Julius Eastman’s Great Expectations

Julius Eastman’s Great Expectations

The neglected music of a revolutionary 20th-century composer continues to shock and awe.


Julius Eastman was good at turning insults into titles for his work. Example: In 1977, Eastman was 36 and, though respected in avant-garde circles for the boldly experimental music he’d been making for more than a decade, was struggling to sustain himself in New York City. “If you’re so smart, why aren’t you rich?” his mother asked him, and Eastman used the question as the name for his latest piece, composed at the request of conductor Lukas Foss for the Brooklyn Philharmonia (later upgraded to the Brooklyn Philharmonic). If his mother’s taunt was only teasing—a loving maternal prod—Eastman used it for a fiercer purpose. Over the entirety of its 20-minute-plus duration, the composition states and restates the chromatic scale in blunt scoring—hammering and hammering, relentlessly. It feels less like an inquiry, teasing or otherwise, than a nearly physical assault. The title, a question founded on imposed expectations, imposes expectations of its own, setting up the listener for a piece of musical rumination or commentary. Yet the music provides something altogether different: a form of aural violence that batters the brain into numb submission.

In recent years, the interest in Eastman’s life and work has been mounting steadily, thanks largely to the advocacy of some ardent champions: the composer Mary Jane Leach, who has been scouring the world for scores and recordings of Eastman’s music and produced an eye-opening three-CD compilation of his work, Unjust Malaise; the scholars Kyle Gann and Renee Levine Packer, the latter of whom collaborated with Leach to edit the first book of essays on Eastman, Gay Guerrilla; and a growing body of musicians drawn to Eastman and unimpeded by the sizable challenges in salvaging his music, much of which was loosely notated, reliant on improvisation, and exists only in fragments, if it survives at all. Eastman, who was Black and gay and frequently situated both parts of his identity in the foreground of his work, is beginning to receive the kind of attention he had been denied during his lifetime. We’re in the midst of what could be called an Eastman revival, if only he had been more widely recognized to begin with.

You don’t have to be Eastman’s mother to wonder: If he was so great, why wasn’t he more famous? Eastman defied every expectation, including the assumption that high-level achievement as an artist would grant him higher status and material benefit. In fact, the great theme of Eastman’s life and work may well be the way he persistently contested and upended imposed expectations—expectations about the avant-garde and its institutions, about Black artistry and gay sensibility, about authorship and collaboration in performance, and about what musical art can and should be.

Icame to Eastman late and didn’t pay enough attention to him when he was alive and I was starting out as a music writer. I saw his name on the roster of some shows at the Kitchen in the 1980s, when it was the hub of the “downtown” experimental music scene in New York City, but I never saw any of his performances as a vocalist, pianist, conductor, or multimedia ringmaster. I didn’t disbelieve the occasional praise for Eastman that I heard from friends and colleagues like the composer George Lewis, who served as musical director for a European tour of acts associated with the Kitchen, including Eastman. But I never gave him any serious attention until I heard Unjust Malaise, and that primed me for the two recent sets of new recordings by Wild Up, a Los Angeles–based collective of rangy young musicians: Julius Eastman, Vol. 1: Femenine and Vol. 2: Joy Boy. Once I started listening closely, I was shocked by what I heard—rattled by the subtextual force of music that somehow eerily transcends the formal, technical particulars of its making. What I found was not at all what I had expected.

Eastman appears never to have been much interested in technical particulars. As Renee Levine Packer recounts, he learned the piano easily as a child growing up in Ithaca, N.Y. After a year of study as a piano major at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, he applied for a transfer to the composition program, and the application posed the question “What is your ultimate goal in studying music?” Eastman answered: “To obtain wisdom.”

A musical polymath, gifted as a singer and a pianist as well as a composer, Eastman achieved early bloom as both a composer and a performer—sometimes singing in a grand theatrical style, sometimes playing the classical piano repertory with panache—in Buffalo, where he took up residence as a fellow at the State University of New York campus there after his graduation from Curtis. By the time Eastman arrived in the late 1960s, SUNY Buffalo was internationally esteemed as a hotbed of creative adventurism. Liberal, no-strings funding from the Rockefeller Foundation lured a wave of free-thinking composers and musicians to work under Lukas Foss at the university’s Center for the Creative and Performing Arts: Maryanne Amacher, George Crumb, David Del Tredici, Don Ellis, Terry Riley, Jan Williams, and more. All of them were white, though Black musicians including Charles Mingus and Archie Shepp were also on campus, working in jazz.

Eastman began his fellowship in Buffalo three months after the Stonewall uprising, and he gave voice to his open identification as a gay man in a series of new compositions such as “Femenine,” “Joy Boy,” “Touch Him When,” and “Five Gay Songs,” the last of which appears to be lost. “What amazes me is how few artists, of all people, are willing to admit their homosexuality,” Eastman told a Buffalo journalist. “I have discovered that most are uptight on that subject, afraid to reveal themselves, and afraid to admit to the world who they are. People fear punishment. There is always somebody who is trying to crush you. I refuse to think about that. I refuse to be afraid of my comrades, of being castigated, thrown out or thought of badly.”

