Julius Eastman was as bad as bad gets, in the biggest, blackest Miles Davis sense of the term. A supremely talented singer, pianist, and composer whose music and legacy are the focus of Julius Eastman: That Which Is Fundamental, an extensive interdisciplinary retrospective opening at the Kitchen and elsewhere Jan. 19, Eastman possessed a voice as likely to be heard booming across the dance floor with Arthur Russell’s Dinosaur L as howling with delirium on a Grammy-nominated 1973 recording of Peter Maxwell Davies’s Eight Songs for a Mad King. Eastman was a co-founder of the S.E.M. Ensemble and a member of the Meredith Monk Ensemble, and once gave a notorious performance of John Cage’s Song Books that drove an angered Cage to declare his regret at ever having composed the piece.
Beyond his impressive skills as a performer, Eastman also was a composer who produced a body of bold, deeply idiosyncratic work as unique as that of any of America’s great composers. Yet much of his work was almost entirely lost. By the late 1970s, Eastman had started on a drug habit that exacerbated his mental problems, eventually leading to his eviction from his New York City apartment. City marshals left all his belongings on the street as Eastman walked away, leaving everything behind—including his scores. He died in 1990 after several years of being itinerant, but it took nine months for the news, in the form of a Village Voice obituary, to reach the music world.
The composer Mary Jane Leach began collecting Eastman’s scores and recordings in the 1990s, many of which were included in an influential 2005 New World Records anthology, Unjust Malaise, and co-edited the 2015 book Gay Guerrilla: Julius Eastman and His Music. Thanks to her diligence, to the efforts of other scholars exploring Eastman’s legacy, and to ensembles such as Ne(x)tworks and ACME performing his works, Eastman’s music has begun to take on an afterlife of its own.
The music is visceral, and continues to affect audiences now the same way it did 40 years ago. Leach describes Eastman’s work as “hard to categorize, and even though the music is old, it seems new. There’s no B.S. involved, it just gets you in the gut. It’s organic and not sterile, and has an immediacy that most music of that era doesn’t have.”
Chris McIntyre – director of TILT Brass, co-founder of Ne(x)tworks, and a contributor in assembling That Which Is Fundamental – shares a similar attitude towards Eastman’s music:
For me, it’s the profoundly visceral quality heard in much of Eastman’s music that draws listeners in. The sheer monumentality of his best-known work (i.e. the four-piano pieces, the 10-cello piece, etc.) has the ability to make audiences feel more present, overwhelming them in its sublimity, leaving an almost mystical feeling long after the listening experience is over. Beyond the higher order reasons, I think he was just simply a very skilled composer and musical thinker that knew how to communicate with people through his work.
I first performed Julius’s composition Stay On It (1973) in 2006 with the New York group Ne(x)tworks at Issue Project Room’s Carroll Street silo space. Violinist Cornelius Dufallo and I created what was probably the first score realization of his work after it reemerged via the New World Records release in 2005. I had been music intern at the Kitchen under composer John King for a few years leading up to that moment, and had seen Julius’s name numerous times while digging through the paper archives. Once I finally heard his music, I understood that it is part of the tradition that I personally feel most akin to, that of the early SoHo scene and creators of improvised music such as the A.A.C.M. The music from that time was precisely what Ne(x)tworks was exploring as a group and so Julius‘s work made perfect sense for us to investigate. It felt like connective tissue between those related but separate worlds.
One of the major effects of the rediscovery of Eastman’s music is what it does to the common idea of the Downtown scene in the 1970s and ’80s. Having an openly gay black composer in the otherwise relatively white world (as history would have it) helps to “affirms the variety,” as Leach says. “The Downtown scene was all over the map, which ‘gatekeepers’ like Kyle Gann have tried to deny.”
