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26 Years After His Death, a Forgotten Musician Makes His Return

Composer Julius Eastman became known for his viscerally intense, provocatively titled modern classical music.


In the mid-20th century, classical music was in a state of rapid flux. Atonal compositions (lacking a tonal center, often with pitch material derived from formulas) were the academic norm; minimalist compositions (rhythmic, often tonal pieces, derived from simple repeating processes) were the reaction. Emerging composers found themselves drafted into one camp or the other. To add another level of complexity, the changing social climate of the ‘60s and ‘70s directly influenced composers and their compositions. One such product of his time was Julius Eastman, born in 1940, who found himself straddling both academic and reactionary styles in the classical scene. Eastman held a teaching position in the University at Buffalo Music Department in the early ’70s, was a respected performer of modern vocal works and wrote brooding minimalist pieces of music, with titles centering around homosexuality and race. Through the ‘80s, Eastman lived in downtown New York City, distanced himself from the classical music establishment and close friends, and in 1990 died alone in Millard Fillmore Hospital in Buffalo at the age of 49. The majority of his compositions were lost, presumably destroyed after he was evicted from his Lower East Side apartment, and only recordings of his pieces and partial musical scores remained.

The first news of Eastman’s death was an obituary published by Kyle Gann in the Village Voice eight months after the composer passed away from cardiac arrest. In the following decade, the classical establishment essentially overlooked Eastman. But in 1998, composer Mary Jane Leach started to compile all of Eastman’s works, after first trying to find the score to The Holy Presence of Joan d’Arc for 10 cellos. Over the next seven years, she tracked down performers of Eastman’s music, partial scores and audio recordings, and in 2005 released the first commercial recording of his music, Unjust Malaise. In the years since the album’s release, Eastman’s music has been making a comeback, showing up in concert series and in conservatory classrooms across the country. A comprehensive collection of essays on his life and work, titled Gay Guerrilla: Julius Eastman and his Music, was published in December 2015, comprised of both academic and personal accounts of the composer. Thanks to the hard work of a few individuals, his rhythmic and visceral music is available to both performers and listeners, and Eastman is now recognized as one of the important figures in American minimalist music.

“Whether they were aware of it or not, Eastman and his colleagues were part of a growing sociological sea change — the blurring between popular and high culture, and an increasing disregard for established borders within traditionally accepted disciplines,” says Renée Levine Packer in Gay Guerrilla. Eastman was interested in jazz and improvisation, but was also influenced by disco and popular music. His compositions took on grand sizes, often spanning well over 20 minutes each, and scored for large groups of the same instrument (e.g. four pianos, 10 cellos). Eastman’s music, as described by Gann, “builds up immense emotive power through the incessant repetition of rhythmic figures.” Pulsing grooves keep the pieces driving forward, but Eastman’s self-described style of “organic music” creates visceral intensity. This style is centered on a compositional technique that accumulates used pitches over the duration of a piece, essentially piling up previously used harmonic material into densely layered sonic entities. Listeners can hear the process as Eastman’s pieces unfold, mesmerizing and hypnotic.

“The pieces he wrote in this style often had intentionally provocative titles intended to reinterpret the minorities Eastman belonged to in a positive light: for example, Evil Nigger, Crazy Nigger, and Gay Guerrilla (all circa 1980),” says Gann in American Music in the 20th Century. Composer Luciano Chessa expands on the titling thought process: “There is no self-hatred in these title choices, but, rather, self-empowerment: the titling was, among other things, a way of exercising power, a way of taking control over words and their meaning.” Creative and descriptive titles set a mood and create a listening space, well before an audience has even heard a sound. “Eastman chose to fill what would otherwise have been an empty slot with a sociopolitical commentary: a vindication of sorts,” says Chessa. “He chose to fill that void with something that could make people think more than they would had these compositions been titled Symphony, or Concerto, or Piece for Pianos, and so on.”

Eastman’s music is as relevant today as it was three decades ago, blending genres and styles, making pointed comments on social issues. In a 1981 press release for Eastman’s performance “Humanity and Not Spiritual Beings,” the composer wrote, “I could be a dancer, choreographer, painter or any other kind of artist if I so wished; but right thought, speech and action are now my main concerns. No other thing is as important or as useful. Right thought, Right speech, Right action, Right music.” The single-minded dedication to his beliefs translated to timeless musical works. In Gay Guerilla, Packer says, “Julius Eastman wrote radical works… He was also charismatic, arresting, charming, and as I said to Kyle Gann when he called me in early January 1991 with the news of Julius Eastman’s death, ‘Sometimes, he was just damned outrageous.’”

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