something powerful. Like I had crossed a bridge between worlds. The building wanted this melody to exist. And it was to become part of it.
As the melody progressed, I heard a thunderous crack, thuds, steps, whispering, and I mean— this is late at night, 1am, there is no one around. You’re next to the woods, there’s just nothing. And I had locked myself in. My heart pounded. I kept playing in the dark. I wanted to flee, but I realized as I played the music that this was everything I ever wished would happen. This was absolutely, undeniably real.
You will hear this in the recording. As I listened back days later, I heard things I never recalled experiencing that night. I became unnerved even listening.
“The Secret Music of Lily Dale” pretty much manifested itself into being. I did not expect to create an entire album during my time there. But it’s the kind of album I’ve always wanted to do. Like Erik Satie, Brian Eno, or Harold Budd— it’s got that sort of graceful, eerie ambience. But also this dark classical, cinematic feel, a bit of Pink Floyd, Bernard Herrmann, akin to instrumental pieces I’ve released previously. But— these are all spontaneous!
A sonic souvenir of my nights alone inside that mysterious town beyond the veil.
How do other elements of Lily Dale come across in these pieces?
I did various field recordings. I spent a lot of time in the Leolyn Woods surrounding Lily Dale. There is a gigantic tree that was struck by lightning in the 1800s– and it’s purported to be the most powerful location of energy in Lily Dale. They call it Inspiration Stump. People from all over the world gather at the stump to receive messages from Spirit. I decided to record at that exact spot, capture that experience to tape. What is it like to be all alone, standing at Inspiration Stump— or at night in the woods when there’s absolutely nobody around?
One afternoon, the weather forecast called for a thunderstorm. I went into the old auditorium, and underneath that vast roof, could hear the elegant tinkling of the rain. I got all the mics set up, I heard the first thunder clap—and started recording. I had to be super quiet— so I just ended up lying on my back in the dark, in the middle of the 1883 Lily Dale Spiritualist auditorium, dozing on a little blanket, gazing up at the ceiling, listening to the rain. It was just the most beautiful thing, being alone in this renowned auditorium with over a century’s worth of spirits and seances— all of this history and its echoes enveloping me.
I also recorded Lily Dale’s legendary bell that rings throughout the town to beckon people to the Spiritualist Service— and receive messages from the other side.
Within the amazing collection at the Marion H. Skidmore Library, I uncovered some never-before-heard recordings of old seances and spiritualist services in Lily Dale from the 1930s-40s, and organ music played during the services, and some recordings of mediums talking. They all had that very warm vintage-y, analog quality. So I’m thinking it would be really cool to utilize these sounds wafting in and out of the music.
What can we expect as the culmination of the sonic residue and aural energies you excavated in this mystical town?
“The Secret Music of Lily Dale”, will become an entire album with a lovely book of behind-the-scenes stories and photos— even including unexplained shots of orbs and spirits captured during my work there. I launched a GoFundME campaign to help with travel and manufacturing costs. Backers of the campaign will get the music, and the full collection of recordings and bonus material which will not be available in a public release!
Your donations are vital to help me fund the expenses in creating this project. In addition to the new music and sonic treasures I’ve created here on the grounds, you’ll be getting an actual little piece of the town’s history for your very own! I have partnered with Lily Dale’s Marion H. Skidmore Library, (which houses the largest collection of Spiritualist books in the world) to offer chances to win unique Spiritualist items drawn from their collections—awarded in random drawings to my campaign backers! I’ll even be sending personalized historical cards to you postmarked from the Lily Dale Post Office!
Simply support “The Secret Music of Lily Dale” for your chance to win! I am so excited to share the culmination of this work.
Do you believe in spirits? The ability to communicate with them? Were you changed by your time in Lily Dale?
I approach this project as neither a believer nor non-believer, but expanding my mind to possibility. I do believe in other realms, phenomena, and collective energies far beyond human comprehension. There is so much we don’t know, we can’t even begin to fathom.
Lily Dale certainly transformed me. I experienced many things I can honestly never explain. A medium took me into the woods late at night and taught me to find orbs and fairies. There are the most utterly chilling photos of me at the piano— surrounded by glowing blue orbs, or in the woods, with floating white spirits surrounding me. I stood in the woods late at night, in pitch darkness, and sang different frequencies aloud, which supposedly the fairies are drawn to—and a group of us began to see glowing winged creatures (with our own eyes) emerge from deep in the trees. We all saw them. And were stunned. These were not fireflies or insects. I will never be able to explain these moments, but they were real, and brought me to tears.
Music and sound has always been my bridge between hidden worlds. They are both strangely similar. Music in itself is a ghost. It’s completely intangible. Once a note is played, it vanishes into the air, never to be heard again. I find that simultaneously chilling, inspiring and heart-breaking. The only way we can even hold onto music is to have an archive of it, a recorded version. But the real thing is only played once— and disappears. Where does it go?
The most beautiful questions of all are the ones for which there are no answers.
All photos by Jill Tracy, except:
Jill Tracy composes music inside the Mütter Museum. (Photo by Evi Numen, courtesy Mütter Museum); Unexplained orbs captured in the woods by Jeffrey Kulp, Lily Dale guest— and part of the group accompanying Jill Tracy on a search for spirit phenomena.