Who was Julius Eastman?
Jthe music of Ulius Eastman is bubbling and calming; he caresses, charges and calls out. His varied compositions reveal the thrill and pain of being an outsider – many testify to his crossed identity. In an unusual triumvirate of talent, Eastman (1940-90) was a composer, musical performer, and dancer.
When and where was Julius Eastman born?
In 1940 Julius Eastman was born in the city of Ithaca, New York, where he lived with his mother and younger brother. He showed musical talents from an early age and sang in various choirs.
His parents separated when he was a child and he lived with his mother, Frances, and his brother, Gerald (“Gerry”). Frances noticed unusual behavior in infant Julius, who repeated entire stories word for word from the age of two and was highly independent. She also reports that as soon as he started piano lessons, it took considerable effort to get him away from the instrument. As a teenager, Eastman was good enough to accompany dance lessons at the Iris Barbura studio. Encouraged by the staff, the young pianist began to take ballet lessons himself and eventually composed a ballet. Vergiu’s dance, dedicated to the dance teacher Vergiu Cornea.
Where did Julius Eastman study music?
After an unsuccessful audition for Rosina Lhévinne (professor of pianist Van Cliburn) at the Juilliard School, Eastman entered the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia with a full scholarship in 1959. Although he first studied the piano under Mieczyslaw Horszowski, he then turned his pay attention to the composition.
The turning point in Eastman’s career came in 1968, when composer Lukas Foss recruited him as a Creative Associate at the University of Buffalo, where he worked closely with Morton Feldman, Petr Kotik, and others. He also taught for a period at the university where, although popular with some students, he was less than meticulous with time management, administration, teaching, and most of the other essential skills needed to be a successful teacher. His contract was not renewed.
Julius Eastman’s life as a singer
Yes! Although primarily a pianist, he was often sought after as a singer for his intense and flexible baritone and dramatic (albeit unpredictable) stage presence. In 1970, he impressed internationally with his portrayal of King George III in the musical play by Peter Maxwell Davies. Eight songs for a mad king. He reprized the role on several occasions, notably with the New York Philharmonic under the direction of Pierre Boulez, and made a reference recording with Maxwell Davies himself. Around the same time, Eastman’s own compositions were receiving critical acclaim. He joined the now legendary Center for the Creative and Performing Arts at the University of Buffalo, whose alumni include composers Frederic Rzewski, Terry Riley and George Crumb.
What happened between John Cage and Julian Eastman?
Eastman’s chamber group, the SEM Ensemble, was a leader in what we now recognize as avant-garde classical music. John Cage requested that the group perform his Song books at the June 1975 edition in Buffalo – the festival created by Feldman on the model of the Darmstadt Summer School, the epicenter of new music at the time. By this point, Eastman himself had left SEM, but he agreed to return overall for the engagement. While Eastman’s music may have been relegated to a footnote in musical history for several decades, his 1975 Song books performance has long been the stuff of legend. (Kyle Gann writes that he was recently regaled by the Eastman-Cage anecdote by some students. When they were done, he smiled and replied, “Yeah, I was there.”)
The score for Song books includes “instructions”, graphics, and conventional scope notation. All parts should be prepared individually without reference to other performers, so that the first time the solos come together is on stage. Eastman interpreted the instruction to “lecture” to present an explicit discourse on sex, stripping a man in front of an audience and attempting to do the same with a woman. Cage was furious. We could nevertheless point out that it is surely the very essence of chance performance. Eastman certainly thought so. Either way, the concert severed ties with Cage and many players in the new music scene.
Was it difficult to work with Eastman?
Eastman’s living conditions have become increasingly precarious. Little interested in his possessions (his own or those of others), he frequently left his apartment unlocked and was robbed. His uncompromising opinions, tied to his own spirituality and non-conforming behavior, made it difficult for people to support him. There are many painful stories in Gay Guerrilla which illustrate this: from Eastman’s refusal to lock the music room door at a community school that offered him the use of a piano to wrapping a stray cat in a piece of textile art ( which did not belong to him) and to spreading dirt on the piano keys to improve traction (great for technique; terrible for the instrument).
His approach to professional engagements was equally radical. He appeared once, mid-performance, from behind his lectern with his face painted in silver, much to the dismayed director. Another time, he took the stage in a recital to whisper something to the pianist. Later it turned out that he asked the soloist if he would buy him a bottle of wine after the concert; rather than berating Eastman for the inappropriate timing, the friendly pianist made the purchase.
