Stay on Target


I want to share a few quick thoughts about Julius Eastman, one of my favorite composers. Eastman was a gifted pianist and vocalist who wrote ecstatic music with often incendiary titles like Gay Guerilla and Evil Nigger (he was both African American and openly gay). As a vocalist, he was renowned for his 1973 recording of Peter Maxwell Davies Eight Songs for a Made King (1969), a monodrama with psychotic text courtesy King George III, and for his work with the Meredith Monk vocal ensemble. He performed alongside my uncle Robert Een on Monk’s Dolmen Music.

The story goes that Eastman left an academic post after pissing off John Cage while performing one of his works. Apocryphal or not, you get the idea Eastman was a maverick on his own level, often doing the opposite of what would help his career but somehow getting by on pure talent. Later while in New York City, he split his time between uptown and downtown ideals, performing under Pierre Boulez at Lincoln Center while also working with cellist and, yes, disco composer, Arthur Russell.

After about 1983, drugs and disappointment began consuming his life. He even slept in Tompkins Square Park for a spell after being evicted from his apartment. In 1990, he passed away in Buffalo so quietly that it took eight months for the news to circle back to New York in an obituary by Kyle Gann.

The Holy Prescence of Joan d’Arc (1981) is a bacchanal for ten cellos, something you don’t hear too often. Eastman also wrote a haunting solo voice prelude to this piece. Taken together, it’s my favorite of his works and one of my all-time favorites as well. (As an aside, I believe my uncle actually performed at the premiere at the Kitchen although he’s not on the recording.)

Joan d’Arc bursts with energy and cinematic openness–common themes in his work. The first section hauls you up the rickety coaster until the terrifying and liberating drop when the ride seems to crumble. Eastman was one of the first to infuse composition with popular harmonic progressions (as early as 1971!) and his music has definitely aged well to my ears.

Unfortunately, his notational style is notoriously difficult to realize which has probably slowed the performance revival given to other “forgotten” composers. At least the fantastic Unjust Malaise (2005), his first official recording, gives the world a taste of his uncompromising spirit.

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