The Radical Queerness of Julius Eastman

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When the post-minimalist composer, pianist, and Grammy-nominated vocalist Julius
Eastman died homeless in a Buffalo hospital in 1990 at the age of 49, it took nearly
eight months for the New York art and music worlds to learn of his passing. The once
dynamic, and often provocative, musician had been the enfant terrible of contemporary
classical in the 1970s, shuttling between uptown concert halls and downtown lofts and
working alongside Morton Feldman, John Cage, Meredith Monk, Arthur Russell, and the
S.E.M Ensemble. By the mid ’80s, however, he had drifted into obscurity, living briefly
in Tompkins Square Park, where he reportedly developed a serious cocaine addiction
and contracted HIV when the disease was still a death sentence. At the time of his
passing, many of his musical scores and notes had been confiscated or lost, while
Eastman, himself, had stopped playing the piano, suspicious the musical establishment
that had once cautiously embraced him was now intent on destroying him, according to
one former friend.

“What I am trying to achieve is to be what I am to the fullest,” Eastman explained in a
1976 interview at the height of his renown. “Black to the fullest, a musician to the fullest,
a homosexual to the fullest.” That he was a musical prodigy and a queer, Black man
unapologetically piercing the hermetic institutions of (white) classical music might be a
fitting, potted history of his transgressive career; but Eastman’s music can not be
reduced simply to political, or sexual, affiliation. His sui generis scores for chamber
orchestras, piano and voice are vibrant, freeform artifacts, which consistently rupture the boundaries between minimalism, free jazz, gospel music, No Wave, and
performance art.

After decades of silence, Eastman’s catalog has experienced an extraordinary
resurgence in the past ten years through the interpretations of various musical
collectives. Among the most ambitious of these is Los Angeles-based avant-garde
group Wild Up’s years’ long, multivolume series of Eastman recordings released
through contemporary classical label New Amsterdam Records. The collection’s first
volume, out this month, consists of a seventy-minute rendition of his lesser-known,
durational work Femenine (1974). Instantly recognizable by its ringing sleigh bells and
repeating vibraphone phrase, Femenine is an immersive, jazz-inflected chamber piece,
which slowly builds into a textured soundscape of interwoven strings, horns, piano, and
synthesizer.

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“Femenine…represents Julius’ work at its most ecstatic, most revelatory, and most
transcendental,” explains Christopher Rountree, Wild Up’s music director. “The sleigh
bells are like the infinity of the cosmos, the thirteen beat “prime” melody over and over,
intoned and expanded upon by a chorus of instrumentalists, many of whom in
succession become the protagonist, the soloist, the cantor, the head priest of this choir,
and fade back again, each into that rejoicing mass.”

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