(from an article in New
I met Julius Eastman
in early 1981. We were both hired to be vocalists in a theatre piece
by Jim Neu for which Hugh Levick was writing the music. At the first
10 a.m. rehearsal, Julius showed up in black leather and chains, drinking
scotch! Julius, while externally outrageous and almost forbidding, was
genuinely generous and warm, and not unkind. He was brutally honest,
which doomed him (as well as many others) in a field which, if not dishonest,
certainly is not forthcoming and can be surprisingly timid and conformist
(and which has become increasingly so since that time).
In the fall of 1998, I was asked to teach a course in composition at
Cal Arts for "real" instruments. I thought a really interesting
approach would be to focus on music for multiples—pieces written
for four or more of one instrument—and one piece for multiple
cellos that I knew I wanted to include was Julius's The Holy Presence
of Joan d'Arc (Joan) for ten cellos. I had attended the
premiere of it at The Kitchen in 1981, and I loved its energy and sound.
Thus began an almost quixotic seven-year search for the music of Julius
Eastman who died in 1990 and whose final years were a life spiraled
out of control to the point where he was living in Tompkins Square Park.
He'd been evicted from his apartment in the East Village—the sheriff
having dumped his possessions onto the street. Julius made no effort
to recover any of his music. Various friends, though, upon hearing of
this, tried to salvage as much as they could. Most was probably lost.
One of the problems of writing about Julius is that it is difficult
to state anything with certainty. A lot of the information out there,
if not contradictory, has slightly different details. Julius Eastman
(born in 1940) was a gay African-American composer of works that were
minimal in form but maximal in effect, who had a life of minimal possessions
combined with outrageous behavior. He was also an incredible performer
(vocalist and pianist), 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, where from an early age he was
a paid chorister, he started studying piano at fourteen and was playing
Beethoven after only six months of lessons. He went to Ithaca College
for a year, then transferred to Curtis as a piano major where he studied
with Mieczyslaw Horzowski but soon switched to composition. Although
best known as a vocalist, he never formally studied voice. While at
Ithaca College, in the course of accompanying dance, he also took up
choreography, and eventually choreographed dances to some of his compositions.
In 1968 he moved to Buffalo where he was a member of the Creative Associates,
which was under the leadership of Lukas Foss and later Morton Feldman.
While in Buffalo, he performed and toured music by many of the most
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, then also led by Foss. Julius performed in jazz
groups with his brother, Gerry, a guitarist and bass player in many
jazz ensembles, including the Count Basie Orchestra. (The only work
by Julius registered with the U.S. Copyright Office is as a lyricist,
with his brother listed as composer.)
Looking over what has been written about him, I notice a number of misperceptions.
For instance, Tom Johnson, who wrote so well about the New York Downtown
scene for the Village Voice during the seventies and early
eighties, wrote in 1976 that Julius was a performer discovering his
voice as a composer by writing pieces that he could perform. However,
Julius had been writing ensemble pieces that were widely admired before
that time. Even though the pieces had quite a lot of performances, perhaps
they hadn't been performed in New York, or Tom hadn't attended those
concerts. I have a feeling that once Julius left Buffalo, he didn't
have a ready group of musicians to perform his work any more, so he
started to write pieces that he could perform. Indeed, a look at his
list of compositions shows that his earliest pieces were for solo piano,
and then, once he got to Buffalo, he wrote compositions for ensembles
and/or instruments that he didn't play.
Another observation that I've made is that once he left Buffalo, the
tone of the titles of his pieces started to change, from The Moon's
Silent Modulation (1970) to If You're So Smart, Why Aren't
You Rich (1977), Evil Nigger (1979), etc. Not only had
Julius left the protective and nurturing environment of Buffalo, but
in New York the divisions between Uptown and Downtown were more evident,
and Julius was caught between both worlds. He had a foot in both camps.
He appeared with the Brooklyn Philharmonic and performed works by Hans
Werner Henze and Peter Maxwell Davies. Meanwhile, he was also performing
and/or conducting with Downtown composers such as Meredith Monk, Peter
Gordon, and Arthur Russell. Evan Lurie, who studied composition with
Julius, told me that Julius insisted on clear penmanship when writing
scores, the correct way to notate music, which materials to use, etc.,
while at the same time producing scores that could test the patience
of a saint to figure out.
