The enigmatic Julius Eastman : Black, gay and loaded with talent

by Michael Johnson Michael Johnson is a music writer and critic with special interest in piano. He spent nine years on the board of the London International Piano Competition and has written extensively on music for leading publications, including the International New York Times, Clavier Companion, The Washington Times, American Spectator, International Piano and the website Facts & Arts. He spent four years in Moscow as a correspondent and also worked as a journalist in Paris, London and New York. 30.01.2016

One of the great innovators of new music, composer Julius Eastman, was born unlucky – both black and gay. Only the most hardy of souls could prosper with those dual handicaps in 1950s America, the “doubly whammy” as his brother Gerry noted. Eastman died in obscurity in 1990, emaciated and exhausted, suffering from what looked a lot like AIDS. He was 49. The music world had almost forgotten him.

An Eastman renaissance is now under way, with dedicated young musicologists digging into dusty archives and rediscovering manuscripts, and avant garde ensembles taking his work back into concert halls. What does he sound like? A stunning three-CD recording of his “Unjust Malaise” is now available on You Tube including his own silvery baritone in one of the seven compositions. The lead song, “Stay On It” has been described as “a slightly out of control street party”:

 

Embraced and encouraged by the late Morton Feldman and Lukas Foss, Eastman – a graduate of Curtis Institute of Music in composition -- enjoyed two decades of prominence before he faded into a miasma of drugs and alcohol, finally disappearing from the music scene in the 1980s. His tragic death went unreported for eight months until writer-composer Kyle Gann revealed it in his Village Voice newspaper column. 

Now in a collection of biographical reminiscences, Gay Guerrilla (just published by University of Rochester Press), a dozen musicians and writers remember Eastman’s genius, tempered by stories of his struggle with the largely white world of new music at midcentury. “Many Americans of that era … were openly hostile to blacks,” recalls contributor David Borden, a friend and founder of the Electroacoustic Music Center at Cornell University. “As for homosexuality, not only was it not tolerated by almost everyone outside the arts, but it was illegal as well.” 

Borden calls Eastman a “beautiful, multifaceted powerful enigma”.

Other contributors are Kyle Gann of Bard College, composer-critic Matthew Mendez, Columbia University music professor George E. Lewis, Northwestern University musicologist Ryan Dohoney, among other leading lights. Editors and compilers are Renée Levine Parker and Mary Jane Leach, both prominent in American new music.

Eastman’s style might be confused with that of Philip Glass or Steve Reich but upon closer hearing his “organic” music defies categorization. One contributor, composer-conductor Luciano Chessa, captures the essence in his description:Eastman’s music “is based on the pilling up of pitch over pitch, harmony over harmony, in curves of decreasing and increasing harmonic density and harmonic rhythm”. Chessa concludes that Eastman made his compositions “breathe as if they were living organisms”. Nowhere is this description more apt than in his mesmerizing masterpiece for four pianos, from which this book’s title was drawn, “Gay Guerrilla”. 


As a performer, Eastman could be outrageous, even provoking the zen-like John Cage to anger when he took gay sexual liberties in a performance of Cage’s  “Song Books”. Backstage afterward, Cage uncharacteristically pounded his fist on a keyboard and accused Eastman of being “irresponsible”. But Eastman never shrank from outrageousness. One of his favorite roles was that of King George III, 30 minutes of insane ravings of “Eight Songs for a Mad King” by Peter Maxwell Davis. The role calls for vocal range from basso to falsetto, mixed with screaming yelping, weeping and laughing. 

A sample of the lyrics:

I am nervous. I am not ill
but I am nervous.
If you would know what is the matter with me
I am nervous.
But I love you both very well;
if you would tell me the truth.

The score invites the singer to perform in an “extremely impressionistic and parodisic manner,” wrote composer-singer John Patrick Thomas, “and Julius rose to the occasion”. Thomas believes it was “as if he had been waiting since the moment of his birth for this complete engagement of his talents”.

Unfortunately no video of Eastman’s performance exists but others have brought the script to life. In this version, with baritone Kelvin Thomas in the title role, Eastman’s talents can easily be imagined:


This compilation of memories contains overlaps and contradictions but reflects the disparity in how witnesses can recall the past differently. The editors have let each have his or her say without apparent interference or editing. A finely detailed 14-page chronology of Eastman’s life is included, spanning the period from his 1940 birth in a Harlem hospital to academic engagements, his performance career and finally his premature death in 1990 in Buffalo, New York.


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