Art as resistance – On the music of African American classical composers (3/3)

When French philosopher Gilles Deleuze described the work of art as an act of resistance, he insisted on the idea that contrary to a widespread opinion the work of art does not communicate or inform about anything, but on the opposite should be considered as an act of resistance, as a way to resist death.

« What relationship is there between the work of art and communication? None at all. A work of art is not an instrument of communication. A work of art has nothing to do with communication. A work of art does not contain the least bit of information. In contrast, there is a fundamental affinity between a work of art and an act of resistance. […] The act of resistance has two faces. It is human and it is also the act of art. Only the act of resistance resists death, either as a work of art or as human struggle. » (Gilles Deleuze, Work of art – Act of resistance)

The life and music of Julius Eastman seem to echo what Deleuze theorized about the act of resistance as a human struggle and a work of art that both endeavour to resist death. Born in 1940, Julius Eastman grew up in Ithaca, New York, and raised by his middle-class mother, Frances Eastman, with his younger brother, Gerry. Eastman started learning the piano quite late, at age 14, but made rapid progress. After high school he first enrolled at Ithaca college, and then studied the piano at the Curtis Institute of Music with legendary piano teacher, Mieczysław Horszowski, who also taught prominent pianists such as Muray Perahia and Peter Serkin, and he studied composition with Constant Vauclain. During the course of his studies at the Curtis Institute, Eastman realized he wanted to focus on composition and switched his majors.

Julius Eastman, R. Nemo Hill Collection

After his debut as a pianist in 1966, Julius Eastman quickly rose to fame in the 1970s as a singer, known for his rich, deep baritone voice, and was particularly praised for his performance of the role of King George III in Peter Maxwell Davies’s Eight Songs for a Mad King. He was noticed by the composer and conductor Lukas Foss, thanks to whom he joined the prestigious avan-garde programme « Creative Associates » at Center for Creative and Performing Arts at the University of Buffalo, where he met Petr Kotik, a composer, conductor and flutist. The two musicians developed a strong friendship, as Kotik explained to Van magazine’s journalist, David Menestres:

« I remember seeing Julius Eastman for the first time at the music department at the corridor, [he] was a very interesting person in a long British cut trench coat that was a little oversized for him. He was a very intelligent-looking person, interesting-looking person…he always stood [out] as a personality. » He added, “He composed, I composed, we played each other’s music… We were like siblings. » (David Menestres, Julius Eastman’s “Femenine”, Van Magazine, 2016)

Julius Eastman, left, with the musicians Roberto Laneri, Jan Williams and Peter Kotik.Credit…Jim Tuttle/The University at Buffalo Music Library

So when Kotik founded the S.E.M. Ensemble, a distinguisted ensemble for new music in the U.S, Eastman was naturally part of the adventure. Eastman toured and performed contemporary music with Kotik and the musicians of the S.E.M. Ensemble, and also composed scores for the ensemble. According to musicians who knew him at the time, Eastman had a very charming and endearing personality and was very easy to work with, and yet he also had a darker, more troubled side to his personality that became more and more apparent over the years. One turning point in his career took place in 1975 when he gave a very provocative, overtly homosexual performance of John Cage’s « Song Books » that enraged the composer.

The following year Eastman moved from Buffalo to New York City. For a while he taught at the State university, but his contract wasn’t renewed: « The reasons for not renewing his teaching contract were never clearly stated, but it may have been due to any combination of his “unorthodox” teaching style, his disdain for the bureaucratic aspects of university life, or, as Kotik mentioned, his simple failure to show up. » ((David Menestres, Julius Eastman’s “Femenine”, Van Magazine, 2016) This was the beginning of the end for Eastman, the beginning of a long journey towards death, a journey fill with drugs, alcohol, eviction from his home and homeless drifting through New York city, alienating his friends, and then returning to Buffalo where he died alone, in a hospital, in May 1990. It took nine months for the world to learn of the passing of this brilliant, heterodox figure of contemporary music, nine month before the first obituary was published by Kyle Gann in The Village Voice. One can be « a composer of visionary power, a singer with a cavernous bass voice, a collaborator with the diverse likes of Meredith Monk and Pierre Boulez » as Zachary Wolfe wrote in the New York Times, and yet die a solitary death, a homeless, friendless musician, whose work has been lost to the world.

