In Search of Julius Eastman
Three CDs of African-American postminimalist Julius Eastman’s music have just been released by New World Records, marking the end of a seven-year search to reassemble the composer’s scattered scores and archival recordings.
I met Julius Eastman in early 1981. We were both hired to be vocalists in a theatre piece by Jim Neu for which Hugh Levick was writing the music. At the first 10 a.m. rehearsal, Julius showed up in black leather and chains, drinking scotch! Julius, while externally outrageous and almost forbidding, was genuinely generous and warm, and not unkind. He was brutally honest, which doomed him (as well as many others) in a field which, if not dishonest, certainly is not forthcoming and can be surprisingly timid and conformist (and which has become increasingly so since that time).
In the fall of 1998, I was asked to teach a course in composition at Cal Arts for “real” instruments. I thought a really interesting approach would be to focus on music for multiples—pieces written for four or more of one instrument—and one piece for multiple cellos that I knew I wanted to include was Julius’s The Holy Presence of Joan d’Arc (Joan) for ten cellos. I had attended the premiere of it at The Kitchen in 1981, and I loved its energy and sound. Thus began an almost quixotic seven-year search for the music of Julius Eastman who died in 1990 and whose final years were a life spiraled out of control to the point where he was living in Tompkins Square Park. He’d been evicted from his apartment in the East Village—the sheriff having dumped his possessions onto the street. Julius made no effort to recover any of his music. Various friends, though, upon hearing of this, tried to salvage as much as they could. Most was probably lost.
One of the problems of writing about Julius is that it is difficult to state anything with certainty. A lot of the information out there, if not contradictory, has slightly different details. Julius Eastman was a gay African-American composer of works that were minimal in form but maximal in effect. He was also an incredible performer (vocalist and pianist), best known for singing on the 1973 Grammy-nominated Nonesuch recording of Peter Maxwell Davies’s Eight Songs for a Mad King. Raised in Ithaca, New York, where from an early age he was a paid chorister, he came to the piano at fourteen and was playing Beethoven after only six months of lessons. He went to Ithaca College for a year, then transferred to Curtis as a piano major where he studied with Mieczyslaw Horzowski but soon switched to composition. Although best known as a vocalist, he never formally studied voice. In 1968 he moved to Buffalo where he was a member of the Creative Associates, which was under the leadership of Lukas Foss and later Morton Feldman. While in Buffalo, he performed and toured music by many of the most prominent contemporary composers, as well as had his own music performed. He eventually moved to New York City, where he was associated with the Brooklyn Philharmonic, then also led by Foss. Julius performed in jazz groups with his brother, Gerry, a guitarist and bass player in many jazz ensembles, including the Count Basie Orchestra. (The only work by Julius registered with the U.S. Copyright Office is as a lyricist, with his brother listed as composer.)
Looking over what has been written about him, I notice a number of misperceptions. For instance, Tom Johnson, who wrote so well about the New York Downtown scene for the Village Voice during the seventies and early eighties, wrote in 1976 that Julius was a performer discovering his voice as a composer by writing pieces that he could perform. However, Julius had been writing ensemble pieces that were widely admired before that time. Even though the pieces had quite a lot of performances, perhaps they hadn’t been performed in New York, or Tom hadn’t attended those concerts. I have a feeling that once Julius left Buffalo, he didn’t have a ready group of musicians to perform his work any more, so he started to write pieces that he could perform. Indeed, a look at his list of compositions shows that his earliest pieces were for solo piano, and then, once he got to Buffalo, he wrote compositions for ensembles and/or instruments that he didn’t play.
Another observation that I’ve made is that once he left Buffalo, the tone of the titles of his pieces started to change, from The Moon’s Silent Modulation (1970) to If You’re So Smart, Why Aren’t You Rich (1977), Evil Nigger (1979), etc. Not only had Julius left the protective and nurturing environment of Buffalo, but in New York the divisions between Uptown and Downtown were more evident, and Julius was caught between both worlds. He had a foot in both camps. He appeared with the Brooklyn Philharmonic and performed works by Hans Werner Henze and Peter Maxwell Davies. Meanwhile, he was also performing and/or conducting with Downtown composers such as Meredith Monk, Peter Gordon, and Arthur Russell. Evan Lurie, who studied composition with Julius, told me that Julius insisted on clear penmanship when writing scores, the correct way to notate music, which materials to use, etc., while at the same time producing scores that could test the patience of a saint to figure out.
