Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Julius Eastman Memorial Dinner

A new radio play about composer Julius Eastman will premiere this Saturday, November 12, at the Performa Biennial in New York.

Eastman is a compelling though little-known figure in American composition. He was a gay African-American composer, hailed as an incredible vocalist and pianist. Eastman is probably 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, he started studying piano at fourteen and was playing Beethoven after only six months of lessons. He studied at the Curtis Institute of Music as a piano major under Mieczyslaw Horzowski but soon switched to composition. In 1968 he moved to Buffalo where he was a member of the Creative Associates, under the leadership of Lukas Foss and later Morton Feldman.

While in Buffalo, he performed and toured music by many 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, and worked with downtown composers like Meredith Monk, Peter Gordon, Arthur Russell and Evan Lurie. Once he left Buffalo, the titles of his pieces started to change, from poetic and evocative titles like "The Moon's Silent Modulation" to much more confrontational themes like "If You're So Smart, Why Aren't You Rich," and "Evil Nigger."

A 1980 piece for Eastman's voice and cello ensemble, The Holy Presence of Jeanne d'Arc, was performed to wide acclaim at The Kitchen in New York City, and in 1981 Eastman recorded with Meredith Monk's ensemble for her influential album Dolmen Music.

However, success was fleeting. Desperate for paid work and despondent about what he saw as a lack of professional opportunities, Eastman began using drugs heavily. At one point he was evicted from his apartment, his belongings confiscated by the sheriff, and he took up residence in Tompkins Square Park.

A job teaching music theory brought him back to SUNY Buffalo, but his music career never recovered. Eastman died alone at the age of 50 in Millard Fillmore Hospital in Buffalo. No public notice was given to his death until an obituary by Kyle Gann appeared in the Village Voice eight months after he died.

In 2005 New World Records released a 3-CD set of Eastman’s music.

The radio show, called "Julius Eastman Memorial Dinner, features several pianists and voice-actors, and will be broadcast live twice before being archived. It should be a fascinating event. Below is a recording of Eastman's piece “Evil Nigger” from 1979, here played on four pianos, including one played by Eastman himself.

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