The two volumes of new recordings by Wild Up offer superb contemporary interpretations of Eastman’s work from his time in Buffalo. Vol. 1 is devoted entirely to “Femenine,” a work more than two hours long built with two musical notes. (A companion piece composed in the same period, “Masculine,” is known to have been performed in programs with “Femenine,” but is now lost.) On the surface, “Femenine” would seem to be no more than a lesser-known specimen of the minimalism in vogue at the time, a variation on the experiments in reduction and repetition generally associated with Philip Glass, Steve Reich, Terry Riley, and others. Yet nothing of interest in “Femenine” occurs on the surface.

Eastman’s score for “Femenine,” like other documents of his compositional intent that survive, is spare. It has notation for a 13-beat, two-note melody that repeats for the duration of the work, along with some guidelines for the musicians (playing vibraphone, piano, strings, and sleigh bells). The piece is structured in sections that begin and end in accordance with stopwatch timings. Eastman’s instructions are open and a bit cryptic at times, calling for the players to “move back in harmony” or “melt into D minor or F minor.” But which of these two minor chords? Presumably, whichever felt right to the musicians at the moment. Eastman would describe his conception for the piece as “organic music,” and he seems to have meant that the music should take the form it wants to take as the musicians follow their feelings and make subtle additions and subtractions over time. For the premiere of “Femenine” in 1974, Eastman played the piano part wearing a dress, to embody the title’s evocation of both the male and the female, and he served soup to the audience.

For the recent recording by Wild Up, musical director Christopher Rountree expanded the instrumentation to include a brass section and guitar, and he facilitated instrumental variation by having the musicians improvise fairly freely and take solos at points. This version of “Femenine” feels true to Eastman’s expansive spirit and captures the almost supernatural capacity of his music to stir feeling. Somehow, the spareness and simplicity of his work never comes across as a gimmick or a shortcoming. The small handful of notes he employs in pieces such as “Femenine,” “Stay on It,” and others are, in every case, just right. They are satisfying and efficient. With repetition and subtle alteration, we hear more and more in what, on paper, would look like very little.

Throughout his years in Buffalo, Eastman performed in New York City from time to time, at Carnegie Recital Hall and Alice Tully Hall in Lincoln Center, as well as the Kitchen and other venues. By the summer of 1976, his enthusiasm for the upstate academic music world had faded, and Eastman moved to Manhattan. “I did not think that the Creative Associates were very creative any more. I was a kind of talented freak who occasionally injected some vitality into the programming,” Eastman told a reporter for the Buffalo Evening News shortly before he left town.

“What I am trying to achieve is to be what I am to the fullest—Black to the fullest, a musician to the fullest, a homosexual to the fullest,” Eastman continued. “It is through art that I can search for the self and keep in touch with my resources and the real me.”

In his first few months living in New York City, Eastman wrote a pair of kinetic, free-form works for voice and piano that fit neatly in the anything-but-neat loft and gallery scene. He gave a full-length concert of vocal improvisations titled “Praise God From Whom All Devils Grow,” which New York Times critic Joseph Horowitz praised as “intense and astringent, often demonic”; and he presented a piece for voice and piano improvised to the Super 8 film footage he had shot of the body of a drag queen and dog feces on the streets of New York. Eastman reveled in the freedom to push boundaries that was closer to an imperative than a privilege in the downtown scene of the mid-1970s.

On December 1, 1978, Eastman introduced the first two compositions in what he would call his “Nigger Series.” He self-produced a concert at the Third Street Music School Settlement to premiere two ensemble works in the series. Neither was recorded, and Eastman’s publisher, Music Sales Corp., lists them as “unavailable for performance.” Works to follow in the series, titled “Evil Nigger”and “Crazy Nigger,” survive as recordings, however, and both are brilliantly enigmatic. The first, now typically referred to as “EN,” is scored for unspecified instruments but usually performed with four pianos, as it was in its 1980 premiere with Eastman at one of the keyboards. Like his other notable compositions, it is built on a simple melodic figure, a descending line, repeated and developed through accretion by the multiple pianos. The piece reaches an unsettling climax, and the elements break apart and float away.

As with so much of Eastman’s music, “EN” and its counterpart for four pianos, “CN,” work almost extramusically; they are much better and far more moving than they would appear to have any right to be, formally speaking. As such, they could be taken as assaults on the forces that imposed formal standards on music in Eastman’s lifetime: the people and institutions, white and powerful, who enforced the rules regarding which musicians had the right to do what.

At the premiere of these two compositions (along with a companion piece titled “Gay Guerrilla”) at Northwestern University in 1980, Eastman gave a preconcert talk and addressed his use of the racial slur in their titles. For Eastman, the word meant “that thing which is fundamental, that person or thing that attains to a basicness, a fundamental-ness, and eschews that thing which is superficial or, what could we say, elegant.”

We can take this at face value or think of it as artful deflection, a preshow performance to disarm any who would deny Eastman the right to define himself. He would live for 10 more years, struggling in the face of diminishing prospects and failing health. Evicted from his New York apartment, Eastman lost much of his music when it was tossed out on the street by his landlord. He went homeless for some time and was thought to have had drug problems. A great deal was working against him, we can see now: Black and gay in the white-dominated world of new music, too “uptown” for the downtown scene and too “downtown” for uptown, Eastman was an intersectional artist decades ahead of his time, but an outsider everywhere he looked in his day.

For reasons that are still unclear, Eastman returned to Buffalo and died in a hospital there, at age 49, on May 28, 1990. Not a single publication in the United States published an obituary or acknowledged his death in any way until late January of the following year, when The Village Voice published an obituary by Kyle Gann. Unjust malaise, indeed.

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