I didn’t know Julius all that well, but I did have conversations with him about composers of that time, and he was dismissive of a lot of them. I think that what it boiled down to was integrity. He had radar that could detect bullshit (and there was a lot of that going around, a lot of posing). He greatly admired Meredith Monk’s music, for instance, perhaps because it was so honest. Indeed, I just looked at the program notes for the premiere of Joan, and the first sentence is “Find presented a work of art, in your name, full of honor, integrity, and boundless courage.” That could be Julius’s manifesto, a dedication to creating works of art with integrity, and perhaps a reason why he had some difficulties when asked to perform music he didn’t respect, or in which he detected inconsistencies. These kind of exacting standards can be difficult to live with, and perhaps can at least partially explain some of his eventual problems.
When I started my search for Joan, I learned that composer Lois V Vierk had a recording of it. But when she went to make a dub for me, she found the cassette box empty, the cassette left in some unknown tape machine. She put me in touch with C. Bryan Rulon, who had given her the tape that she’d had. He had been given a cassette of Joan by Julius. Bryan made a dub for me, and while talking to him, waiting for the dub to be made, I began to realize that it wasn’t just Joan that was difficult to locate, but all of Julius’s music. I now had a tape of Joan, but I really wanted to have the score as well. The recording was made for radio broadcast, so it had credits at the end of the tape, and I thought that if the engineer, Steve Cellum, had the master tape, I’d have a good chance of finding the score. Steve is very conscientious, and always includes a score with the master, as well as noting other pertinent information. Well, he did have the master, but no score. And no details, other than the title and tape speed.
The performer credits were also given at the end of the Joan tape. Otherwise I never would have been able to track down who had performed on it, as everyone had slightly different memories of who had played, when (not even the year), and where it was recorded. The cellists on the tape were the only people I’d ever contacted about Julius who didn’t all have strong impressions and/or anecdotes of him. It had been a fly-by-night recording with freelance musicians, and most only had contact with him for those few hours. Ironically, they were the easiest to locate. I found all of them and heard back from nine, which is pretty amazing, since the recording was made about twenty-five years ago. But, still, no one had the score. To date I haven’t been able to find the score—all I have is a fragment of it that was printed on the cover of the program notes from its premiere at The Kitchen.
But by the time I finished the course at Cal Arts, I realized that if much more time passed, Julius’s music would be even more difficult to find than it already was. I decided that since I’d already put in a fair amount of effort to find Joan, I should try to backtrack with the people I’d already been in touch with, as well as to contact others who knew him, to see if I could find any of his other pieces. No one had anything, but they all expressed how much they wished they did, and how much they liked Julius’s music. At this point, besides not wanting to see my efforts come to naught, stubbornness took over.
I began a series of what I came to regard as a vicious circle of phone calls. One person would direct me to another, who’d direct me to another, until at some point I’d be referred back to the original person, a cycle which could take a year or more. Most didn’t have anything, except for a lot of interesting anecdotes. Eventually I became the “expert.” People would say, “You should contact Kyle Gann” (or a number of other people), who, in the meantime, would be directing people to me. It was not only frustrating, but shocking, to see how quickly the work of such a vital member of the artistic community could fall through the cracks. And sobering, as well.
People’s memories of things were shaky, too. Julius had given a concert at Experimental Intermedia Foundation in 1976, and though Phill Niblock swore that was before he started to document concerts, somehow Warren Burt had a tape of the concert. When I got the tape, though, it was very disappointing—the electronic keyboard that Julius played had a cheesy sound, and it sounded as though his voice had been miked from Newark. It was unusable. I had really hoped to have an example of Julius singing and playing the piano at the same time, but that was not to be.
Along the way, there was occasionally someone who did have something, but in most cases it was either not easily accessible and/or it took some coaxing (to say nothing of patience) to obtain. I knew tapes were out there, but getting them was another matter. However, I was fairly certain, if perhaps too optimistic, that I would be able to find enough material for a CD, so in the fall of 1999 I approached New World Records about putting out a CD of Julius’s music, and they jumped at the chance, as he was a composer that they were interested in.
