Back in 2009 I wrote a blog post titled The mystery of Julius Eastman’s Creation:
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.
The post went on to discuss how I’d found online a 1973 recording of a piece attributed to Eastman, titled Creation. The piece was dated 1954; if this was correct, Eastman would have been 14 when he wrote it. I could find no other reference on the web to this piece’s existence, other than a 1974 radio guide mentioning the same recording. Leach’s site dedicated to Eastman didn’t list it amongst his known works. Was the piece I’d heard really by Eastman? Had it been mistitled? Was it really from 1954?
Leach’s site has been frequently updated since then and Creation is listed, with a description matching the recording and appropriately dated 1973. A mere seven years ago I would have to have sought out and gained access to every dusty archive in London, searching for evidence of an old Belgian radio broadcast, and even then I probably wouldn’t have been able to verify that this piece even existed.
(In that 2009 post, see the comment left by Daniel Wolf. The process of piecing together the fragments goes on.)
For four years now, the London Contemporary Music Festival have put together the most exciting new music events in town. After last year’s eclectic extravaganza, LCMF 2016 was tightly focused and all the more revelatory for it. Three nights in another new venue (with a surprisingly good sound) dedicated to the work of Julius Eastman.
Eastman died in 1990, in almost total obscurity. Since the turn of the century, Mary Jane Leach has led a quest to rediscover, salvage and revive what remains of his music. Most Eastman fans probably first heard of him through the 3-CD set that resulted from this hunt for recordings, released ten years ago. The recovery process still goes on today: this year Frozen Reeds issued a tape of the large-scale work Femenine that had laid dormant for 40 years. These recordings reclaimed a lost strand of minimal music that was never fully pursued; a unique, vital voice in a style of composition that had seemed exhausted.
Over the last weekend, it became abundantly clear that these records were just scratching the surface, both in what listeners know about Eastman’s music and in how much more there is still to be revealed in his “classics”. Six pieces by Eastman were played, one of them a world premiere. That 1984 piece, Hail Mary for voice and piano, is still not mentioned on Leach’s list of known works. For a bit of perspective, Leach’s essay from 2004 mentions that she has obtained copies of scores for only two and a half works.
The rediscovered recordings have obtained something of an aura, of essential documents from a lost moment in time. The LCMF gigs refuted that idea and firmly established Eastman as a composer in a living history of music-making. Performed live by understanding, talented musicians, the pieces took on a life of their own, with greater emotional depth and pure sensory delight than can be found in the old tapes. This was most clear in the ensemble works. Apartment House’s Femenine benefited from greater accuracy and confidence, which allowed its increasingly outrageous digressions to hit the audience with an almost overwhelming force. Stay On It finally, actually sounded like a kindred work to the jazz and R&B Eastman spoke of. Other versions I’ve heard sound like a classic minimal composition derailed by an awkwardly sectional structure. At LCMF it really did start to heave and glide from one idea to another, subverting its lock-groove origins and risking anarchy, knowing it’s more fun to hang with Sun Ra than Steve Reich.
As the pianist Philip Thomas mentioned afterwards, “Julius Eastman’s music is music to be performed, heard, experienced and understood via the particular energies of live performance…. Nothing much to hold on to but everything to play with. So much revealed in the playing.” Special mention needs to go to vocalist Elaine Mitchener, whose free-form improvisation over Stay On It set the tone and led the work into new territory.
Mitchener’s voice also added a raw, disquieting edge to the otherwise hushed and restrained later works, Hail Mary and Buddha. The two pieces are almost unknown and I’d like to hear them again to appreciate their subtleties. The works for multiple pianos (here played as two pianos eight hands), Evil Nigger and Gay Guerilla, were played with a brilliant clarity. The seemingly straightforward process behind each one took on twists and turns, at once angry, elegiac, triumphant and defiant. The unexpected ways that Evil Nigger subsides into stillness and Gay Guerilla seems to endlessly rise are both glorious and disturbing.
Other composers featured at these gigs were Arthur Russell and Frederic Rzewski. Russell and Eastman were collaborators and kindred spirits of sorts, both outsiders to “serious” (i.e. unengaged) music. Russell’s almost inaccessible Tower of Meaning received an all-too-rare airing, in a special chamber arrangement. Its otherworldly blankness points equally to medieval music, Satie’s Socrate and Cage’s Cheap Imitation of it, as well as much “naive” music of the late 20th Century.
The entire programme opened with Rzewski’s Coming Together; a key work in understanding Eastman’s musical approach – of minimal rhythms, harmonies and repetitions as a framework for looser improvisation – and his engagement with politics, revolution and their conflicts with his sexuality. These themes were pursued further on the second night when Rzewski himself performed his own De Profundis, a setting of Oscar Wilde’s text for reciting pianist. This was the other highlight of the Festival. Rzewski, now 78, may have faltered on occasion but his voice, playing and percussive gestures (including rapping on the piano lid, scratching himself, beating his skull with his fist) all spoke with an unmatched directness and clarity. It was a gripping performance, letting the words drive the music and the music serve the words.
