The mystery of Julius Eastman’s Creation

Thursday 3 September 2009

UPDATE: Mystery solved.

When a forgotten talent is rediscovered, it’s sobering to realise how little time it takes for the biographical details of an artist to become as elusive and conjectural as those of a Jacobean playwright.

The fate of the composer Julius Eastman, not yet twenty years dead, is an extreme but illustrative example. Mary Jane Leach has been on a quest for ten years to gather up whatever scattered fragments of his work have survived. Devoid of context, the stray odds and ends can be frustratingly hard to fit into place.

Having heard Stay On It on the Internet Archive, I searched around and found a recording of another Eastman composition called Creation. According to the program notes, the recording is from a broadcast on KPFA in 1973, it “appears to be an aleatoric piece for voice, instrumental ensemble, and some prerecorded sounds”, and was written in 1954. If this last point is true, the piece is remarkably advanced for its time, particularly as Eastman would have been 14 when he wrote it*.

The program was repeated in 1974, and again the piece is called Creation by Julius Eastman. In the list of known works by Eastman, no such piece is mentioned. It seems unlikely that a hitherto-unknown piece, regardless of when it was composed, has been hiding in plain sight on the web. Perhaps the piece was mistitled in the broadcast: Thruway and The Moon’s Silent Modulation, both from 1970, are the only two on the list whose descriptions could possibly fit the recording. The former exists in a recording ten minutes longer than this 1973 broadcast, the latter lists no surviving recording or score.

I’ll have to become a researcher myself, just to find out for certain what this piece actually is.

* The 1954 date also seems incorrect when one of the singers quotes “The Girl From Ipanema“, although this particular song may not be specifically cited in Eastman’s score.