Julius Eastman: The Forgotten Minimalist

Remembering one of New York’s most fascinating (and least heard) minimalist composers

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: New York musician from the classical world whose taste reaches beyond Rossini, Ravel and even Reich dies forgotten. His work is “rediscovered” years later, and held up as hugely influential on musicians that have taken his ideas and made them more palatable. Writers and critics wonder what might have been, contemporaries confirm that circumstances largely out of his control contributed to his obscurity. A release or two emerges, consensus builds, a forgotten talent becomes remembered again.

Donald Burkhardt

The similarities between Arthur Russell and Julius Eastman are striking. They both were minimalist composers whose work went down easy yet held up to closer scrutiny, penning compositions that had the same sweetness of Steve Reich or Philip Glass. Indeed, Eastman’s Wikipedia page says that he was among the first – if not the first – to mix minimalist “processes” and pop music together, and his work was presented at The Kitchen, the iconic uptown-meets-downtown performance space where Russell was music director from 1974 to 1975.

And – much like Russell– Julius Eastman’s legacy after his death was hardly a legacy at all. After their respective deaths, both fell off-the-radar, their work out-of-print and largely forgotten. Unlike Russell, though, the reclamation project hasn’t taken off in the same way. This may be down to Eastman never venturing too far into the pop world. He certainly never recorded disco 12-inches or had a deal with Rough Trade – although you will see him hiding among the credits on Dinosaur L’s 24→24 Music.

Julius Eastman’s work has the same sort of unfettered joy and conceptual rigor that made others famous.

Eastman mostly stayed in the classical world. And, as any classical composer can tell you, if you don’t have institutional support, it’s mighty hard to get your work performed. All of the modern composer names that you know have their origin story – pissing off some well-known name or organization from the previous generation. But all of the modern composer names that you know also eventually got accepted, whether via university money or label money. Eastman had such an origin story with John Cage. A controversial performance of the legendary composer’s Song Books led to Cage exclaiming, “I’m tired of people who think that they could do whatever they want with my music!” Leaving aside the irony of Cage enforcing his will on performances that he so pointedly left to chance, the story speaks to Eastman’s pattern of shooting himself in the foot at important moments.

There was the job at Cornell that mysteriously didn’t come through as promised. The dispute with Petr Kotik at S.E.M. Ensemble about a piece by Marcel Duchamp. And there was the naming of the music. Compositions titled Crazy Nigger, Wild Nigger and Gay Guerilla. Call it something different – something like Drumming or Music with Changing Parts perhaps – and there’s no problem at all. Call it what Eastman did, and you need to erase the name of your work from the program when you perform it.

Julius Eastman - Gay Guerrilla

It’s unclear, from the increasing amount of literature on his life, whether Eastman simply couldn’t help himself – or whether he knew what he was doing. Whether someone ever pulled him aside – or whether that would’ve made a difference anyway. What we do know is the music. Sort of. In 2005 New World Records put out a three CD compilation of his compositions, but classical composers like Kyle Gann have looked over his scores and say that they often “consist merely of noteheads, timings, the occasional dynamic marking and the even less frequent verbal direction, like, ‘this is one line, one melody,’ and ‘take this as a guide and continue in like manner.’” New World’s release features the material conducted by Eastman himself, so we have a good idea of how this music is supposed to sound. But you could also imagine them sounding significantly different if performed just a few days/months/years later.

DJ/Rupture, AKA Jace Clayton, acknowledges this throughout his latest release, The Julius Eastman Memory Depot. He provides a fitting tribute to Eastman’s work by letting its melodic riches shine, yet never letting it go too long without digitally roughing it up. “Gay Guerilla”’s swirling, dueling pianos build and build until a reference to “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” shines through... and is immediately, digitally, swallowed up by Clayton’s computer. It’s funny – a director yelling cut during a Saturday Night Live ad parody after the pitchman has gone off the rails. “Reverence,” Clayton has said in the lead up to the album, “can be a form of forgetting.”

Clayton’s right, of course. Especially in the case of Eastman, whose work seems ripe for the sort of reclamation project that was undertaken with Arthur Russell a number of years ago. That said, there are plenty of obstacles standing in the way. The aforementioned difficulty of parsing Eastman’s scores. The fact that not many scores even exist. When Eastman was being kicked out of his Manhattan apartment in the’80s, much of his work was lost. There are few – if any – tapes hiding in an attic somewhere.

But if you listen to what we do have – the New World release, Clayton’s recent reinterpretation – it’s enough to realize that it’s a project worth considering. 1973’s Stay On It has the same sort of unfettered joyousness and conceptual rigor that made Steve Reich and Philip Glass famous. And, as Kyle Gann notes, it was written before Music for 18 Musicians or Music in 12 Parts. Reverence may be a form of forgetting, but sometimes it’s worth paying tribute. Here’s hoping that Eastman’s current moment in the limelight lasts a good while longer.

By Todd L. Burns on April 16, 2013

On a different note