A Complex Figure, a Tragic End: The Julius Eastman Memory Depot by Jace Clayton

By Daniel Garrett

Jace Clayton, The Julius Eastman Memory Depot
featuring pianists David Friend and Emily Manzo
New Amsterdam, 2013

Human beings can be complex beings of promise and wonder; and it is both offensive and pathetic to define someone only in terms of accidents of birth.  Yet, that is what society often does.  Genius can transcend that.  Julius Eastman (1940-1990), a significant composer, a gifted and eccentric performer, and a conscientious teacher, may have been a genius, but Eastman and his work faced tragic circumstances.  A complex figure who did not fit into the artistic or social categories of others, the brash, honest, and generous Eastman created music for piano; chorus; chamber ensemble and dancers; electronics; flute; strings and other instruments and performing combinations.   One hears the work of Julius Eastman, and perceives the abstraction of sound, beauty, ideas, movement, structure, and time—and imagines delicacy, emotion, solitude, and strength; with the centrality of rhythm and its repetition seeming an affirmation of minimalism.

Here is a description of the mysterious Eastman by an informed admirer of the composer, the creator, musician, and teacher Mary Jane Leach at the site of music publication New Music Box, November 8, 2005:

“One of the problems of writing about Julius is that it is difficult to state anything with certainty. A lot of the information out there, if not contradictory, has slightly different details.  Julius Eastman was a gay African-American composer of works that were minimal in form but maximal in effect.  He was also an incredible performer (vocalist and pianist), best known for singing on the 1973 Grammy-nominated Nonesuch recording of Peter Maxwell Davies’s Eight Songs for a Mad King.  Raised in Ithaca, New York, where from an early age he was a paid chorister, he came to the piano at fourteen and was playing Beethoven after only six months of lessons.  He went to Ithaca College for a year, then transferred to Curtis as a piano major where he studied with Mieczyslaw Horzowski but soon switched to composition.  Although best known as a vocalist, he never formally studied voice.  In 1968 he moved to Buffalo where he was a member of the Creative Associates, which was under the leadership of Lukas Foss and later Morton Feldman.  While in Buffalo, he performed and toured music by many of the most prominent contemporary composers, as well as had his own music performed.  He eventually moved to New York City, where he was associated with the Brooklyn Philharmonic, then also led by Foss.  Julius performed in jazz groups with his brother, Gerry, a guitarist and bass player in many jazz ensembles, including the Count Basie Orchestra.  (The only work by Julius registered with the U.S. Copyright Office is as a lyricist, with his brother listed as composer.)”

Julius Eastman was very involved with the experimental music community in Buffalo, New York, where Eastman taught; but, although he played piano at Town Hall in Manhattan, and worked with the Brooklyn Philharmonic, Eastman appears to have found it less easy to find performers for his own work in cosmopolitan New York, even in the downtown music scene he shared with Meredith Monk and Arthur Russell.  At the same time in Manhattan Eastman seems to have become more political and provocative, with his composition titles no longer poetic or sedate but offering effrontery.  Eastman’s musical scores, notoriously, could be hard to read.  Yet, Julius Eastman for all of his imagination and invention had a sense of music as organic, conceiving compositional sections that connected to and even embraced what came before and after.  The January 25th, 2010 sketch of Eastman given on the internet log “Faces of Sound” noted that “Eastman was one of the earlier musical artists to pose ‘the organic’ as an aesthetic and conceptual goal; and it was a refreshing alternative to the mechanical loop-based and aggressive rock-based minimalisms that were predominating.  Eastman’s version of organic minimalism was evident in how a single piece was composed—section by section, with each forthcoming section containing all of the information from its preceding section.  DNA, sexual reproduction, a music derived from its own seedling materials, complexity born of simplicity, a good tune.”  Yet, Eastman’s musical notations were idiosyncratic.  Once Eastman, who co-founded the S.E.M. Ensemble with Petr Kotik (yes Petr), performed an interpretation of a John Cage work, giving that work a sexual illustration, which the ascetic and evasive composer found infuriating.  The weird thing is that other musicians seemed to share Cage’s—hypocritical? idealistic? pragmatic?—outrage.  Was Eastman too radical for the avant-garde?  Was the Cage-Eastman argument the inevitable clash of a privileged self-erasing artist and an ambitious but rebellious self-asserting artist?  Did Eastman betray himself by adopting the destructive and distracting, false, hateful, and self-indulgent racial and sexual identity politics of the time?  Life can be growth, change, with the possibility of reconciliation—but narrow notions of identity deny that on behalf of rhetoric, pose, and antagonism toward others who are different, with the reification of an artificial self leading to the death of the true self.  Eastman may have been confused into thinking, as do many black men (and minority group members), that he was worth more to others after turning himself into a freak, a hollow statue, a threat, or a tragedy.  Unfortunately, Julius Eastman’s frustrations and his pleasures drove him toward alcohol and drugs; and, during an era of higher rents and gentrification, Eastman was evicted from his New York apartment, his artistic work treated like refuse; and he, among other homeless people, lived in Tompkins Square Park and subsequently died of heart failure.  Were minority communities incapable of sustaining a sophisticated artist like Eastman?  Yes, they were incapable.  Julius Eastman did not know that he was most radical when he was making music in Buffalo, alive, creative, teaching, with peers, healthy.

