From half-god to the homeless and back again: Julius Eastman rediscovered

Classical music is full of mavericks, but the American composer, pianist, singer and choreographer Julius Eastman still holds the world record. With a new recording of his work Femenine, he takes a decisive step towards definitive recognition.

By Wynold Verweij

Julius Eastman (1940 – 1990) was predestined to tread the classical paths with elegance and dignity. He received his training at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. Soon after, he performed as a baritone with conductors Zubin Mehta and Pierre Boulez. He then became a lecturer at the University of Buffalo in New York, where he found his biotope in minimalist compositions. In 1966, he made his debut as a pianist in New York City, performing his own work. His social and artistic life took place with avant-gardists and personalities such as John Cage, Meredith Monk, Arthur Russell and the S.E.M. Ensemble. Quiet and shy, he tinkered with the foundations of avant-gardism, which was generally considered to be white and Eurocentric. From the 1970s onwards, his charisma grew with his personality. In an interview with the Buffalo Evening News in 1976, he described his personal adage: “…to be what I am to the fullest: Black to the fullest, a musician to the fullest, and a homosexual to the fullest.” With this, Eastman gave a shot in the arm for the controversial titles he gave to some of his works: Crazy Nigger, Dirty Nigger, Evil Nigger, Nigger Faggot, Gay Guerilla. In his own words, he used these titles to “wrap” himself in stereotypes and thereby provoke discussion about racism and homophobia. On issues that are on everyone’s lips today, such as BLM, gender neutrality, income inequality and drug trafficking, he was ahead of his time, perhaps too ahead. At the end of the 1970s, Eastman became increasingly detached from his surroundings. Drink and drugs did their alienating work and confirmed that he wanted to be and remain an outsider. “He lived like the titles of his compositions”, said a friend. He also chose a property-free existence. His appartment was never locked, and he regularly had thieves coming in. Eventually he was evicted from his flat in New York for rent arrears. All his household goods, including his scores, ended up on the street. Eastman was sheltered by the homeless and for a while lived under the stars in Tompkins Square Park, Manhattan. He died in 1990 in a hospital in Buffalo, completely forgotten. It was not until seven months later that a piece on his death appeared in The Village Voice.

Femenine is composed in a repetitive style, and in its original version is performed by horns, marimba, vibraphone, sleigh bells, piano and bass. The piece, which lasts over an hour, is based on a musical block, which consists of a two-note theme on the vibraphone against a snowy curtain of sleigh bells. There are only five pages of score with which the musicians have to make do. There is also a recording by the S.E.M. Ensemble from 1974. These are the only existing sources. New music collective Wild Up from Los Angeles has nevertheless dug in its heels with a new, refreshed version, released on the New Amsterdam label. The result is a dazzling fabric that develops organically in a layered tonal landscape that never bores, but constantly surprises. The basic melody is repeated as obstinately as in Terry Riley’s In C. This ostinato grabs the listener, but the risk of irritation is nullified by the alternating rise and fall of bells, drones and other instruments. The effect is therefore more organic than minimalist. But in fact, the only norm of the piece exists in pervasive normlessness. And for Wild Up, this presented a challenge: how to use the limited written material to create a performance that was unmistakably Julius Eastman. The answer was improvisation. Wild Up added twelve solos for piano, cello, baritone saxophone, horn and voice. The ensemble was able to achieve this because the musicians compose and improvise themselves. This means that they brought in instruments (bells, whistles) and added colour and dynamics themselves. In this way, the composer functions more as a facilitator, whose music does not want to prescribe anything, but rather to stimulate to push the limits and try out new possibilities. Few composers dare to do that. Femenine’s strength lies, among others, in the freedom to adapt the instrumentation and to experiment with the design, leaving the performers in charge. That is also why this recording of Wild Up differs from previous recordings such as those by the British Apartment House (2019) and the Belgian Sub Rosa (2020).

“Eastmania” – that’s the name of the renewed, trendy admiration for Julius Eastman. The icing on the cake comes from the New York Philharmonic. His Symphony No. II – The Faithful Friend: The Lover Friend’s Love for the Beloved has been programmed for February 2022, in a series for subscribers – mind you. The score was found in a chest of drawers and has been reworked. The conductor is Jaap van Zweden.

WHAT: Femenine – Julius Eastman

WHO: Wild Up

PHOTO CD COVER: Chris Rusiniak

LABEL: New Amsterdam Records https://www.newamrecords.com/albums/femenine-wild-up

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