A newly-released album gives overdue attention to the innovative, politicized music of the late Julius Eastman
What I am trying to achieve is to be what I am to the fullest – black to the fullest, a musician to the fullest, and a homosexual to the fullest… I have discovered that most artists are uptight on that subject, afraid to reveal themselves, and afraid to admit to the world who they are.
Julius Eastman speaking to the Buffalo Evening News on 17 July 1976
Julius Eastman’s astonishing life story is riven with vital contrasts. He was an unapologetically gay, fiercely politicized African-American experimental composer, a firebrand with a formal academic training. As a vocalist, he toured Europe’s concert halls under such prestigious conductors as Zubin Mehta, but also recorded with pioneers of left-field disco.
Eastman was a fundamental part of American New Music scene of the 1970s, but in the period preceding his death in 1990, aged 49, his life had fallen apart, following bouts of homelessness, and drug and alcohol dependency. His disregard for possessions resulted in the loss of his scores and recordings; it is likely that, of the 50-odd pieces that Eastman is known to have written, over half will never be heard again. The sparse surviving documentation is gradually being unearthed, such as the recording of his major 1974 ensemble piece Femenine, which is now available through the label Frozen Reeds. Hopefully, this will add to the critical understanding of Eastman’s importance as a musician, an importance that has long been overshadowed by his mythology.
Born in 1940, Eastman grew up in Ithaca, New York. Shy, stubborn and lucidly intelligent, he quickly became a skilled pianist and composer. By his late teens, he had developed a startling bass voice and mastered a wide repertoire, performing as a soloist in a range of works from Joseph Haydn’s Creation (1796-98) to Igor Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex (1927).
He was appointed a ‘Creative Associate’ of the State University of New York at Buffalo in 1969. At that time, Buffalo was at the forefront of contemporary creative music – graphic scores, new electronic music, ‘happenings’ – and Eastman’s experimental impulses burgeoned, resulting in ambitious, choreographed pieces such as The Moon’s Silent Modulation (1970).
His reputation as an interpreter of other composers’ work also crystallized during this period, notably due to his performances of Peter Maxwell Davies’s Eight Songs for a Mad King (1969), a now infamous showpiece for a howling, screeching vocalist with a super-human range, who performs surrounded by an ensemble trapped in cages, representing George III’s songbirds. Eastman gave the US premiere and performed it with Pierre Boulez as conductor; his subsequent recording is a demonstration of both his vocal prowess and forceful charisma.
Eastman’s dramatic persona may have precipitated the end of his association with Buffalo, following a performance of John Cage’s indeterminate, vocal magnum opus Song Books (Solos for Voice 3–92) (1970) in 1975. Eastman’s satirical interpretation saw him delivering a lecture on sex, while he undressed a young man and woman on stage. Cage was scandalized by his work being co-opted, sexualised and politicised in this way, publicly stating: ‘Let’s begin now with why I don’t approve. I don’t approve because the ego of Julius Eastman is closed in on the subject of homosexuality.’
Whether or not on account of this incident, Eastman relocated to New York City shortly after. This brought him into contact with downtown musicians such as Meredith Monk and Arthur Russell, on whose 1982 record 24→24 Music (released as Dinosaur L), Eastman’s bone-shaking voice can be heard.
Meanwhile, his own compositions were becoming ever more provocative and personal, as demonstrated by such titles as If You’re So Smart, Why Aren’t You Rich? (1977), Gay Guerilla (1979) and, most shocking and blunt, Evil Nigger (1979). These last two pieces were part of a series of long, complex works for multiple pianos that Eastman presented as part of a residency at Northwestern University in 1980, which was met with protests from black university student groups and plagued by emotionally stormy rehearsals. Eastman’s defence of his reclamation of the racist term was that it ‘attains to a basicness, a fundamentalness, and eschews that which is superficial’.
Despite evolving styles and strategies throughout the course of his career, Eastman’s music often featured this rough, vibrant and ‘fundamental’ improvisatory quality – he often used the term ‘organic’. For example, Stay On It (1973) begins with an ensemble playing a sharp-edged, jazz-type riff, with a vocalist intoning the title. As the piece continues, disorientating dissonances seep in, unexpected solos emerge and rhythmically messy passages blur the music’s focus. As composer Kyle Gann notes, while Eastman was writing this rich and densely associative piece, Philip Glass and Steve Reich were still in their ‘austere’ phases. In this way, Eastman’s monumental, stylistically inclusive work foreshadows the post-minimalism of the late 1980s and ‘90s.
Extraordinarily, Eastman’s artistic handling of sexuality and gender was unequivocal at this time. This is Tom Johnson’s 1976 report on a solo performance for the Village Voice:
There was a lot of finesse and control in the way he could ease into brief moments of repetition and then slip off into something completely different… Later he began singing along in a crazed baritone: “Why don’t you treat me like a real woman?” and later, “Open, open wider.”
‘Outrageous’ is an adjective frequently employed to describe Eastman in the various published recollections of him, a stereotype of the gay man that he came to embody. The composer Mary Jane Leach of her first encounter with Eastman in 1981: ‘at the first rehearsal, at 10 a.m., …dressed in black leather and chains, drinking scotch’. But his outrageousness was also an expression of increasing disillusionment and ill health. He was unable to hold down any paid work, and would shortly be evicted from his apartment, a development that apparently resulted in the egregious loss of many of his scores.
Many people were unaware of Eastman’s death. It took eight months for an obituary to appear in the Village Voice (submitted by Gann, with an obvious bitterness about the oversight and lack of closure): ‘According to the death certificate, he died of cardiac arrest. Depending on whom you talked to, it was brought on by insomnia and possible tuberculosis, dehydration, starvation, exhaustion or depression (supposedly not AIDS).’
Eastman’s work was en route to oblivion until 2005, when Unjust Malaise was released, a CD set of archive recordings compiled by a small and dedicated number of friends, notably Mary Jane Leach, who also co-edited the book Gay Guerrilla: Julius Eastman and His Music in 2015. The newest Eastman artifact we have is Femenine, an extended journey through a sonic landscape dominated by chiming vibraphone and piano, with a shimmering halo of mechanized sleigh bells throughout. It has the euphoric, rhythmic quality of early works by Terry Riley and Steve Reich, but the volatile sound-world and labyrinthine structure are all Eastman’s own.
All this should serve as a reminder of the fragility of an artist’s reputation and body of work, especially in a discipline like classical music, freighted with revisionist Western history. Eastman’s search for a musical ‘truth’ produced an uncompromising and culturally omnivorous music that prefigured a generation of American composers. We ignore marginalized and minority voices like his at our peril. We lost him once; we were terribly close to losing him twice.
Leo Chadburn is a writer and composer based in London, UK. He has previously contributed to The Quietus, TEMPO and The Wire. In 2015, he premiered his solo work RED & BLUE, and in 2016 he wrote and staged the work Freezywater for the Apartment House ensemble. His new piece, 'Affix Stamp Here', will be premiered by EXAUDI in October 2016.