The Presence of Julius Eastman

Tuesday 20 December 2016

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.