L@TE at BAM/PFA: A Tribute to Julius Eastman

Julius Eastman
Julius Eastman, photographer unknown, from Mary Jane Leach’s collection.

Until now my knowledge of Julius Eastman (1940–1990) came almost entirely through recordings and articles. I was first introduced to Eastman’s commanding singing voice through the classic recording of Meredith Monk’s Dolmen Music, and my immediate impression based on the sound of his vital and seemingly bottomless bass was of a super-sized, uncontainable personality. The bass part in Dolmen Music was created and crafted for him, and when I later had the opportunity to learn and perform his part, I distinctly recall having the sense of a very large space to fill.

The first opportunity I had to hear Eastman’s compositional voice was in 2005 with the release of Unjust Malaise, the three-CD set that was the result of Mary Jane Leach’s Herculean efforts in researching his recordings. But I had never heard any of his music live until this month’s tribute to Eastman and his compositions at the Berkeley Art Museum/Pacific Film Archive (BAM/PFA), programmed by Sarah Cahill and Luciano Chessa for the L@TE: Friday Nights series.

Hexagon

The strange and sobering story of Eastman’s life and early death has been told most notably by Kyle Gann, first in the obituary he wrote for the Village Voice and then his liner notes (PDF) for Unjust Malaise. Mary Jane Leach also wrote an article for NewMusicBox detailing her extraordinary experiences chasing down all the recordings and scores she could find of Eastman’s work. In short, for those who aren’t already familiar with him, this exceptionally gifted composer/singer/pianist suffered a number of setbacks in his life – some situational, some arguably self-created—and he died without attracting any attention in the musical community for eight months, until Gann published his obituary. Most of his scores are now lost, in no small part due to an eviction from his apartment, and the few recordings that exist have taken Leach years of work to recover.

The tribute performance in Berkeley consisted of two vocal compositions and two works for multiple pianos, set in the spacious concrete atrium of the Modernist museum, where the ramps provided the audience with aerial vantage points on the hexagon of upright pianos.

Ramps

The evening opened with an invocation and plea titled “Our Father” for two male voices, written during the last year of Eastman’s life:

O God, my God,
Our Father, Holy Spirit, great God
Holy Ghost, spirit of truth, great God
All-knowing God
[…]
O Lord, forgive me
Thy will is always done
O God, my God, have mercy
Your servants are weak
Our Father, who art in heaven
Hallowed be thy name

Bass Richard Mix and tenor Kevin Baum emerged from the audience, which was variously sprawled out on an installation by Thom Faulders, to sing the score (downloadable from Leach’s site). The short, linear work, built almost entirely on homophonic open fifths, was clearly written for Eastman to sing: when Mix descended to the lowest point of the work—an E-flat on “My [God]”—it was easy to imagine Eastman’s sepulchral voice filling the hall. Likewise when Mix declaimed the Prelude to the Holy Presence of Joan d’Arc (text transcription as PDF), a 12-minute unaccompanied solo in which a litany of saints passionately exhort Joan to “speak boldly,” I had a visceral sense of Eastman’s presence. From a singer’s perspective, there is a peculiar feeling when performing a work that was clearly written for a specific person’s voice: you’re obligated to inhabit that person’s body in a sense, finding the resonances that were individual to that person and exploring his particular strengths and tendencies. Hearing Mix’s voice channeling a work that Eastman had made for his own brought Eastman into the space in an almost physical way.

Mix Joan
Richard Mix performing Prelude to the Holy Presence of Joan d’Arc

The Prelude Mix sang was indeed written as an opening to another work, a larger piece for multiple cellos which was not performed at this concert. But the format of using multiples of the same instrument was one that Eastman explored in other works, including the pieces for multiple pianos on this program titled Evil Nigger and Gay Guerrilla. Eastman was African-American and gay, and Unjust Malaise includes a spoken intro that he gave at a concert explaining his intent behind the titles. For him, “nigger” meant a person with a “basic-ness or a fundamental-ness”; one who “eschews that which is superficial.” He saw “guerrilla” as a term implying strength, so the title Gay Guerrilla expressed his hope that “gaydom,” himself included, would be strong if called upon to fight for a cause.

Whereas the two vocal works were intensely personal statements from Eastman as an individual, these pieces—written for any number of instruments, performed here on six pianos—showed a community moving in concert. Both pieces are structured as a progression through timed modules, and the six pianists (Chessa, Cahill, Chris Brown, Joseph M. Colombo, Dominique Leone, and Regina Schaffer) kept their synchronized iPhone timers in sight throughout. A cursory glance at the scores showed, for example, a page marked 18:00-18:30, with a number of lines that each performer could choose from within that module.

EvilN iPhone
Sarah Cahill performing Evil Nigger

Evil Nigger is potent and incessant, a 20-minute emotional tour de force full of unbridled energy—supersized, uncontainable. Like Terry Riley’s In C, clouds of harmonies appeared and shifted as the performers moved through the modules. Dramatic register shifts appeared and crossfaded; bright pulsations gave way to impressionistic clusters. Gay Guerrilla initially revealed a more quiet and meditative aspect of his compositional voice, with very slow builds and large waves. But it also provided the most unexpected compositional moment of the night, when about two-thirds into the half-hour work, the Lutheran hymn “Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott” (“A Mighty Fortress is Our God”) emerged from the texture—a behemoth appearing through communal action, full of strength, ready to do battle for a great cause.

This intermission-less tribute gave us an opportunity to take a concentrated look at the work of an artist who was almost allowed to disappear into history. Eastman’s huge voice was ringing loudly in that space, and hopefully the reconstruction work that these performers did so dutifully (most notably Colombo, who created a legible, computerized score for Evil Nigger) will help others to bring his music to life again in the future.

L@TE: Friday Nights at BAM/PFA has programs every Friday for $7. Some upcoming events programmed by Sarah Cahill include a concert of Edmund Campion’s music (March 9), Amy X Neuburg (April 13), and a performance of Lou Harrison’s La Koro Sutro in May.

BAMscape

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