I didn't know Julius
all that well, but I did have conversations with him about composers
of that time, and he was dismissive of a lot of them. I think that what
it boiled down to was integrity. He had radar that could detect bullshit
(and there was a lot of that going around, a lot of posing). He greatly
admired Meredith Monk's music, for instance, perhaps because it was
so honest. Indeed, I just looked at the program notes for the premiere
of Joan, and the first sentence is "Find presented a work of art,
in your name, full of honor, integrity, and boundless courage."
That could be Julius's manifesto, a dedication to creating works of
art with integrity, and perhaps a reason why he had some difficulties
when asked to perform music he didn't respect, or in which he detected
inconsistencies. These kind of exacting standards can be difficult to
live with, and perhaps can at least partially explain some of his eventual
When I started my search for Joan, I learned that composer
Lois V Vierk had a recording of it. But when she went to make a dub
for me, she found the cassette box empty, the cassette left in some
unknown tape machine. She put me in touch with C. Bryan Rulon, who had
given her the tape that she'd had. He had been given a cassette of Joan
by Julius. Bryan made a dub for me, and while talking to him, waiting
for the dub to be made, I began to realize that it wasn't just Joan
that was difficult to locate, but all of Julius's music. I now had a
tape of Joan, but I really wanted to have the score as well.
The recording was made for radio broadcast, so it had credits at the
end of the tape, and I thought that if the engineer, Steve Cellum, had
the master tape, I'd have a good chance of finding the score. Steve
is very conscientious, and always includes a score with the master,
as well as noting other pertinent information. Well, he did have the
master, but no score. And no details, other than the title and tape
The performer credits were also given at the end of the Joan
tape. Otherwise I never would have been able to track down who had performed
on it, as everyone had slightly different memories of who had played,
when (not even the year), and where it was recorded. The cellists on
the tape were the only people I'd ever contacted about Julius who didn't
all have strong impressions and/or anecdotes of him. It had been a fly-by-night
recording with freelance musicians, and most only had contact with him
for those few hours. Ironically, they were the easiest to locate. I
found all of them and heard back from nine, which is pretty amazing,
since the recording was made about twenty-five years ago. But, still,
no one had the score. To date I haven't been able to find the score—all
I have is a fragment of it that was printed on the cover of the program
notes from its premiere at The Kitchen.
Photo at top by Donald W. Burkhardt
Photo on left by unknown photographer
by the time I finished the course at Cal Arts, I realized that if much
more time passed, Julius's music would be even more difficult to find
than it already was. I decided that since I'd already put in a fair
amount of effort to find Joan, I should try to backtrack with
the people I'd already been in touch with, as well as to contact others
who knew him, to see if I could find any of his other pieces. No one
had anything, but they all expressed how much they wished they did,
and how much they liked Julius's music. At this point, besides not wanting
to see my efforts come to naught, stubbornness took over.
I began a series of what I came to regard as a vicious circle of phone
calls. One person would direct me to another, who'd direct me to another,
until at some point I'd be referred back to the original person, a cycle
which could take a year or more. Most didn't have anything, except for
a lot of interesting anecdotes. Eventually I became the "expert."
People would say, "You should contact Kyle Gann" (or a number
of other people), who, in the meantime, would be directing people to
me. It was not only frustrating, but shocking, to see how quickly the
work of such a vital member of the artistic community could fall through
the cracks. And sobering, as well.
People's memories of things were shaky, too. Julius had given a concert
at Experimental Intermedia Foundation in 1976, and though Phill Niblock
swore that was before he started to document concerts, somehow Warren
Burt had a tape of the concert. When I got the tape, though, it was
very disappointing—the electronic keyboard that Julius played
had a cheesy sound, and it sounded as though his voice had been miked
from Newark. It was unusable. I had really hoped to have an example
of Julius singing and playing the piano at the same time, but that was
not to be.
Along the way, there was occasionally someone who did have something,
but in most cases it was either not easily accessible and/or it took
some coaxing (to say nothing of patience) to obtain. I knew tapes were
out there, but getting them was another matter. However, I was fairly
certain, if perhaps too optimistic, that I would be able to find enough
material for a CD, so in the fall of 1999 I approached New World Records
about putting out a CD of Julius's music, and they jumped at the chance,
as he was a composer that they were interested in.
