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After Years of Research, Minimalist Composer Julius Eastman Gets the Tribute He Deserves

Decades after his death, Julius Eastman continues to come into focus with perhaps the most definitive exhibition of his life and work to date.

Arcana New Music Ensemble performs “Femenine” by Julius Eastman (photo by Ben Tran)

PHILADELPHIA — Tiona Nekkia McClodden gets up from the wide, white table in the back of the gallery. I follow her over to a framed newspaper clipping, and she’s already there pointing at it, ecstatic, “Like, he really says this shit: ‘I always thought I was great, and it really shouldn’t be so hard, but I was shocked at how the processes were so slow.’ I mean, [Julius] Eastman was like, ‘I’m bad, and I’m doing all this wild stuff, and I can talk about it.’” McClodden, a Philadelphia-based curator and artist, is not alone in her excitement for Julius Eastman, the late and much-mythologized minimalist composer who defied convention during his nearly three-decade career. “That’s what makes me really respect the wildest things that I’ve heard about him because I knew that if I had access to him he’d be able to tell why he did that,” McClodden said.

Recent years have brought a renewed interest in Eastman after he was mostly forgotten in the decade after his untimely death in 1990. However, according to the Julius Eastman Estate, this interest has been, at times, controversial, with performances or releases moving forward without collaboration with the estate, which is headed by Julius’s brother, Gerry Eastman, an accomplished musician in his own right. The estate cited the the 2016 London Contemporary Music Festival as the most recent point of contention, which staged a three-day series billed as “the world’s first major overview of Julius Eastman” this past December without approval from the Eastman estate.

Gerry Eastman has argued for the necessity for care and consideration of his brother and his work. What remains of it exists largely in precarity due to the nature of the work itself, which often featured loosely ascribed improvisation that he performed or directed himself, and the whims of Eastman who was categorically indifferent to materialism. A much repeated anecdote is that he lost a large portion of his work near the end of his life when he was thrown out of an apartment after he refused to pay the rent. This working philosophy of Eastman’s left much of his work in a fragile state, though it isn’t indicative that he wasn’t specific and deliberate. It often seems the thing that’s needed to complete his compositions is the presence of Eastman himself. The most successful interpretations of his music to date have been quick to recognize this, notably Jace Clayton’s ambient manipulations in “The Julius Eastman Memory Depot,” and is why a comprehensive orchestration has remained elusive until now.

Installation view of “A RECOLLECTION.” with Tiona Nekkia McClodden, curator. (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

For the past three or so years, McClodden has been working alongside Dustin Hurt, co-curator and founder of Bowerbird, a nonprofit performing arts organization in Philadelphia, and with the Julius Eastman Estate, to bring the most — perhaps only — authoritative production of Eastman’s music to fruition since his death. Bowerbird has found generous support in Philadelphia, with the Pew Center for Arts & Heritage issuing two separate grants in the last few years to aid in the research process and the production of Eastman’s music. Eastman also had ties to Philadelphia: He received his formal music education at the Curtis Institute of Music, though his time there was marked by institutional racism, as he was denied sponsorship and housing; he resided at a nearby YMCA from his first year until his graduation in 1963.

Friday, May 5, marked the start of Bowerbird’s production, “Julius Eastman: That Which Is Fundamental,” with a concert of two of Eastman’s most recognizable works, “Stay On It” (1973) and “Femenine” (1974), at the Rotunda in Philadelphia’s University City. Last Friday saw the second concert in the series, and there are two more scheduled this month at the Rotunda; meanwhile, the neighboring Slought Gallery is hosting a split exhibition centered on Eastman’s life and work, Predicatedand A Recollection.

