The American composer Julius Eastman (1940-1990) has “entered the canon.” Since that joyous 2016 headline in the New York Times, Eastman’s compositions have found a home with the venerable classical music publisher G. Schirmer, greatly facilitating access to and performance of his music; and, what’s more, the University of Rochester Press has announced publication of a paperback edition of Gay Guerrilla: Julius Eastman and His Music, a book of essays, originally published in 2015. Renée Levine Packer, co-author of the book, gives an insight into the composer’s enigmatic and intriguing life and music.
The astonishing thing is that, as music critic Kyle Gann writes in his chapter for Gay Guerrilla, “Julius Eastman’s music rose from the dead.” On January 22 1991, Gann’s obituary for Eastman was published in the Village Voice. Hardly any of his friends and colleagues knew he had died. Eastman was a casual kind of guy and because he had no reliable home base or telephone number in those pre-cellphone days, most of us just expected him to call or show up at some point, as he usually did. His death in 1990 was a shock. Then not much happened until several years later when the composer Mary Jane Leach, after a lengthy search for Eastman’s scores and tapes, initiated the recording project with New World Records that eventually led to the issuance of Unjust Malaise in 2005, a 3-disc set of Eastman’s work. That important event was followed more recently by several other recordings including what critic Zachary Woolfe called “his shining, tidal masterpiece” Femenine on Frozen Reeds; Piano 2 on Joseph Kubera’s Book of Horizons for New World Records; and The Zurich Concert also on New World Records. As the composer/performer Christopher McIntyre wrote, “It’s feeling more and more like Julius’ work is here to stay.”
Julius Eastman was born in New York City and raised in Ithaca, New York. He sang in the boys’ choir of St. John’s Episcopal Church and in the glee club during his middle school and high school years. While still in high school, he played the piano well enough to accompany dance classes in a local studio. He continued his musical training in piano and composition at the Curtis Institute of Music, graduating in 1963. In the late sixties, Eastman moved to Buffalo, New York, where he was invited by composer-conductor Lukas Foss, to join the prestigious university-based new music group, the Creative Associates, eventually becoming a member of the University of Buffalo music faculty. Looking back, members of the Creative Associates constituted a now-legendary group of composer-performers including Sylvano Bussotti, George Crumb, Buell Neidlinger, Cornelius Cardew, Maryanne Amacher, Terry Riley, Jan Williams, Fred Rzewski, Morton Feldman, and others. The group performed its “Evenings for New Music” concerts regularly at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, Carnegie Recital Hall in New York, and on tour. Over the years, at least eight of Eastman’s compositions including Piano Pieces I-IV, Thruway, Macle, and Stay On It, were performed by the Creative Associates in the United States and abroad. In 1970, Eastman travelled to London to record Peter Maxwell-Davies’ Eight Songs for a Mad King under the direction of the composer with the Fires of London group. The recording, with Eastman’s electrifying vocal performance, was reissued by Nonesuch in 1973 and nominated for a Grammy Award.
In the summer of 1976, Eastman moved to New York City, where he became part of the “downtown” music scene. Foss, then conductor of the Brooklyn Philharmonic, arranged a part-time job for Eastman as co-director and conductor of that orchestra’s community outreach series designed to provide performance opportunities for minority composers. During this period he performed with Arthur Russell, Meredith Monk, Peter Zummo and others in venues ranging from Carnegie Hall and the Brooklyn Academy of Music to downtown lofts and disco clubs. From 1976 until his death in 1990, Eastman’s “model of musicianship,” as music historian Ryan Dohoney terms it, “expanded to include free jazz, improvisation, new wave rock, disco, as well as his own composed music that is marked by intense repetition and political aggressiveness.” This “political aggressiveness” is evident in the series of multi-piano pieces that Eastman wrote with provocative titles such as Crazy Nigger, Evil Nigger, and Gay Guerrilla.
Following a series of personal struggles and misfortunes, such as eviction from his apartment for non-payment of rent, and the confiscation of his possessions including his musical scores, Eastman returned to Buffalo, where he died in Millard Fillmore Hospital at age 49. Today, nearly thirty years after his death, Eastman’s music is heard with increasing frequency on recordings and on stages around the world, a cause for joy to be sure.
This guest post is written by Renée Levine Packer, an arts administrator and author. She is contributor and co-editor with Mary Jane Leach of Gay Guerrilla: Julius Eastman and His Music, which will be released in paperback edition in October 2018 by University of Rochester Press. Her previous book This Life of Sounds: Evenings for New Music in Buffalo received an ASCAP Deems Taylor award for excellence.