Julius Eastman rehearsing Peter Maxwell Davies’s Eight Songs for a Mad King.
In the past few years there has been a great deal of interest in the music of composer and performer Julius Eastman (1940-1990). Recent concerts and exhibitions of his work have been held in New York, Philadelphia, and Los Angeles, and recordings of his music have been released.
Julius Eastman grew up in this area, first in Syracuse and later in Ithaca, and studied piano and composition at the prestigious Curtis Institute in Philadelphia. He was also a profoundly gifted singer, who
by 1970 [became] an underground hero, thanks to his electrifying performance as King George III in Peter Maxwell Davies’s music theater piece Eight Songs for a Mad King. Imposing in his royal brocaded gown and furred cap, he created an astonishing impression of delirium, using his five-octave range to produce a clamor of squawks, cackles, roars, and cries. Eastman toured the piece throughout Europe and was nominated for a Grammy for the recording.
Listen to that performance here:
Eastman was a gay man, and both his blackness and gayness figured large in his music. He gave his compositions titles like Crazy N*gger, N*gger F*ggot, and Evil N*gger. He declared: “What I am trying to achieve is to be what I am to the fullest: Black to the fullest, a musician to the fullest, a homosexual to the fullest.”
An excerpt from Evil N*gger, for four pianos:
In addition to these identities, it is very possible that Eastman was autistic as well. His mother told an interviewer in 2006 that
Julius was a different kind of baby . . . he didn’t like to be touched. Most babies want to be bounced, but you had to put Julius down. He didn’t want to be held. When he was about two years old, I used to read him stories, and, while standing in his crib, he would repeat the story word for word. So I knew right away there was something special going on.
The precocious word-for-word repetition little Julius exhibited is known as echolalia, and, combined with his sensory defensiveness, he would most likely have gotten an autism diagnosis were he a toddler today.
The cradle for Eastman’s vast and far-reaching creativity was the music department at the State University of New York at Buffalo, legendary for its commitment to emerging and avant-garde music genres. In the 1970s, SUNY-Buffalo nurtured and sponsored the great new-music group the SEM Ensemble, with which Eastman frequently performed.
One performance he gave with SEM of John Cage’s Song Books, a semi-directed group improvisation, enraged the composer, who was in attendance. (For background on John Cage, browse over to this post and this post.) Eastman chose, in his solo, to give a sexually explicit lecture, which he believed was in accord with Cage’s instructions:
In a situation provided with maximum amplification (no feedback), perform a disciplined action, with any interruptions, fulfilling in whole, or in part, an obligation to others.
It was clear from his first words that there would be a little juice poured into Cage’s austere, Zen blend of indeterminacy and transcendence-of-self. For some music historians, this was a night that intersectionality and identity politics officially breached the avant-garde: “Eastman’s performance that day may have constituted an intersectional testing of the limits of his membership – or, in American racial parlance, his ‘place’ – in the experimental scene,” writes George E. Lewis, professor of American music at Columbia University . . .
Over the next 14 minutes, Eastman delivered a bizarre lecture that focused on the erotic, but played on and exploded notions about race, colonialism and sexuality. . . . He invited [a] couple onstage with him to strip – the man ended up naked, the woman only partially so due to embarrassment. . . He joked that he chose members of two [different] races because he wanted “to show the best of both worlds.”. . . All the while, his voice growing more theatrical as his fellow ensemble members began singing and playing eery electronics, Eastman was camping things up, to the delight of the audience. He wrapped his leg around his male “specimen” and puckered his mouth with his fingers. “Julius only managed to get the man undressed,” recalled S.E.M. founder and director Petr Kotik, “and being an outspoken homosexual, he was making all sorts of ‘achs!’ and ‘ahs’ as he was pulling his pants down.” A review by Jeff Simons in the Buffalo Evening News said, “By the time Eastman’s little performance was finished, Mr. Charles was completely undressed, and Eastman’s leering, libidinous, lecture-performance had everyone convulsed [in laughter] with the burlesque broadness of his homoerotic satire.”
John Cage, however, was furious, and he asked Eastman to refrain from performing this work in the future.
This raises the questions:
- Once a work has been composed, to whom does it belong?
- Does the composer of a piece of music as freely structured as John Cage’s Song Books have the right to dictate the performers’ choices?
- Was Julius Eastman’s outspoken and outrageous gay aesthetic an affront to the restrained, abstract, zen-influenced aesthetic of John Cage (who was also openly gay)?
- Does race play a part in these different constructions of gay identity? In other words, was John Cage, as a white gay man, offended by Julius Eastman’s black gayness?
Two pages from Song Books by John Cage.
Because of creative differences and personal difficulties, he later resigned from the faculty of SUNY-Buffalo and moved to New York to work as a freelancer. There, he descended into mental illness, addiction, and homelessness, and he went back to Buffalo, where he died at the age of 49 of heart failure. During his dark last days, he told a fellow composer that
the music he had made reflected an ‘inconsistent period,’ best forgotten, and it nearly was. When Eastman died, only a few recordings of his powerful singing were available, and none of his compositions.
As it turned out, there were Eastman recordings, some stored in university libraries, others hidden away in private collections. . . Thanks in large part to [composer Mary Jane] Leach’s archival work, Eastman is now lionized in the art world and academia as a visionary practitioner of “intersectionality,” a queer black saint like James Baldwin.
Adam Shatz has written further of Eastman:
Those who knew [him] well all speak of this waste of potential, the fact that he succumbed to his demons and drifted away—of his own volition—from what was a very promising career. This is a story of refusal of society’s categories, and there’s something brave and daring about it. But it’s also a story of fragility, deterioration, addiction, and, perhaps, of mental illness. Part of Eastman’s difficulty, to be sure, was that the avant-garde, particularly in classical music, was always defined as always already not-black, as the cultural theorist Fred Moten has argued. But this was not Eastman’s only source of difficulty. . . to define [oneself], to find [one’s voice], and to move from thought to expression . . . is a struggle for all of us, not just artists. And in this, let us remember that, as Cecil Taylor beautifully put it, people are all, at some level, dark to themselves.
An excerpt of a different section of Song Books, performed by the SEM Ensemble with Julius Eastman:
In June 2020, the Boston-based Black concert-music collective Castle of Our Skins collaborated on a Zoom performance of Eastman’s “Stay On It,” dedicated to essential workers of color during the coronavirus pandemic.