Julius Eastman’s “Femenine”
In late 1981 or early 1982, the composer and vocalist Julius Eastman was evicted from his apartment in New York City. City marshals placed his belongings on the sidewalk, including all of his scores, and Eastman walked away, leaving everything behind. After years of drifting in and out of homeless shelters and bumming money from friends, he died in a hospital in Buffalo in May of 1990. The first obituary, by Kyle Gann in the Village Voice, appeared nine months later.
Today there is a renewed interest in Eastman and his work. The composer and writer Mary Jane Leach, who produced a compilation of his music called “Unjust Malaise” in 2005, has edited a new book about him, with Renée Levine Parker, called Gay Guerilla: Julius Eastman and His Music. Leach has also been collecting and preserving Eastman’s scores, maintaining an archive on her website. In mid-September, the Frozen Reeds label will release a live recording of his 1974 composition “Femenine.” Jan Williams, a percussionist and member of both the Creative Associates and the S.E.M. Ensemble who worked extensively with Eastman in the early 1970s, said this resurgence of interest is “long overdue. He was a very gifted composer but a very complex person. Sad that more of his scores are not extant.”
The release of “Femenine” provides a lost link in Eastman’s work; it’s a pivotal point between earlier compositions like “Thruway” (1970) or “Stay On It” (1973) and the later “Nigger” series (1978-79). The “Nigger” series and other pieces are good examples of the provocative humor that Eastman sometimes used. “Nigger Faggot,” “Crazy Nigger,” and “If You’re So Smart, Why Aren’t You Rich?” show how Eastman liked to provoke his audience before the concert had even began. (The Bowerbird series in Philadelphia last year censored their posters so as not to cause too much of a public outcry, though the self-censoring of the poster was an excellent marketing move in and of itself.) “Femenine” represents the beginning of the end of Eastman’s career in upstate New York. He relocated to New York City in 1976 where he continued to work for a few more years, both on his own projects and with others, such as Meredith Monk, Arthur Russell, and the New York Philharmonic under Boulez, to name just a few.
The score for “Femenine” is barely more than a sketch, a scant four and a half pages long for 72 minutes of music. There are timing indicators, some notated variations on the theme, and some written instructions along the lines of “displace” with an arrow or “move back and hold.” It almost doesn’t seem like enough to produce a piece as compelling as “Femenine.”
The work starts with a few minutes of the pulse, in this case a motorized tambourine, while the band warms up. The theme is introduced a few minutes in and is almost as simple as one can imagine: twelve repeated sixteenth notes, eighth, quarter, eighth, quarter, eighth, eighth tied to a dotted whole note. It’s just enough syncopation for the piece to sit in a deep pocket, a groove unmatched in classical music in 1974.
Like many early Eastman compositions, “Femenine” does not have a fixed instrumentation. The constant pulse is similar to the pulse in Steve Reich’s “Music for 18 Musicians,” which premiered two years later. Via email, Leach said, “Reich’s pieces and Julius’s pieces are similar in the way that Gregorian chant and Byzantine are—one is pretty rigid, and the other is looser…rigid vs. breathable. There is the fluidity of jazz and a swing that is missing from, especially, Reich.”
The performers on this recording are mostly unknown. In fact, that night in November of 1974 seems to be mostly forgotten by those who were probably there. The performance was part of the S.E.M. Ensemble’s series at the Composer’s Forum in Albany, New York, at the Arts Center on the campus of the Academy of the Holy Names. Eastman played piano, Petr Kotik almost certainly played flute, and Jan Williams almost certainly played percussion. There are a few strings, winds, and a synth to round out the ensemble, which also possibly included students from the University of Buffalo.
“Femenine” is one of Eastman’s last pieces to include large amounts of improvisation. According to Leach, “Femenine” has “perhaps more of an organic pulse (as opposed to meter or random beats). There’s a sensed downbeat in it, which isn’t as prevalent in the later pieces, the vibraphone really nailing that rhythmic figure out.”
The performance of “Femenine” on November 6, 1974 was recorded by Steve Cellum and was eventually rediscovered in Phill Niblock’s archives. At the time, Cellum and Niblock were co-producing radio programs, though it’s unknown if this performance was ever broadcast. The tape was transferred by Garry Rindfuss and cleaned up and mastered by Denis Blackham.
