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Saturday, December 31, 2005
Evan Johnson On the Record: Julius Eastman's Unjust Malaise

Unjust Malaise
Stay on It; If You�re So Smart, Why Aren�t You Rich?; Prelude to the Holy Presence of Joan D�Arc; The Holy Presence of Joan D�Arc; Gay Guerrilla; Evil Nigger; Crazy Nigger; Spoken Introduction to Northwestern U concert

Julius Eastman
Various performers
New World Records 80638 (3 CDs)

Like just about everyone else who has heard the name Julius Eastman, I knew it only from the cover of an old Nonesuch LP of Peter Maxwell Davies� Eight Songs for a Mad King, on which Eastman appeared as the vocal soloist with Davies conducting his own Fires of London ensemble. Like just about everyone else, I imagine, I assumed on this evidence that Eastman was an upper-crust tweedy Oxbridge chap, a Choral Scholar perhaps, who had somehow got the bug and given up Hubert Parry and Charles Villiers Stanford for the breathtakingly, painfully virtuosic extended vocal techniques of that remarkable performance of Eight Songs.

I could have been persuaded that Eastman was in fact American; but to think that the voice on that Nonesuch recording was a black man, assertively gay when that was even more problematic than it is now, whose life followed a dramatically tragic arc from studies at Curtis (piano with Mieczyslaw Horszowski) and a tenure with the University at Buffalo�s Creative Associates program to crack addiction and nights in Tompkins Square Park, strains credulity. And yet there are the photos in the booklet to prove it.

Much has already been written in the insular new-music-blog world about this release on New World Records and its pivotal role in reasserting the importance of a composer whose work has largely been lost to history only fifteen years after his death. Such a project is worthy in any case, certainly, but possibly of interest only to specialists and libraries. What makes this release valuable, in the end, is that the music here is unique, concentrated, and undeniably powerful.

There are seven pieces here, three for four pianos (in this recording, although they can also be played by multiples of any instrument), two for wind-heavy mixed chamber ensembles, one for ten cellos, and one for solo voice. Although the three multiple-piano works are demonstrably cousins, constructed similarly and inhabiting similar textural universes, the other pieces forge a much more diverse path; all that links one to the next is an abiding interest in the passage of time on its own terms, non-hierarchical and non-teleological forms, and an infectious harmonic ear.

Stay on It, a twenty-four-minute piece for eight performers, is an aggressively repetitive work based on a pop-style chord progression, and much of the interest in the piece is how these two ingredients eventually destroy each other. First, the pop-ness of the repeated gesture is emptied out through brute force � it is repeated so often that the initial shock of harmonic and rhythmic recognition is buried; and after that burial, miraculously at nearly the very moment it is complete, the referentiality itself begins to decay. The rhythm breaks; notes are held too long, creating a vaguely pentatonic haze; repetitions go off kilter, wailing voices and saxophones take flight and look back only occasionally. They reassemble, fitfully, aperiodically, for retrospective glances at the original riff, but the original concentration is lost and the ensemble simply can�t keep focus.

The eventual dissolution is slow, irregular, fitful, regressing often to a state of relative order, but in the end inevitable. The end is unexpectedly gentle, almost beatific. It is true, as Kyle Gann points out in the informative liner notes (thankfully, the term �Downtown� appears only in passing), that this piece predates Reich�s Music for 18 Musicians, and is generally prophetic in its looser, more assimilative approach to minimalism, compared to the strict process orientation that was still occupying Philip Glass and Steve Reich at the date of Stay on It�s composition in 1973. More importantly, though, it is beautiful, powerful, unique and charming in its own right.

It is worth mentioning here the most frustrating thing about this set. From what precious little I have been able to learn about Eastman�s music, its notation is extremely imprecise and coordination usually approximate; it is not at all clear, in each piece, what is written, what is improvised, and what is spontaneous happenstance. I wish there had been more specific information in the notes about what exactly these players had in front of them on the music stand. Given the vexed circumstances surrounding this release and of Eastman�s works and estate more generally, though, this shortcoming is understandable.