Earlier in the year I raved about Cristián Alvear’s album of Jürg Frey’s music for guitar. I’ve now been sent two new recordings by Alvear, again both for solo guitar. On the Frey album, I noticed Alvear’s intense concentration and colouration he brings to the sound of unamplified, classical guitar. These two new releases intensify that effect even further.
Appalachian Anatolia (14th century) is a 40-minute work for guitar by the Swiss composer d’incise. Like the Frey album, this has also been released on Another Timbre. It’s a curious piece, simultaneously very loose and tightly constrained. In his interview on the Another Timbre site d’incise mentions his unfamiliarity with the instrument. The score calls for the instrument’s sound to be modified in some way, yet also puts the onus on the performer to become familiar with recordings of other music: Machaut, various folk musics, Neil Young. Any resemblance to this music in the composition is detectable only from a highly distilled understanding of technique. The guitarist works through a series of small, closely-observed effects. The material is carefully limited and how it is used is left open to some interpretation. It’s casually thorough in its exploration of intonation, tone colour and external affects, in the way that Morton Feldman’s music is in exploring the space between semitones.
There’s a second recording of this piece, available as a free download through Insub. Clara de Asís plays Appalachian Anatolia (14th century) on an electric guitar. Both versions are clearly the same piece, with similar overall shape and disposition of material. When examined more closely, comparison of the two reveals striking differences, followed by unexpected similarities. Asís plays with sensitivity and imagination equal to Alvear, each finding ways to evoke sounds from their respective instruments that are obviously different in origin yet still clearly alike in their understanding of the music. As an example, Asís’ version ends with the quietest gestures set in a thin halo of feedback hum. Alvear ends in an equally muted way, allowing the acoustic instrument’s natural resonance to come to the foreground. If you like the Asís version, you’ll want to hear how Alvear interprets it, too.
The Mappa label “from a God‑forsaken place on south of Slovakia” has released another Cristián Alvear recording, of Sarah Hennies’ Orienting Response. This is another 40-minute solo workout, written for Alvear. It’s available as a download or, for some reason, a cassette in a wooden box. I don’t get the thing with cassettes these days, it seems so conspicuously materialistic. I’m sure being Slovakian isn’t an excuse.
The cassette format does mean, however, that you get two 42-minute performances of the one piece. It took me a while to work this out. It also took me a couple of listens to figure out that the piece was for solo acoustic guitar (I’d somehow got into my head it was a duo with harp) and the guitar was unmodified (I was getting confused with the d’incise). It was obviously thus my own fault for not being too impressed after the first listen: an unconnected sequence of dry, repetitious exercises. After correcting my mistakes and realising that I’d been hearing things that weren’t actually in the recording, I knew it needed to be listened to more closely.
In her notes, Hennies mentions attempting “the same kind of focus and intensity I have created with percussion instruments using an instrument (the nylon stringed guitar) that is naturally not well-equipped to produce the type of timbres or high dynamic levels that I have worked with up to this point.” Each of the six sections specifies a rigorous playing technique: “Play as accurately and consistently as possible but with the assumption that “mistakes” are inevitable.” Alvear’s eminently well-suited for this challenge; it makes the Frey and d’incise seem fanciful.
Strange paradox at work here: you’d expect that the better you are at playing it, the less interesting it would get. That doesn’t seem to be the case here. The substance of the piece is sufficiently stark that otherwise negligible differences become the subject of the music, much in the way that some of Alvin Lucier’s pieces work. The two performances here, seemingly identical at first, are in fact very close but quite distinct in detail and structural proportions. The score notes that “all timings and tempi are approximate and flexible”; I’m wondering how Alvear achieved this in performance.
I want to thank Alexander Garsden and everyone involved in the Inland concert series in Australia. I had a great time, all the other musicians were cooler than me and they showed me you can still have late night fun in Melbourne if not in Sydney.
I’ve only just listened to the recordings from both shows now and my sets went about as well as I remembered. Performing live music from a laptop, without using the monitor screen, was a success and the pieces took on a life of their own when played in a way that allowed unexpected aspects of the sound to creep in.
I played three pieces from Chain Of Ponds, adapted for live performance. An album of studio performances is available on Bandcamp, but for these Australian gigs I decided to include new versions of some pieces that haven’t previously gone public.
I’ve uploaded a piece from the Melbourne gig – you should be able to stream or download it.
Sarah Hennies, Orienting Response (Cristián Alvear, guitar)
James Saunders, like you and like you (Ensemble Plus-Minus)
Kim Fowley, “The Trip”
Willie Tomlin, “Check Me Baby”
The Masked Marauders, “More Or Less Hudson’s Bay Again”
Eva-Maria Houben, orgelbuch (Eva-Maria Houben, organ)
Aretha Franklin, “Soulville”
György Kurtág, … quasi una fantasia…, op. 27 (Hermann Kretzschmar, piano; Ensemble Modern /Peter Eötvös)