It’s also important that his music and biography are being exposed at this particular time in history. Julius’s struggles as an openly gay, African-American person speak directly to today’s cultural zeitgeist that affords people in his situation a fuller voice and platform. It seems clear from our vantage point in 2018 that Julius’s difficulties in his life and career can be attributed to how marginalized his biography made him. Happily, there seems to be increasing numbers of (especially young) people eager to correct such tragic and large scale oversights, and Julius’s music has the potential to be a real meeting place for this work to take place…. The sheer amount of material that has come to light in the past 12 years has exponentially grown my understanding of his work and the impact of his life experience on it.
Bowerbird, a Philadelphia-based nonprofit arts presenter, first mounted That Which Is Fundamental, a month-long celebration of Eastman’s work curated by researchers Tiona Nekkia McClodden and Dustin Hurt in cooperation with the Eastman Estate, in May 2017. The series included performances of Macle, Thruway, Buddha, Crazy Nigger, Evil Nigger, Gay Guerilla, the Prelude to Joan d’Arc, and The Holy Presence of Joan d’Arc, as well as related performances by Eastman’s brother, Gerry Eastman, and Afrofuturist poet/musician Moor Mother. That series now comes to New York City in expanded form, offering a month of concerts, dance, and art events mostly presented at the Kitchen, one of Eastman’s old haunts. The expanded version of the festival includes all of the works heard in Philadelphia except for Stay On It, replaced here by Joy Boy, a 1974 composition only recently rediscovered.
Additional participating artists include the choreographers Molissa Fenley and Andy de Groat, electronic wizard Hprizm, video artist John J. H. Phillips, and poet Tracie Morris. ACME, TILT Brass, S.E.M. Ensemble, Jeremy Toussaint-Baptiste and LaMont Hamilton, the Arcana New Music Ensemble, Gerry Eastman, and more are set to take part. (Moor Mother, originally announced as part of the New York series, had to withdraw due to a scheduling conflict.) The art exhibition A Recollection, Predicated, curated by McClodden and organized with Katy Dammers and Matthew Lyons, explores Eastman’s relationship to art, as well as contemporary artists responding to Eastman.
TILT Brass will perform Trumpet, a piece that hasn’t been heard live in several decades. McIntyre tells the story of the piece:
Trumpet is one of Eastman’s earliest ensemble works. Its official composition date is 1970, but there is reason to believe that it was created earlier, during his time in Philadelphia (based on S.E.M. Ensemble director Petr Kotik‘s remembrance). When Julius arrived in Buffalo, where Petr was already a member of the Creative Associates, he brought a real-to-reel tape recording of the piece to Petr‘s house and played it for him as an introduction to his work. The piece so profoundly affected Kotik that he and Eastman co-founded the S.E.M. Ensemble together shortly thereafter.
My transcription, being heard for the first time on February 3 at the Kitchen, is a realization based on the one extant recording of the piece, also from [the University of Buffalo] music library, and the first two pages of the score, which were only just recovered this past summer. Approximately 20 minutes in duration, the work is scored for seven trumpets (but heard on the recording with three upper woodwinds, I assume due to a lack of trumpeters on campus), and is ordered via timeline (common to many of his pieces.) It’s roughly organized in four large sections that explore various sonorities of the instrument, utilizing a hybrid of conventional and indeterminate/instructional notation. This mix of organizing concepts made for an extremely challenging transcription process. It also means that my score can only truly be considered a “realization.” That being said, I’m confident that this piece will join the ranks of Julius’s most important and performed works.
That Which Is Fundamental offers a rare chance to hear a wide range of Eastman’s compositions. It’s an opportunity not to be missed.
Julius Eastman: That Which Is Fundamental runs Jan. 19-Feb. 10 at the Kitchen and other venues; thekitchen.org
David Menestres is a bassist, composer, and writer currently living in the Piedmont region of North Carolina. He is the founder/leader of the Polyorchard ensemble and is the host and producer of Tone Science, a weekly two-hour radio show on taintradio.org since 2010. His writing has appeared in IndyWeek, VAN, and Music & Literature.
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