The next work on the first disc is rather puzzlingly titled If You�re So Smart, Why Aren�t You Rich? An excellent question, but less interesting than the piece itself, which is altogether remarkable in a way totally different from Stay on It. This is a wild piece that obstinately resists comprehension from the opening moments: a slow ascending chromatic scale played by a trumpet, up to the virtual ceiling of its performable range, followed by silences and repetitions of that high note before another trumpet finally enters two and a half minutes later, unstably reflecting the same pitch. The entrancing, aggressive puzzlement continues for more than twenty additional minutes, as more slow chromatic scales coalesce into massive Xenakis-esque brass masses interrupted by chime interludes and asymmetrically set off, a little more than halfway through, by a surprising and simply weird violin solo. (Some apparent distortion in the source recording during this passage unintentionally serves to heighten the effect.) It is this piece, more than any other on this collection, that makes it clear why Eastman was a musical outsider. Full of incident but impossible to assimilate, immune to prediction but not in retrospect unpredictable, utterly resistant to any expectations of form or proportion that we as listeners cannot avoid attempting to impose upon it, If You�re So Smart, Why Aren�t You Rich? is for me the most astonishingly uncompromising and resolutely singular music in this set. It�s not minimalist; it�s not pre-post-minimalist (as Stay on It might be described); it�s not anything, because it�s not like any other piece I�ve ever heard. (Gann, in the liner notes, links this piece to Petr Kotik�s improvisations with the SEM Ensemble, in which Eastman briefly took part.) It is simply and completely remarkable, extreme in its avoidance of anything predictable about the usage of motive or the structuring of time. If You�re So Smart is the best music here, and it is unforgettable.

Eastman�s own vocal prowess is on display in only one work here, and a very different work it is from the hysterical violence of Eight Songs for a Mad King. Prelude to the Holy Presence of Joan D�Arc, for solo voice, is as strongly repetitive as Stay on It and the multiple-piano pieces, but this repetition is different. In most of Eastman�s works here, obsessive repetition seems to be the symptom of superabundant energy that resists a syntactical frame, compulsive and uncontrollable and thus unarticulatable. The repetitions in Prelude are a wholly different phenomenon. Here they themselves contain the manic energy, which is always present on the margins � thanks largely to Eastman�s captivating performance � but is painfully restrained by the calm, slow litany of saints, almost chanted on a decorated descending D-minor arpeggio, each eventually exhorting the title martyr to �speak boldly when they question you.� This haunting work is repetitive because without that restraint � and we are allowed a glimpse, toward the end, of what lies behind it � the strength of the motivating impulse would destroy whatever coherence was imposed on it. Prelude to the Holy Presence of Joan D�Arc is, within its extremely tight constraints, perfect, and to hear Eastman sing it is a haunting and intense experience.

The Holy Presence of Joan D�Arc itself, a twenty-minute piece for ten cellos, comes next; the connection between this work and its Prelude are difficult to discern, aside from some passingly audible similarities in gesture, especially at the start and the end. It is a matter of harmony, perhaps, with chromatically inflected triads being the hovering background for both pieces, but compared to the Prelude, The Holy Presence of Joan D�Arc comes across as a bit diluted even as the musical surface is more active and more aggressive. The ten cellos produce an attractive surface web of mutually dissonant melodic threads above an everpresent fast pulse that occasionally scales a ladder of diatonic thirds, but the result has neither the involving concentration of the Prelude nor the aggressive energy of the first two pieces. The end, though, is stunning � a gently rocking figure, the material most reminiscent of the Prelude, generates a haze of held tones that diffract the figure�s harmony in a beautiful intervallic expansion before the return of the chugging motive that has determined the course of most of the piece. Although that motive eventually reconquers, the haze remains until the close.