For a time Eastman’s creative work seemed lost, but composer Mary Jane Leach began to look for it, and found that the SUNY-Buffalo library had archival Eastman work and that composer-critic Kyle Gann had an Eastman recording from a Northwestern University concert; material that formed the basis of a three compact disk set, in the first decade of the new century, Unjust Malaise, from New World Records.  Jace Clayton’s The Julius Eastman Memory Depot from New Amsterdam, featuring the piano playing of David Friend and Emily Manzo at the Merkin Concert Hall in Manhattan, is a rare and appreciated opportunity to hear the work of a unique and vital composer whose work made a strong impression that, year by year, began to fade.


‘Honor.  He knew that he had no honor which the world could recognize.  His life, passions, trials, loves, were, at worst, filth, and, at best, disease in the eyes of the world, and crimes in the eyes of his countrymen.  There were no standards for him except those he could make for himself.  There were no standards for him because he could not accept the definitions, the hideously mechanical jargon of the age.  He saw no one around him worth his envy, did not believe in the vast, gray sleep which was called security, did not believe in the cures, panaceas, and slogans which afflicted the world he knew; and this meant that he had to create his standards and make up his definitions as he went along.  It was up to him to find out who he was, and it was his necessity to do this, so far as the witchdoctors of the time were concerned, alone.”

—the great James Baldwin, in Another Country (1962), republished by Library of America in Early Novels & Stories in 1998; page 555

On Jace Clayton’s TheJuliusEastmanMemoryDepot, Julius Eastman’s “Evil Nigger” begins with a repeated note, an austere, beautiful rhythm, but the palette grows with more sounds both like and unlike the beginning, sounding classical, experimental, futuristic.  The “processed” sounds—apparently the preference of Clayton—are probably the least interesting, resembling familiar science fiction film scores.  They are not as vulgar an intrusion as they might be, but they are not at all necessary.  Eastman’s music, being profoundly modern, requires no trickery to seem contemporary.  It is also foolish to make much of the “experimental” when cultural standards are lax and no tradition has active or collective force.  What matters now is quality of sound, thought, and effort, whatever the novelty of structure or age of tradition.  Is the now neglected classical tradition the only coherent or significant musical story?  So much else seems merely fragments and footnotes.  “Evil Nigger,” built on simple rhythms, has no elaborate structure but achieves beauty anyway.

One does think of solitude hearing “Gay Guerilla,” as it begins with the very solitary sound of a single rhythm, though there is a terrific, tremendous rise in intensity and volume that follows.  The composition has a surprising delicacy too, making this an intriguing work.  There is a slow, echoing turn and churn, expanding and fading.  The listener wonders, Is this music minor or major?  A significant work, or a musical footnote?  How does one tell when the work is different?  What are its terms?  The range of its experiences?

Listening to “Gay Guerilla,” the observer hears a rumbling rhythm that increases in weight and volume, followed by a winding down—a processed sound—of a segment that reminds one of mechanized equipment being turned off.  That winding down sound recurs near the beginning of the next segment.  It sounds cheap, dumb, easy.  Yet, there is a compelling tension throughout most of the instrumental music.  What does it mean that so much—all?—of this work is rhythm?  Is that simple—or something more?  A chance to pay a different, profound attention to a fundamental element; or an obsession with the insignificant?  The recording TheJuliusEastmanMemoryDepot concludes with a phone call—featuring the voice of Arooj Aftab, professional, cool, polite—of dismissal, followed by sung affirmation of objectivity, and lack of prejudice (the repeated word “regardless” attached to identity suggests the questionable irrelevance of personal and social experience and a lack of belief in the subject’s expertise).

Daniel Garrett, a graduate of the New School for Social Research, and the principal organizer of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at Poets House and ABC No Rio, is a writer whose work has appeared in print and online, in The African, All About Jazz, American Book Review, Black Film Review, Cinetext, Film International, The Humanist, Hyphen, Identity Theory, Illuminations, Option, Pop Matters, Rain Taxi, Review of Contemporary Fiction, and Wax Poetics, as well as The Compulsive Reader.  Daniel Garrett edited poetry for the male feminist Changing Men magazine, wrote about the African-American artists Henry Tanner, Edward Bannister, and Reginald Madison for Art & Antiques, reported on environmental issues and organized the first interdepartmental meeting on environmental justice for National Audubon (The Audubon Activist), reviewed books for World Literature Today, and essayed international film for Offscreen.  Daniel Garrett has written a novel, A Stranger on Earth, which features stories of friendship and love, ignorance and knowledge, and art and mundane work, in the lives of a woman artist and her associates.