Months passed, sometimes years, and some people who had tapes or scores
were either unable or unwilling to look for them and send them along.
Eventually I got the score and a concert tape of Piano 2, a
piece for solo piano. Julius had been a member of the Creative Associates
at SUNY Buffalo for a number of years. Negotiations with the library
at SUNY went on over a period of time, complete with changing policies
and decision makers. Finally, in June 2003, I received almost three
hours of archival recordings from them.
At this point I had Joan, some solo piano pieces, and some
ensemble pieces. What I really wanted, to complete the artistic picture,
was one or all of Julius's three major pieces for multiple pianos (Crazy
Nigger, Evil Nigger, and Gay Guerrilla). Kyle Gann had
promised to send me copies of two out of three them (Evil Nigger
and Gay Guerrilla) from a concert that he'd attended that
Julius had participated in. Several years passed and no tapes from Kyle.
Then I read in an item about Julius in Kyle's blog that he'd sent me
the tapes, but it was another six months before I actually received
them. Meanwhile, I was making contingency plans. Even if I got the tapes,
what if they were unusable or we couldn't get permission to use them?
I had contacted Peter Gena in the fall of 1999 and knew that he had
the scores to all three pieces. I was hoping to at least be able to
record the pieces, although I really wanted the performances that Julius
had not only coached but had performed in.
So I knew that there was material out there and hopefully more that
I didn't know about. At times I got tired of nagging/nudging people
to co-operate, and I'm talking about years of these dialogues, not weeks
or months. When I got the tapes from Kyle in June 2004, I was relieved
to hear that not only were they good performances, but that they were
"clean"—you couldn't really tell that they were concert
recordings. It turned out that they were from a concert at Northwestern
University. New World had recently released Music from the Once
Festival 1961-1966 using tapes from Northwestern, so they had a
working relationship that made getting the permission to use the tapes
a lot easier than it might have been.
All of the tapes I had located were old reel-to-reels and had to be
baked, a process that needs to be done in order for the emulsion to
be re-attached to the tape. No one was sure if the third piece was in
the Northwestern archives or not. One of the technicians had started
to play one of the tapes to see what was on it. This almost gave me
a heart attack when I heard about it, as I had visions of the emulsion
building up on the tape heads and the recording being destroyed. So
it was with incredible pleasure this past December , when the
tapes were duly baked and digitally transferred, to discover that all
three pieces were there, that the recording quality was high, and that
Crazy Nigger was 55 minutes! All of a sudden we had a well-balanced
I knew I had been feeling anxious about all this when I dreamed that
I found several brown garbage bags of Julius's old musty clothes. After
laundering them, I put one of his white shirts into my cassette deck
and it played perfectly. That wasn't the only odd occurrence. The emails
in my folder of correspondence about the project ("Eastman")
could not be opened or moved. I started another folder ("Eastman
#2"). Those emails could not be opened or moved. I started a third
("Julius"). Those emails could not be opened or moved. Those
are the only folders in my email program that I've had a problem with,
and I was beginning to wonder if Julius's spirit was trying to sabotage
the dissemination of his music.
Seven years have now passed since I began trying to track down Joan.
Three CDs of music of one of our most gifted contemporary composers
has just been released by New World Records. It's not the final step,
but hopefully the beginning of a process of rediscovering Julius's music.
I've now been working with his family to make sure that his pieces are
registered with a performing rights organization and brainstorming to
figure out the best place for his work to be archived. I would like
to organize a concert of his music, but I only have Piano 2, Crazy
Nigger, and half of Evil Nigger. I'm hoping that this
CD release will trigger people's memories and/or guilt, and that forgotten
and/or neglected material will start to surface.
To say that this whole process has been enjoyable would be a lie, although
I've enjoyed talking to the people involved and gotten satisfaction
from finally getting to hear so much of Julius's music and knowing that
others will soon be able to as well. Even in the best of circumstances
it is difficult to reassemble the music of deceased composers. Today,
of course, circumstances have changed, with composers being able to
print good-looking scores and to not only burn their own CDs, but to
generate synthesized realized versions of their music. However, even
with these advantages, it would be naïve to think that just because
it's out there, that your music will be available. Don't rely on the
kindness of strangers or well-meaning family members who probably don't
know anything about the music world—make sure you've arranged
for your music to live on after you.
you have information or material, please contact me.
of known Eastman works (pdf)