The three multiple-piano pieces in this release have gotten most of the attention during this set�s brief existence, not least because of their aggressive titles (Gay Guerrilla, Evil Nigger, Crazy Nigger). Eastman gives an unexpectedly eloquent if occasionally inscrutable defense of these titles, an explanation of what they signify and why they are necessary, in introductory remarks (preserved on this recording) to the Northwestern University concert from which these performances were taken.

To my ear, though, these pieces are among the less memorable parts of a very memorable release. They possess an undeniable energy, and show a keenly intuitive ear for harmony and proportion; the textures and incredibly complex timbres (these pounded repeated notes in multiple pianos will pick up and mercilessly amplify any momentary lapse in the art of the most gifted piano tuner!) haunt the ear; but somehow these pieces seem to lack the wit and the absolutely fundamental inventiveness of (particularly) Stay on It and If You�re So Smart, Why Aren�t You Rich?

Two of the pieces in the multiple-piano set, Gay Guerrilla and Evil Nigger, are under half an hour in length. Gay Guerrilla begins in a gentle cloud of repeated D�s and A�s which, inevitably, expands slowly, to include F and B, and then G, and then E, and so on. Eastman has a sure touch in the imperceptible adjustment of harmony and texture by changing register, frequency and dynamics of each of these pitches, and the piece proceeds from there. Somehow, the Morse-code rhythmic patterning that was just a shimmer at the start begins to assert its driving identity; the harmonies continue to change, the textures come in waves, and the Lutheran chorale melody �Ein feste Burg� appears unexpectedly in the bass before the piece fades upwards into the ether. Gay Guerrilla is a well-made piece, certainly ahead of its time, boasting many beautiful moments and a sure musical intuition. That having been said, it does lack the last ounce of urgency present in the mixed-ensemble works.

Evil Nigger is a different story. The notes and the repetitions come hard and fast here; as in Stay on It, a pop-inflected motive (complete with Eastman�s counting-in shouts, audible on the background, of �one-two-three-four�) serves as a linchpin for a rapid-fire, dissonant assault that has few other recognizable landmarks. In another context, these gently �off� harmonies would be ethereal and soothing, which only increases the effectiveness of the shattering, bruising energy of forty fingers furiously pounding that permeates every second of the performance. The ending of Evil Nigger could, on the basis of the small sample presented here, justly be called �Eastmanian�, for it is as unexpected as it is apt; the accumulated energy suddenly lifts, and a slow-moving swarm of single notes with no discernable harmonic or textural relationship to each other or to what came before acts as a brick wall against which the battering ram of the previous twenty minutes violently splinters.

The last multiple-piano work, Crazy Nigger, lasts almost an hour in this performance. Morton Feldman famously declared that �up to one hour you think about form, but after an hour and a half it's scale,� but Eastman seems to place that fence a little sooner, because the use of time in Crazy Nigger is different than that of the shorter pieces. Gay Guerrilla has rhythmic motives, and Evil Nigger has its basic phrase, but in Crazy Nigger little melodic bits come and go over an undifferentiated background of repeated pitches, always played in several octaves simultaneously. For the first half hour of the piece there is no durable reference point other than sheer regular repetition, and the difference in result is precisely that between scale and form. We do not hear sections or contrasts; we hear the passage of time, the accumulation of memory and precedent and little else. This is not to say that there are no large-scale divisions � there are, mostly articulated by large, sudden shifts in dynamics. But when they occur, they are always surprising, unexpected, somehow foreign, and soon forgotten � at least until the piece nears its end, when the contrasts come more rapidly and more fundamentally. As always, it seems, with Eastman, the end is beautiful and unusually effective; the twists and turns begin to come quickly as the forty-minute mark approaches, as the repetition that has been our constant companion asserts itself in more diverse phenomena, and the dissolution of the close comes less as relief than as transfiguration.

A lot has been written about this recording � as far as I can tell, universally in praise. That, along with the distracting drama of Eastman�s life story and the circumstances of the production of this release, is enough to make anyone skeptical; but, for the most part, the praise is warranted. This is an important release not only because of its musico-historical utility, but � primarily � because it would really have been a shame for this music not to be heard by more people, a fate that until now seemed inevitable. There are a few weak spots � particularly The Holy Presence of Jean D�Arc � but the first of the three discs, containing Stay on It, If You�re So Smart, Why Aren�t You Rich? and Prelude to the Holy Presence of Jean d�Arc, is a particularly special experience, and the whole thing is urgently recommended.


