Neglected Visionary, American Provocateur
Written for Black History Month 2018
In mid-2015 I was lucky enough to attend a performance of a rarely-heard piece for four pianos. Written in 1979 and lasting about an hour, the piece is a hypnotic, kaleidoscopic journey into an unfolding sonic landscape, both organic and ritualistic. It was an amazing musical experience, and my first encounter with the relatively obscure African-American composer Julius Eastman.
Eastman is most famous for being one of the first “classical” composers to integrate progressions and rhythms from popular music into his pieces. At the same time, however, he was deeply engaged with the avant-garde. As a vocal performer his interpretations and recordings of pieces by Peter Maxwell Davies and John Cage were hailed as remarkable and subversive.
Both of these influences are clearly audible in his music, but they don’t by any means define it. His work defies easy categorisation, and squirms out of any boxes it’s put into. He’s often grouped with “Minimalist” composers, with whom he shares the long duration and repetitive structures, but comparing Eastman’s piano pieces with Philip Glass’ early keyboard works is comparing apples and oranges. The fact that the music has neither the poppy, easy-listening appeal of Philip Glass of Steve Reich nor the academic, intellectual contextualisation of the avant-garde is one of the reasons Eastman is not better known and more widely performed today.
Another reason is the controversial titles he gave his pieces. The piano work I saw in 2015 was called Crazy Nigger, and is part of a trio of related pieces for four pianos also including Evil Nigger and Gay Guerrilla. Eastman was a politically aware, gay, African-American composer, active in a context where that was a rare thing. He chose his titles with care, obviously knowing full well that he would cause outrage, upset and offence. Perhaps unsurprisingly the first performance was nearly called off due to protests.
Eastman’s explanation for these titles is interesting, though only partially enlightening. The taboo word is used to “honour the African-American’s role in American history”. In a spoken introduction to a live recording of Crazy Nigger he remarks: “What I mean by niggers is, that thing which is fundamental; that person or thing that attains to a basicness or a fundamentalness, and eschews that which is superficial, or, could we say, elegant.”
There is an undeniable poetry to these images when taken with the music itself: the cascades of repeated notes aggregating into gigantic edifices could be seen to give credit to the mostly invisible generations of black slaves and workers upon which modern America is built. However, any “explanation” can only every give us part of the story, and any reading has to be taken with a large pinch of salt.
It is abundantly clear that Eastman was a sincere, driven and complex artist, but he never found widespread acceptance during his lifetime, from the public or the establishment. After years of increasing poverty and isolation he died, homeless, at the age of 50.
Happily, though somewhat too late, something of an Eastman revival is underway: his old collaborators have worked to create performing editions of his cryptic scores, and his political and social radicalism is becoming celebrated rather than shunned. New recordings are appearing, and his influence is becoming more widely acknowledged.
Part of the appeal of Eastman’s work is its evasion of easy answers, and its subversion of comfortable, familiar tropes. In the end, it has to be about the sound, and the sound of Eastman’s music is glorious. There is a lot to learn from this complex, divided and divisive composer, if we can open our ears to what he has to say.
Image: Photograph by Donald W. Burkhardt accessed 04/10/2018 http://www.mjleach.com/EastmanScores.htm
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