Uncommon Beauty

Julius Eastman Died Far Too Young. His Brilliant Minimalist Music Lives On

Julius Eastman’s music is a pulsing minimalism reminiscent of Steve Reich, Terry Riley, and Philip Glass. Its mystery echoes the life and career of this black, gay composer.

Via Frozen Reeds

Before seeing a performance of Julius Eastman’s work, I was thinking of how to write about his life story: his remarkable rise to the height of the New York downtown avant-garde scene in the 1970s, despite living in the YMCA while at conservatory; his fearless, intersectional work as a gay African American man in an overwhelmingly white, privileged, and straight-or-closeted art scene; and his tragic fall, ending in several years of homelessness and an early death in 1990, at the age of 49.

But after seeing the first of the performances in a retrospective of Eastman’s work at NYC’s performance art space The Kitchen, now I just want to talk about his music—an incandescent, pulsing minimalism reminiscent of Steve Reich, Terry Riley, Philip Glass, and their many disciples. 

This isn’t to separate Eastman’s life from his work, but to put the work at the center, because that is where it deserves to be.

The two pieces I saw performed, “Joy Boy” and “Femenine,” date from 1974—the same year Reich began writing Music for 18 Musicians, by way of comparison. The first featured ten minutes of syncopated rhythms performed by violin, flute, trombone, and vocals, its pulsing rhythm and wordless vocalization reminding me instantly of Glass’ early works, but with more urgency (and technical difficulty). 

The second, much longer piece featured crashing arpeggios over a rhythmic minimalist background, complete with a contraption of automated sleigh bells (a 1974 version of a drum machine, I joked to my friend). It was alternately trancelike, meditative, and frenetic, depending on the moment.

Both were capably performed by a reconfigured version of the S.E.M. ensemble, let by Petr Kotik, who first performed Eastman’s work as far back as 1970, and who collaborated with him throughout that decade.

The titles of Eastman’s work are tricky business. Both “Joy Boy” and “Femenine” are out, loud, and proud declarations of sexual/gender fluidity.

The titles of other works cannot be written in full in this publication: “N----r Faggot,” “Evil N----r,” “Crazy N----r.”

They are, obviously, deliberate provocations and declarations; Eastman was not interested in assimilating or “passing.” While such titles might be commonplace today, he used them before identity politics came of age and before the term “intersectionality” was even coined.

And yet, it’s hard to find resonances of those identity markers in the pieces themselves. I thought of the queer gendering of “Femenine,” with its masculine inscribed within the feminine, as the piece droned on (in a good way). 

I could invent connections: the ways in which the African-derived percussion coexisted with the European-derived instrumentation, or the absence of typically heroic flourishes (the trombone’s blasts often seemed anti-heroic, a kind of musical manifestation of Jack Halberstam’s book, The Queer Art of Failure).

But I could be making all that up.

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The tension was right there at the time. “Minimalism” was not a term that composers themselves embraced. But as it coalesced as a movement, minimalism came to stand for a kind of anti-subjectivity, moving away from the Romantic cult of the artist and his (almost always his) personality, and toward less egoic conceptions of art, artist, and audience. Think Donald Judd instead of Jackson Pollack; Laurie Anderson instead of Leonard Bernstein.

Indeed, John Cage, one of Eastman’s models, dismissed Eastman’s work for being “closed in on the subject of homosexuality… he has no other idea to express.” That comment is outrageous, and says more about Cage’s internalized homophobiaCage– was gay, but lived in a glass closet, and never addressed sexual identity in his work—than anything else.

But Cage’s scolding dismissal does point to a real tension in Eastman’s work, between identity and transcendence, history and art. 

That tension only heightens when you review the remarkable details of his life story, which, as I have suggested, tend to dominate any discussion of him. 

Born in upstate New York in 1940, Eastman was educated in piano and composition and quickly gained recognition in both. He gravitated to the ‘downtown’ New York avant garde scene in the 1970s. Looking over the posters in The Kitchen’s exhibition of Eastman memorabilia, you see him amongst the luminaries of New York’s downtown avant garde: Bill T. Jones and Arnie Zane, Eric Bogosian, Meredith Monk, Arthur Russell. 

Yet all of them went on to successful careers (Zane died of AIDS in 1988, but Jones has continued their collaborative work until the present day). Works by Reich, Riley, Glass, and Cage are performed regularly at Carnegie Hall. Eastman struggled into addiction in the 1980s, and while some say that his destitution was partly voluntary, that seems hard to square with the precarity of his life and the untimeliness of his death. Much of his music was lost.

The focus on Eastman’s life trajectory also runs the risk of exoticization: the black, gay wunderkind felled by addiction and racism. One need only look at the romanticization of Jean-Michel Basquiat, who would’ve been sleeping in Tompkins Square Park at the same time as Eastman. 

Basquiat often exploited his exploiters, playing off their expectations of the “naïve” Afro-Caribbean artist who in fact was anything but naïve. (His onetime girlfriend, Madonna, would later do similarly.) Arguably, Eastman was likewise trying to own the narrative of his own marginalization rather than have it dictated to him by others.

And yet, Basquiat also struggled with addiction, dying at age 27 while a host of supposed admirers looked on impotently. It’s hard to tease out Basquiat the myth (two movies and counting), Basquiat the artist, and Basquiat the commodity (one recent painting sold for $110.5 million). All are implicated in racism, classism, and the fetishization of men of color. It is easy to see similar dynamics in the way Eastman might be romanticized today. 

Perhaps that’s one reason The Kitchen’s exhibition on him is fragmentary, non-linear, and occasionally infuriating; don’t rely on it for a curriculum vitae of Eastman’s life, or a narrative assessment of his career. Maybe it doesn’t want to contain Eastman in the kinds of narrative frames he resisted in his work.

That work, what remains of it anyway, is now Eastman’s legacy. (Further works are to be performed in New York on Jan. 27 and 28.)

On the one hand, with its titles and style, it resists any attempt to whitewash Easton’s overlapping identities and positions in society. On the other hand, unlike pedantic, identity-politics-driven cultural (and critical) production, the vitality of Eastman’s compositions at once transcend and include his biography. 

You don’t forget who Eastman is in these moments. You bring his selves, along with your own, right into the numinous.