The original recording from that night also has a performance of a much shorter piece, not included on the current release, called “Joy Boy” for four treble instruments, that received its world premiere on the same night. (A one-page score is available.) Leach includes a companion piece called “Masculine” in her list of Eastman compositions, but notes that neither a score nor a recording exists. Neither Kotik nor Williams remember that composition.
In conversations with people who knew and worked with Eastman, it became apparent that their interest in Eastman’s rediscovery was personal, rather than purely musicological. In an email, Jan Williams told me, “I first met Julius when he played on the Evenings for New Music concert on December 15, 1968. He then joined the Creative Associates. It was immediately clear that he was a very special musician, with a huge talent as [a] pianist, singer and composer. He was easy to work with, at least I felt that way, can’t speak for my fellow CAs, his music always presenting challenges in terms of notation, form, etc. For me, as a percussionist, it was always a lot of fun to put Julius’ pieces together and to perform them. I always had a great deal of respect for his musicianship as a performer and his creativity as a composer. Still do.”
Petr Kotik, founder of S.E.M. Ensemble, said, “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.”
In addition to his talent and charm, Eastman had a provocative side that often got him in trouble. In 1975, at the first June in Buffalo Festival, he gave what has perhaps become his most notorious performance. Along with Kotik, Williams, and vocalist Judith Martin, the S.E.M. Ensemble performed John Cage’s “Song Books.” Performing the fourth option in the score, “theater with electronics,” Eastman amplified his voice and performed as “Professor Padu.” Using two assistants, one male, one female, Eastman proceeded to undress both and give a lecture on “a new system of love” describing his assistants’ bodies in blatantly sexual terms. The overt homosexuality enraged Cage, who said, “Now, last night, when the S.E.M. Ensemble performed the ‘Song Books,’ I regretted that I had composed it.” Cage was also irate with Kotik, who, following Cage’s instructions, had never rehearsed the work, though S.E.M. with Eastman had performed Cage’s work on several prior occasions, including a performance that Cage referred to as “beautiful.” It is unknown if Eastman, himself an openly gay man, was intentionally trying to drag Cage from his Zen closet or if Eastman was just being Eastman.
The next year, Eastman moved to New York City from Buffalo, where he had been teaching at the State University of New York. 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. In the late 70s, Eastman began a long struggle with alcohol and drugs, probably including crack cocaine. Despite performances of both his work and the work of others in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, including a near-disastrous performance of Bach’s “Christmas Oratorio” under the baton of Karel Husa, where Eastman improvised extensively instead of performing the bass vocal part as written. Eastman’s abilities decayed because of his drug use, eventually leading to his eviction and years of being in and out of homeless shelters. A possible job at Cornell never materialized. As Kotik said, “Who would hire him?” after how his previous appointment in Buffalo had ended.
By the late 1980s Eastman seemed to have fallen off the deep end, pissing off old friends whom he often asked for money. Karl Singeltary saw him in 1990, when Eastman was in a homeless shelter in Buffalo: “He was puny and not very healthy looking. I realized he must have been having financial problems. I didn’t have much money, but I know I gave him some…He said he was staying in a shelter around Main near Riley Street….Within a week I got a call from the hospital saying that he was dead.”
There is growing recognition and appreciation for Eastman and his work. The world is beginning to acknowledge his small but important role in the experimental and classical music scenes in New York in the 1970s and early 1980s. Performances of his work are on the rise. The Ecstatic Music Festival was inaugurated in 2011 with ne(x)tworks performing “Stay On It,” which has also been performed by thingNY. Jace Clayton, better known as DJ /rupture, released an album called “The Julius Eastman Memory Depot” in 2013 featuring unique collaborations between Clayton and pianists David Friend and Emily Manzo performing “Evil Nigger” and “Gay Guerrilla.” ACME has been performing the “The Holy Presence of Joan d’Arc” for 10 celli from a new transcription by Clarice Jensen. These are just a few of the performances of Eastman’s work in the last decade.
In 2016 the classical music world is a different place than it was in the 1970s. There is a growing, if incomplete, awareness of the importance of programming work by composers who don’t fit the white, heterosexual male stereotype. Eastman, a proud gay black man, was far from the typical profile of a composer, and put himself fully into his work. Recently, I saw the African-American artist Xenobia Bailey speak; she talked about the importance of “knowing how to dream in a nightmare.” By the end of his life Eastman might have been living in a nightmare—largely of his own making—but at least we have a partial record of his dreams. ¶