12/19/2004 - 12/25/2004 12/26/2004 - 01/01/2005 01/02/2005 - 01/08/2005 01/09/2005 - 01/15/2005 01/16/2005 - 01/22/2005 01/23/2005 - 01/29/2005 01/30/2005 - 02/05/2005 02/06/2005 - 02/12/2005 02/13/2005 - 02/19/2005 02/20/2005 - 02/26/2005 02/27/2005 - 03/05/2005 03/06/2005 - 03/12/2005 03/13/2005 - 03/19/2005 03/20/2005 - 03/26/2005 03/27/2005 - 04/02/2005 04/03/2005 - 04/09/2005 04/10/2005 - 04/16/2005 04/17/2005 - 04/23/2005 04/24/2005 - 04/30/2005 05/01/2005 - 05/07/2005 05/08/2005 - 05/14/2005 05/15/2005 - 05/21/2005 05/22/2005 - 05/28/2005 05/29/2005 - 06/04/2005 06/05/2005 - 06/11/2005 06/12/2005 - 06/18/2005 06/19/2005 - 06/25/2005 06/26/2005 - 07/02/2005 07/03/2005 - 07/09/2005 07/10/2005 - 07/16/2005 07/17/2005 - 07/23/2005 07/24/2005 - 07/30/2005 07/31/2005 - 08/06/2005 08/07/2005 - 08/13/2005 08/14/2005 - 08/20/2005 08/21/2005 - 08/27/2005 08/28/2005 - 09/03/2005 09/04/2005 - 09/10/2005 09/11/2005 - 09/17/2005 09/18/2005 - 09/24/2005 09/25/2005 - 10/01/2005 10/02/2005 - 10/08/2005 10/09/2005 - 10/15/2005 10/16/2005 - 10/22/2005 10/23/2005 - 10/29/2005 10/30/2005 - 11/05/2005 11/06/2005 - 11/12/2005 11/13/2005 - 11/19/2005 11/20/2005 - 11/26/2005 11/27/2005 - 12/03/2005 12/04/2005 - 12/10/2005 12/11/2005 - 12/17/2005 12/18/2005 - 12/24/2005 12/25/2005 - 12/31/2005 01/01/2006 - 01/07/2006 01/08/2006 - 01/14/2006 01/15/2006 - 01/21/2006 01/22/2006 - 01/28/2006 01/29/2006 - 02/04/2006 02/05/2006 - 02/11/2006 02/12/2006 - 02/18/2006 02/19/2006 - 02/25/2006 02/26/2006 - 03/04/2006 03/05/2006 - 03/11/2006 03/12/2006 - 03/18/2006 03/19/2006 - 03/25/2006 03/26/2006 - 04/01/2006 04/02/2006 - 04/08/2006 04/09/2006 - 04/15/2006 04/16/2006 - 04/22/2006 04/23/2006 - 04/29/2006 04/30/2006 - 05/06/2006 05/07/2006 - 05/13/2006 05/14/2006 - 05/20/2006 05/21/2006 - 05/27/2006 05/28/2006 - 06/03/2006 06/04/2006 - 06/10/2006 06/11/2006 - 06/17/2006 06/18/2006 - 06/24/2006 06/25/2006 - 07/01/2006 07/02/2006 - 07/08/2006 07/09/2006 - 07/15/2006 07/16/2006 - 07/22/2006 07/23/2006 - 07/29/2006 07/30/2006 - 08/05/2006 08/06/2006 - 08/12/2006 08/13/2006 - 08/19/2006 08/20/2006 - 08/26/2006 08/27/2006 - 09/02/2006 09/03/2006 - 09/09/2006 09/10/2006 - 09/16/2006

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