Months passed, sometimes years, and some people who had tapes or scores were either unable or unwilling to look for them and send them along. Eventually I got the score and a concert tape of Piano 2, a piece for solo piano. Julius had been a member of the Creative Associates at SUNY Buffalo for a number of years. Negotiations with the library at SUNY went on over a period of time, complete with changing policies and decision makers. Finally, in June 2003, I received almost three hours of archival recordings from them.
At this point I had Joan, some solo piano pieces, and some ensemble pieces. What I really wanted, to complete the artistic picture, was one or all of Julius’s three major pieces for multiple pianos (Crazy Nigger, Evil Nigger, and Gay Guerrilla). Kyle Gann had promised to send me copies of two out of three them (Evil Nigger and Gay Guerrilla) from a concert that he’d attended that Julius had participated in. Several years passed and no tapes from Kyle. Then I read in an item about Julius in Kyle’s blog that he’d sent me the tapes, but it was another six months before I actually received them. Meanwhile, I was making contingency plans. Even if I got the tapes, what if they were unusable or we couldn’t get permission to use them? I had contacted Peter Gena in the fall of 1999 and knew that he had the scores to all three pieces. I was hoping to at least be able to record the pieces, although I really wanted the performances that Julius had not only coached but had performed in.
So I knew that there was material out there and hopefully more that I didn’t know about. At times I got tired of nagging/nudging people to co-operate, and I’m talking about years of these dialogues, not weeks or months. When I got the tapes from Kyle in June 2004, I was relieved to hear that not only were they good performances, but that they were “clean”—you couldn’t really tell that they were concert recordings. It turned out that they were from a concert at Northwestern University. New World had recently released Music from the Once Festival 1961-1966 using tapes from Northwestern, so they had a working relationship that made getting the permission to use the tapes a lot easier than it might have been.
All of the tapes I had located were old reel-to-reels and had to be baked, a process that needs to be done in order for the emulsion to be re-attached to the tape. No one was sure if the third piece was in the Northwestern archives or not. One of the technicians had started to play one of the tapes to see what was on it. This almost gave me a heart attack when I heard about it, as I had visions of the emulsion building up on the tape heads and the recording being destroyed. So it was with incredible pleasure this past December, when the tapes were duly baked and digitally transferred, to discover that all three pieces were there, that the recording quality was high, and that Crazy Nigger was 55 minutes! All of a sudden we had a well-balanced three-CD set.
I knew I was feeling anxious about all this when I dreamed that I found several brown garbage bags of Julius’s old musty clothes. After laundering them, I put one of his white shirts into my cassette deck and it played perfectly. That wasn’t the only odd occurrence. The emails in my folder of correspondence about the project (“Eastman”) could not be opened or moved. I started another folder (“Eastman #2”). Those emails could not be opened or moved. I started a third (“Julius”). Those emails could not be opened or moved. Those are the only folders in my email program that I’ve had a problem with, and I was beginning to wonder if Julius’s spirit was trying to sabotage the dissemination of his music.
Seven years have now passed since I began trying to track down Joan. Three CDs of music of one of our most gifted contemporary composers has just been released by New World Records. It’s not the final step, but hopefully the beginning of a process of rediscovering Julius’s music. I’ve now been working with his family to make sure that his pieces are registered with a performing rights organization and brainstorming to figure out the best place for his work to be archived. I would like to organize a concert of his music, but I only have Piano 2, Crazy Nigger, and half of Evil Nigger. I’m hoping that this CD release will trigger people’s memories and/or guilt, and that forgotten and/or neglected material will start to surface.
To say that this whole process has been enjoyable would be a lie, although I’ve enjoyed talking to the people involved and gotten satisfaction from finally getting to hear so much of Julius’s music and knowing that others will soon be able to as well. Even in the best of circumstances it is difficult to reassemble the music of deceased composers. Today, of course, circumstances have changed, with composers being able to print good-looking scores and to not only burn their own CDs, but to generate synthesized realized versions of their music. However, even with these advantages, it would be naïve to think that just because it’s out there, that your music will be available. Don’t rely on the kindness of strangers or well-meaning family members who probably don’t know anything about the music world—make sure you’ve arranged for your music to live on after you.
Mary Jane Leach is a composer whose work reveals a fascination with the physicality of sound, its acoustic properties and how they interact with space. Her music has been performed throughout the world in a variety of settings, from the concert stage to experimental music forums, and in collaboration with dance and theatre artists. Recordings of her work are on the New World, XI, Wave/Eva, Lovely Music, and Aerial compact disc labels.