Julius Eastman: Radical composer who ended up sleeping rough

Black, gay and working-class, he was forgotten after his death, but his music is being revived

Julius Eastman:  brought “ideas of class and of race and of sex” to the “white-cube blank space of classical music”.

Julius Eastman: brought “ideas of class and of race and of sex” to the “white-cube blank space of classical music”.


There he is, sitting next to Meredith Monk as they sing her beautiful, haunting vocal piece Dolmen Music. Now his deep voice resonates through the lustful avant-disco of Dinosaur L’s Go Bang!. He’s behind the piano for a rare early recording of Morton Feldman’s For Frank O’Hara, but he’s conducting the orchestra on the even rarer release of Arthur Russell’s Tower Of Meaning on Philip Glass’s label.

There he is playing the lead role in Sir Peter Maxwell Davies’s high-modernist musical theatre piece, Eight Songs For A Mad King, shrieking insanity in five octaves like a deranged Mariah Carey, the watchful baton of Pierre Boulez keeping the New York Philharmonic in step with his illogical leaps. Then he’s slumming it downtown in the Kitchen’s DIY space with Peter Gordon and all the other flat-broke musicians, artists, actors, dancers and dreamers.

Julius Eastman was all of these things and more; as the Pulitzer-winning composer Ned Rorem said, Eastman “could always do anything”.

How then did Eastman end up sleeping rough in Tompkins Square Park, and dying, aged 49 and as good as unnoticed, in Millard Fillmore Hospital in Buffalo, New York? How does someone so talented slip through the cracks?

Let’s rewind. Julius Dunbar Eastman Jr was born in October 1940. He grew up in the university town of Ithaca, in upstate New York. He and his younger brother Gerry were raised by their mother, Frances, an inspector for General Electric and later the records librarian at the Tompkins County Hospital. Eastman taught himself piano as a child, before taking up formal lessons as a teenager.

He was accepted to study first piano and then composition at the highly selective Curtis Institute in Philadelphia. After graduation he went back north to Buffalo, where he joined a disparate group of adventurous musical minds: Lukas Foss, Petr Kotik and Pauline Oliveros, to name but a few.

Civil rights

By the early 1970s, Eastman’s star was steadily on the rise. The recording of his performance in Eight Songs For A Mad King was nominated for a Grammy, and he had composed Stay On It, a remarkable ensemble piece which seems to predict and surpass the “minimalism” of Steve Reich and Philip Glass. Like Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians, or Glass’s Music In Twelve Parts, Stay On It is a joyous set of small, modular sequences strung together in a repetitious but ever-varying collage. But where Reich and Glass’ pieces have smooth surfaces, Stay On It is punctured with silence, with dissonance, with a sense of ecstatic rupture. Perhaps most importantly, it had soul. “Reich’s pieces and Julius’s pieces are similar in the way that Gregorian chant and Byzantine are – one is pretty rigid, and the other is looser,” writes Mary Jane Leach, the composer and self-described “accidental musicologist” largely responsible for the current visibility of Eastman’s work. “There is the fluidity of jazz and a swing that is missing from, especially, Reich.”

Dead ends

The Holy Presence of Joan D’Arc

After he was evicted from his East Village apartment in 1981, Eastman’s belongings – including his hand-written scores – were left out on the street. Eastman himself made no effort to reclaim them, and many were lost. Eastman’s scores, particularly after he left Buffalo and moved to New York City in 1975, were more like directions than traditional scores; they left plenty of room for interpretation.

While Eastman was alive, he often performed the pieces himself, allowing him to direct proceedings as he wished. Since his death, the few scores that survive are often indecipherable, making new performances quite difficult. The recordings that make up Unjust Malaise, the three-CD compilation put together by Leach in 2005, are in some cases the only known records of the work.

By the time Leach saw Joan D’Arc in 1981, Eastman’s work had taken a distinctly political turn – there were titles like Gay Guerrilla, Evil Nigger, Crazy Nigger and Nigger Faggot. The music too was more abrasive, but still beautiful and moving – Gay Guerilla is gently heartbreaking in places. Eastman constantly foregrounded his sense of identity, his desire to be ever more himself. Eastman’s music and persona may both have been confrontational, but this stemmed more from a desire for honesty, for real intimacy, vulnerability and inter-reliance, than any kind of cheap shock.

Still it’s hard to shake the idea that titles like these were a part of the reason Eastman’s fortunes began to decline after 1980. Always a heavy drinker, he began to struggle with addiction. He was evicted, his possessions scattered. A proposed teaching job at Cornell University fell through. Kyle Gann, composer and columnist for the Village Voice, saw him for the last time in line for a concert in Brooklyn in 1989. “He looked terrific,” Gann wrote in the notes for Unjust Malaise. He died a few months later, of cardiac arrest, and Gann would be the one to make his death public with a belated obituary in the Village Voice in 1991. The notice appeared eight months after Eastman had passed away; few had marked his disappearance.

The release of Unjust Malaise in 2005 was the start of a resurgent interest in Eastman’s work. Before then, even if you knew who Eastman was, hearing his music was nigh-on impossible. Leach and Renée Levine Packer then put together Gay Guerrilla, a collection of academic essays about Eastman’s work, which appeared last year. This month sees the release of Femenine, a pivotal hour-plus piece for piano, mechanised sleigh bells, vibraphone, woodwind, horns, strings and synthesiser, on the Frozen Reeds label. Recorded in November 1974, Femenine lay hidden in the archives of musician Phil Niblock for decades. Hearing it now, Femenine pulses somewhere between the ecstatic swing of Stay On It and the discordant blood-rush of the later work. You can hear the tension, and the catharsis.

“The end sounds like the angels opening up heaven,” said Eastman of the piece. “Should we say euphoria?”

Julius Eastman’s Femenine is on CD from Frozen Reeds. http://frozenreeds.com/

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