How did he die?
Eastman continued to compose when circumstances permitted. The manuscripts of many of his later works, such as Symphony n ° II, are incomplete. It is suspected that partitions may have been destroyed when he was evicted from his apartment in the early 1980s. There was a brief period in which he sought help, went to therapy sessions, and obtained a job at Tower Records. (Chances are he had at least one mental illness, but nothing was formally diagnosed or at least recorded.) One day he didn’t show up for his shift – except of a few chance encounters, that was the last time anyone saw him. The official reason for his death was cardiac arrest. There was speculation that he might have had AIDS, which his family denies.
The music world only learned about it through an obituary in the Voice of the village published eight months after his death.
What is his heritage?
While his music fell into oblivion at the turn of the 20th century, in recent years there has been a resurgence of interest in Eastman’s life and career. Gay Guerrilla: Julius Eastman and his music was published by the University of Rochester Press in 2015, and is an essential guide to understanding the composer’s work.
Notoriety also increased thanks to recordings of enterprising labels, New World Records opened the ball in 2005 with Unjust discomfort, a three-disc compilation of new and historic recordings.
This was followed by the first release (on Frozen Reeds) of Feminine, next to joy boy, two spiky performances of 1974 by the SEM Ensemble, with the composer at the piano, remained hidden in the archives for decades.
Meanwhile, ensembles such as the Kukuruz Quartet and Lutosławski Piano Duo have turned Eastman’s music, and the American experimenter has been at the center of several shows and events, including the London Contemporary Music Festival 2016.
In a 1976 interview with Buffalo Evening News, Eastman made it clear his purpose: ‘What I’m trying to accomplish is to be what I am to the maximum – black to the maximum, musician to the maximum, homosexual to the maximum.’ He embraced his color and his sexuality in his work with hoarse confidence, frequently – and often intentionally – offending his collaborators and his audience. Eastman openly satirized the complex intersectionality of his life, most notably in what he called his “N * gger” series of compositions.
In an oral instruction to a 1980 performance at Northwestern University – given in lieu of a printed program, due to complaints from faculty and students – Eastman gives a convincing defense of his titles Evil negro and Crazy n * gger. These pieces, alongside Gay Guerrilla (1979), N * gger F * gggot and Dirty nigga (both in 1978), use harmonic series in the same way as the first Glass and Reich, but with a much richer structure. As the American critic and composer Kyle Gann writes, “today his pieces sound particularly distinctive, as if he had not only absorbed minimalism, but could see into his future.” If the works had received more generic titles (such as Music in twelve parts, to the Glass), chances are they would be regular items on streaming playlists where this genre thrives.
It is thanks to a small group of dedicated musicians that we are starting to piece together Eastman’s back catalog. In 1998, Mary Jane Leach searched for a copy of The Holy Presence of Joan of Arc to be used in class as an example of a work for several instruments. Leach had attended the premiere of the work in 1981 and “his energy and sound left a great impression.” His search for a recording turned into a seemingly endless treasure hunt (Leach calls himself an “accidental musicologist”), culminating in the first commercial recording of Eastman’s work – Unjust discomfort. It is thanks to Leach and his collaborators that we have had a second chance to re-evaluate Eastman’s music – something which has too often been denied to such a daring and futuristic composer.
What was Eastman’s style of composition?
Music for multiples
Several works by Eastman are intended for any identical instrument group, up to 18 players. The ensuing harmonics (evident when instruments slide in unison) are a key feature. Kukuruz Quartet showed how well this music works for four pianos.
“There is an attempt to make each section contain all of the information from the previous section, or else to remove the information at a gradual and logical pace,” Eastman said of his harmonic language. He called this approach “organic” music, a style that foreshadowed popular minimalism.
By day Eastman was passionate about contemporary classical music, but by night he played underground dance with Arthur Russell and jazz with his guitarist brother Gerry. Her compositions reflect these disparate styles, with pieces such as Stay On It and Femenine featuring extended sections for improvisation.
Many of Eastman’s tracks reflect his struggles and satisfaction with being a black gay songwriter. Forty years later, tracks such as Five Gay Songs and Joy Boy are remembered as a powerful tribute to post-Stonewall New York, while references to his African-American identity continue to spark controversy.
Illustration: Matt Hareng