Julius Eastman’s tragic life is an illustration of a deeper meaning of life and death that we too often seem to ignore in Western societies, one that was unravelled by Romanian philosopher Emil Cioran in his essay On the Height of Despair:

« To have the consciousness of death is something perverse and extremely corrupt. The naive poetry of life, its seductions and charms, appear empty of content. Equally empty are man’s finalizing projects and his theological illusions. To see how death spreads over this world, how it kills a tree and how it penetrates dreams, how it withers a flower or a civilization, how it gnaws on the individual and on culture like a destructive blight, means to be beyond tears and regrets, beyond system and form. Whoever has not experienced the awful agony of death, rising and spreading like a surge of blood, like the choking grasp of a snake which provokes terrifying hallucinations, does not know the demonic character of life and the state of inner effervescence from which great transfigurations arise. » (Emil Cioran, On the Height of Despair, The University of Chicago Press)

Like William Grant Still and Florence Price before him, Julius Eastman has entered the canon of classical music, but unlike them he did it on his own term and never tried to fit in, probably because he couldn’t fit in. What he aimed at was to achieve his fullest possible self as he explained in an interview: « What I am trying to achieve is to be what I am to the fullest. Black to the fullest, a musician to the fullest, a homosexual to the fullest. » (Source: Zachary Wolfe, « Minimalist Composer Julius Eastman, Dead for 26 Years, Crashes the Canon », The New York Times, Oct. 28, 2016) The title of some of his best known works, Stay on It, Gay Guerilla, Evil Nigger, Crazy Nigger, Feminine explicitly show how Eastman didn’t shy away from his identity, but rather embraced it. The rediscovery of his music thanks to the tireless efforts of the composer and writer Mary Jane Leach, who has spent years trying to collect all the scattered pieces left by Eastman, is an important stepping stone in the « reconsideration of the mythology » of minimalism, as Alex Ross pointed out in his article on Eastman for The New Yorker: « According to the familiar narrative, a group of composers led by Terry Riley, Reich, and Glass rejected modernist thorniness, opened themselves to pop and non-Western influences, and came home to simple chords and a steady pulse. The reality is more complicated. »

However, Julius Eastman is not relevant only to rip off the narrative of minimalism being a story dominated by straight white men, such as Steve Reich and Philip Glass, but above all to discover a musical genius whose music reveals the essence of life: untame, disturbing, glorious and mesmerizing. Eastman’s music is also particularly relevant to the historic moment we are going through. At the time of the Black Lives Matter movement and identity politics, his work challenges the comfort of classical music, a genre which is supposedly white, bourgeois and proper. In a « Spoken Introduction To The Northwestern University Concert » Eastman explains to his audience how the titles of his « Nigger series » made uncomfortable the musicians who performed these pieces with him: « The reason I used that particular word « nigger » is because for me it has what I call a basicness about it. That is to say, I feel that in any case the first niggers were the field niggers, and upon that is really the bases of the American economic system. And what I mean by nigger is that thing which is fundamental, that person or thing that attains a basicness, a fundamentalness, and eschews that thing which is superficial or—what can we say?—elegant.” (Julius Eastman, Unjust Malaise, New World Label, 2006)

Julius Eastman’s music is an art of resistance against the capitalist system that oppressed African Americans, as well as other minorities, and women and gays, for centuries. It is an art of resistance against the cold and confortable music of the icons of minimalism, Steve Reich and Philip Glass:

« Classic minimalist works tend to introduce change by way of horizontal shifts: Reich’s “phasing” effect, in which instruments playing the same music slip out of synch with one another; Glass’s “additive” process, in which notes are added to a repeating pattern. Eastman’s method, by contrast, is vertical. He keeps piling on elements, so that an initially consonant texture turns discordant and competing rhythmic patterns build to a blur. New ideas appear out of nowhere: “Evil Nigger” becomes fixated on a minor-key figure, in falling fourths, that resembles the opening motif of Mahler’s First Symphony, and “Gay Guerrilla” hammers away at the Lutheran hymn “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” beloved of Bach. Furthermore, players are given some freedom in realizing the score, their parts taking the form of structured improvisations. This exuberant chaos is far removed from the deadpan cool of Reich and Glass. » (Alex Ross, « Julius Eastman’s Guerilla minimalism, The New Yorker, 16 janvier 2017)

Bold, challenging, fiercely modern and alive, Julius Eastman’s music has stood the test of time and still has much to reveal to the world. Although it was nearly wipe out after the death of the composer, his music has managed to survive and I hope that in the coming years more concert performances and recordings will cement the place of Julius Eastman in the canon of contemporary music.

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