Installation view of A Recollection. at Slought Gallery showing facsimiles of original Eastman scores. (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

A Recollection. gathers a mix of press clippings, concert posters, photographs found through friends and lovers, some archival recordings — a version of “Trumpet” (1970), a new digital transfer from a rare reel-to-reel, played in the background while I was there — and six full scores readily available for viewing, including “Thruway” (1970) and “Colors” (1973). Predicated. occupies an adjoining gallery and is a cross-disciplinary conversation with Eastman’s work, including new and existing video, painting, sculpture, music, and performance from Sondra Perry, Carolyn Lazard, Texas Isaiah, and Wayson R. Jones, among others. Though Eastman is known as a composer, he was virtuosic in other mediums as well. He was a choreographer, dancer, actor, painter, and occasional poet, and some of his musical compositions featured these components. They have proven to be the most ephemeral parts of his practice as an artist, and even less of this work survives. Predicated intimates these mediums of loss, standing in and drawing out work that might have been. As McClodden explained it, “[Predicated] is Eastman in my mind, my nightmares, my biggest dreams of what this cat looks like, feels like.”

Installation view of Carolyn Lazard, “Score for Convalescing 1, 2, and 3” (2017), dimensions variable, in Predicated. (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

It’s partly this idea of searching out a person who seems relatively mysterious that has drawn such vehement interest in Eastman, but the fervor over his work also stems from his identity: Eastman was an out, gay, black man composing classical music while his contemporaries, at least the ones associated with minimalism — Philip Glass, Steve Reich, La Monte Young, et al — were mostly straight, white men. Where his contemporaries have seen their work produced ad nauseam and entered into posterity, Eastman worked in contention with a system that favored those with privileged access. Aware of these dynamics when he was alive, he found profound meaning in impermanence. “There’s statements where he’s like, ‘I don’t give a fuck about [keeping a record of what I’ve done],” said McClodden. “I’ll do it again. The music is in my head.'” Eastman was also purposeful in composing provocative and, more to the point, transgressive work. He was a downtown, gay aesthete and transformative artist of color, crafting what he would eventually call “that thing which is fundamental.” The titles of his compositions, for instance “Evil Nigger” (1979) or “Gay Guerrilla” (1979), were an affront to straight and white sensibilities, and the music itself was transcendent and unabashedly spiritual.

The opening performance at the Rotunda presented two newly recompiled scores sourced from snippets of sheet music, historic recordings, and individual testimony. Though both compositions are notable, “Femenine” is of particular importance because of its length, roughly 73 minutes — a feat of utter endurance from the group of musicians, who were visibly exhausted and wrecked by the physical stress of the composition, which is an Eastman staple. This piece is also a metaphorical expression of gender; Eastman was known to transgress gender norms in his work, and though this was usually more overt, such as eschewing on occasion a men’s suit for a dress during piano performances, he was infinitely capable of subtlety as well: “Femenine” is composed around a whole-step measure, just E♭ to F played on a vibraphone, and the wild, layered instrumentation between those anchoring notes seems to expand the refrain itself as if it were illustrating something much more manifold and mystical.

Installation view of A Recollection. and Predicated. at Slought Gallery, Philadelphia (image courtesy Tiona Nekkia McClodden)

Much like the taxing work of performing his music, synthesizing the pieces of Eastman’s life is also exhausting. “I don’t know if he wants to be fully revealed,” McClodden said. “I mean, the more you read a little bit about the way he moved, he was very ephemeral. He didn’t really care.” Before I leave her, she’s back at the gallery table on a laptop, showing me some images that she couldn’t get permission to display, and sharing how when she started work on this project she had a naïve image in her head of Eastman just “lying in the flowers” and composing all day. She recognizes that even though she’s pulled together what she has of Eastman, he’s still so much farther beyond what she could ever know.

McClodden does have an actual image of Eastman making a painting surrounded by a field of flowers, though. She pulls it up, and we both laugh, and she says to me, “There’s a [companion piece to ‘Femenine’] called ‘Masculine’ that’s lost, and I just want to know: What did it sound like? There’s still hope.” She explains she’s in touch with someone in New York who performed with him and is willing to share an unknown recording. “This is what’s happening: You show and then the people, the oddest folks, are like, ‘I was there. I still have the sheet music.’ So, we’re going to meet with her, and I’m going to listen to this music and see if I can hear him. It’s really an exciting thing. He’s very alive. It’s not dead. It’s not finished.”

Julius Eastman: That Which Is Fundamental continues through May 26. A Recollection. and Predicated. continue at Slought Gallery (4017 Walnut St, Philadelphia) through May 28. 

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