What follows is a review of a vintage performance by Julius Eastman newly released on the Frozen Reeds label. I imagine readers have varying degrees of familiarity with Eastman. Pick and choose sections below to build your own customized review of Femenine.
- [Already know about Eastman? Skip ahead to #2.] Julius Eastman was an inventive, unconventional composer whose orbit included leading art-music composers and practitioners in Buffalo and NYC in the 1970s and ‘80s. Eastman played piano, sang, and danced ballet; he wrote with a looseness and fearlessness and an eye toward provocation that now — decades later — has garnered him deserved praise and renewed attention. While his CV is embossed with the usual line items befitting an artist in ascent — attended Curtis Institute, performed at Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center, collaborated with the famous and influential — Eastman’s final years were an ignominious coda, marred by joblessness, homelessness and drug addiction. He died in 1990 at 49 years old.
- This new Femenine record is actually a release of a 1974 live performance of Femenine in Albany, featuring Eastman and members of The S.E.M. Ensemble. So, there’s nothing technically NEW about it. [If you want to quibble about that point then just vault ahead to #9.] And in fact, this isn’t even a brand-new release because it dropped in June of this year! Okay, whatever, let’s just keep it moving.
- What does it sound like? In the simplest terms, it’s the same thing over and over for 72 minutes. Minimalism, baby! (Or its groovier descendant, postminimalism, if you like.) But in Femenine things change subtly, and each subtle change becomes increasingly digressive as the piece unfolds, something that’s usually only possible when a composer has taken a great deal of care establishing context at the outset. There are also notes of stewed plum, cherrywood, and spice box with a long, smooth fini—wait, sorry, that’s the rioja I’m drinking right now, not Femenine. Anyway, the past few weeks my morning ritual has been: pour some coffee, fire up the laptop, and turn on Femenine, every day wading a little deeper. It’s the type of piece that requires patient listening, where details emerge unexpectedly the 15th or 25th time — a crafty flute gesture previously inscrutable, a moment of calm while the ensemble reloads for the next section, or unison ostinato lines that take a hard-right into barricades of spiky chords. These are what you’re after.
- [If you’re pressed for time, bypass these ensemble & recording notes & stagger toward #5.] The S.E.M. Ensemble are an outfit led by Czech composer Petr Kotik. Kotik and Eastman were two of the group’s founding members, and while Eastman has been dead for three decades, the S.E.M. Ensemble carry on. They’ve premiered works by John Cage (more on him later), Morton Feldman, Pauline Oliveros, and La Monte Young. For this particular S.E.M. performance, Eastman plays piano and leads the group through its novenas. There are “automated sleigh bells” that pulse throughout; flute, vibes & violins round out the instrumentation.NB: This Femenine performance is a treasure, but if you pop it on your stereo you may notice small audio abnormalities. It’s raw, sometimes shaky. I promise you will be unfazed, and in fact, quite charmed.
- [Already know why Julius Eastman rules? Then head to #7, my friend.] Eastman knew how to position his works in opposition to the prevailing attitudes and tastes of his day. (He was an excellent marketer, you might boringly note.) That his work took time to find a wider audience is no fault of his own. Here was Eastman, an artist who happened to be Black, and queer, confronting his listeners, forcing them — at least for as long as a piece lasted — to question dearly-held beliefs. He chose titles for his works (Gay Guerilla; N****r F****t; Crazy N****r) by reclaiming disgusting slurs. He wasn’t afraid of alienating people. Here’s something Eastman said: “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.”
- [If you won’t read a single bad word about John Cage, scroll instead to #7.] We mentioned John Cage. Cage is spoken of as a sort of Phil Jackson of art music: a seer whose musical theories were, for a time, perfectly realized both in composition and in practice. He wrote ambitious works that defied musical convention. (For example: As Slow as Possible, a piece which takes a tidy 639 years to perform, just changed chords for the first time in seven years!) But Cage’s imagination — much like Phil Jackson’s vaunted triangle offense — had its limits.
In a delightful write-up at Red Bull Music Academy, writer Marke Bieschke details a performance of Cage’s Song Books staged by Eastman that completely baffled the Zen master. Cage himself was in the audience, and had less than kind words for Eastman afterwards. What do you have to do to piss off John Cage? Suffice it to say: you make objectification and queerness the focal points of a performance of “Solo for Voice No. 8” from Song Books when maybe, as Eastman suggested at the time, recent performances had been feeling dull or dry. This, assuredly, angered the high priest of experimental music. As Bieschke notes, the performance instructions for “No. 8” were rather cryptic. That is to say, open to interpretation, but … not just any interpretation.
- [Still don’t want to hear about Cage? Fine, fine. #8 is for you.] This recording of Femenine is from November 6, 1974. The Cage incident took place a scant seven months later, in June of 1975. As such, this record is a valuable artifact documenting a key moment before all the Sturm und Drang. That’s not to say the November concert was staid or conventional: Eastman wore either a dress or an apron (depends who you ask), and served soup to the audience. But you might wonder, rightly, why exactly Cage cared in the end? As a friend of Eastman’s has postulated, Cage was a gay man who didn’t like advertising the fact that he was gay. Fair enough, but Eastman was quite the opposite: proud and unapologetic (see again: above Eastman quote). Cage might have … could quite possibly have …. definitely … thought Eastman was needling him with this performance. Maybe.
- [Don’t need a big-picture summary? Pop down to #10 to finish things off.] Why does this all matter? Because Eastman was really, really good at what he did. Because he deserves the adulation we reserve for the likes of Steve Reich — tough news about him recently tho, huh — and Morton Feldman; and because our understanding of this time, his time, needs to be reconfigured. It’s not just because Eastman was queer, or Black. Lives matter because of the substance you imbue them with, and Eastman had chops, charisma, zaniness and genius in excess. He had something to say. As critic & composer Kyle Gann notes, “There was no timidity or theoretical obscurity to his music — it cut to the chase.”
- To recap: you can find this recording, put out by Frozen Reeds, over here on Bandcamp. You might also consider buying the 2005 compilation Unjust Malaise, which tidily collects seven works and a short intro speech by Julius Eastman at Northwestern University. I loved hearing him speak.
- Thanks for reading. Or if you skipped the whole thing: thanks for nothing, but do go listen.