The re-discovery of Julius Eastman’s compositions

Provocative and controversial, the minimalist composer Julius Eastman’s seminal trio of pieces, Crazy Nigger, Evil Nigger, and Gay Guerrilla, enjoyed an underground following when they were created in the 1970s, with no commercial recognition. In the second of our posts on this notable American artist, author Mary Jane Leach discusses the re-discovery of Eastman’s compositions.

A lot has happened since the 2005 New World Records release of Unjust Malaise, a three-CD collection of archival recordings of compositions by Julius Eastman. At that time his music was generally unknown, as there were no recordings or scores available. Since then his music has gradually experienced increasing recognition, building towards what could be called Eastmania today.

With the re-emergence of his powerful music, a missing gap in the history of contemporary music has been filled. He wrote what can be categorized as minimal music, but also wrote “post-minimal” music before minimal music was fully established. His pieces straddle the two main styles of minimal music—rhythmic/pulse driven music (Steve Reich and Philip Glass) and spectral drone music (La Monte Young and Phill Niblock). While using process and rhythmic patterns, there is a flexibility that lends a breathing, organic feel to his music, a muscularity missing in a lot of other music from that time.

Crazy Nigger, Evil Nigger, and Gay Guerrilla, which will soon be released on vinyl on the Milanese Blume label, form a trio of pieces that occupies a high point in Eastman’s compositions. They were the culmination of his mature style. Crazy Nigger is a sprawling sonic study, the last section exploring canonic form both harmonically and rhythmically. The other two pieces are each about half the length of Crazy Nigger, and are more tightly organized. Evil Nigger starts at a blistering pace, and progresses from primarily tonal, to multi-tonal, to an untethered ending with sparse notes drifting off into the ether. Gay Guerrilla, follows a more dramatic arc than the other two pieces, climaxing with a musical quote from A Mighty Fortress is Our God, a queer call to arms, both sacred and secular. Usually performed on four pianos, these three pieces can also be performed on melody instruments from the same family (e.g. strings), or even in some cases for mixed ensemble (“usually of the same family,” as Eastman stated in a speech introducing these three pieces at their premiere at Northwestern University in 1980). Crazy Nigger was written in 1978, while the other two were written in 1979. All three pieces appear on Unjust Malaise, as well as his spoken introduction explaining the controversial titles.

The issuing of these three pieces on vinyl prompts me to re-appraise Eastman’s work and the media they have appeared on. The disappearance and re-appearance of these pieces mirror the trajectory of sound media. They were written when vinyl LPs were the dominant commercial format for music. And now, along with the re-discovery and wide-spread acceptance of Eastman’s music, vinyl is also experiencing a re-emergence.

Created in the late 1970s, these three pieces should have been released on vinyl at the time they were written. However, that was not to be, and they, and other pieces of Eastman’s, were unavailable commercially. Instead, they were shared on cassettes, copied and passed from one admirer to another, a kind of underground musical distribution by aficionados.

Today the titles seem shocking and they offended some people when they were written, but they were also of the time, with Richard Pryor’s That Nigger’s Crazy and Bicentennial Nigger, as well as Patti Smith’s “Rock N Roll Nigger,” being written contemporaneously. Although the titles for the three four-piano works are provocative and controversial, the music isn’t, and they secured Eastman’s reputation as an exciting and essential composer.

Mary Jane Leach is a composer and freelance writer. She is the co-editor of Gay Guerrilla, Julius Eastman and His Music with Renée Levine Packer. The paperback edition was released by the University of Rochester Press in October 2018.

You can read a piece by her co-author Renée Levine Packer on Proofed here.

Gay Guerrilla
Julius Eastman and His Music
Edited by Renée Levine Packer and Mary Jane Leach

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