Last Night in L.A.: Four Pianos for Eastman
Julius Eastman’s Crazy Nigger (1978? 1979?) was given its West Coast premiere last night at REDCAT. Three members of California EAR Unit gave up their usual instruments (flute, cello, percussion) for the piano to join their pianist Vicki Ray in giving the work its four-piano interpretation. While the score doesn’t specify a particular instrumental combination, it was recorded by Eastman with four pianos, and this recording was the one that brought the work to the public. It would be interesting to hear Crazy Nigger in a different configuration, but it would certainly take more than four musicians to give the sonorities so central to the work.
It would have been interesting to have heard this last year in association with the minimalist festival, and the performance of In C in particular. Eastman worked for something very different from Riley, and he gave the performers both more freedom and more structure. Structure was provided by specifying notes to be added, in sequence, and by stating specific times for moving from section to section in the work. (Each pianist had a clock by the score.) The players had freedom, or the ensemble had freedom, to decide how to provide the notes. The work begins like In C, with a repeated sequence of the pitch; instead of adding melodic cells, however, Crazy Nigger builds sonority. First, the core tone is supplemented by that note in different octaves. Then, gradually, another tone is added. The color changes. Another tone. Another. The sound becomes three-dimensional, not quite solid, but shifting and shimmering. Finally, for the climax of the work, six additional pianists stepped on stage one by one, going to a keyboard to add six additional pitches to the structure. Fifty-five minutes have seldom seemed so short. The EAR Unit deserve a lot of credit for their interpretation. With the audience seated so that they could see the hands of all four pianists, it was easy to see which person took a little longer to make sure that her hands were correctly placed for the right note, but their interpretation used the skills of each and used them well.
I think I saw Alex Ross; his blog this morning shows a photo with the wall of Disney Hall and the coral tree in the garden, so I know he was in town. Perhaps he’ll comment.