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Timeline: Julius Eastman Part 1 - Eight Songs

The ensemble Wild Up used this image as the cover art for their first volume of music devoted to the music of Julius Eastman entitled Femenine.
Wild Up: Julius Eastman Volume 1: Femenine
New Amsterdam Records
The ensemble Wild Up used this image as the cover art for their first volume of music devoted to the music of Julius Eastman entitled Femenine.

I was a young undergrad student at conservatory taking a class with a name like “Introduction to Twentieth Century Music,” I can’t remember the exact title. For this class I was required to purchase a book of scores and a CD of recordings featuring pieces by 20th century composers starting with Ravel and Debussy and ending with Monk, Cage and Crumb.

Somewhere in the back of the book was a piece that stood out to me. It was called “Country Dance” from Peter Maxwell Davies’ Eight Songs for a Mad King. The score was handwritten, the staves disconnected and everywhere on the page. There were instructions like “smoochy”, “using cupped hands as a megaphone” and “violin breaks apart."

When I listened to “Country Dance,” I was unprepared for what I heard. Yes, the music was playful and at times unsettling, but the vocal performance was beyond description. Here was a performer that laid everything out there for the audience, almost destroying their voice for the sake of making you laugh, cringe or jump in your seat. That was my first introduction to Julius Eastman.

Like many music students, I barely heard of Eastman when I was in school. Beyond the recording of Eight Songs, all I knew was that Eastman wrestled with addiction, had angry run-ins with other musicians, composers and the police and died penniless and homeless. Julius Eastman’s life was told to me as a cautionary tale. But his music tells a much richer story, and some folks in the classical world are just starting to really hear Eastman for the first time.

In the past couple decades, thanks to new books and releases of archived recordings, there has been a revival of interest in Julius Eastman.

Eastman was one of the first composers that really, we felt we had somehow some kind of kinship.

I think he was a poet. I think he was a philosopher.

He was very gentle. He had this wonderful, deep voice. He was easy to talk to.

In Eastman’s case he was always being consistently provocative in a strategic way.

He just really liked to smash everything, all the time.

Mary Jane:
He manufactured his own destiny, I guess you could say.

We’ll get to know each of those voices as the weeks go on.

On Timeline, we’ll be diving into the music, life and legacy of Julius. We’ll look at his development as a musician and an artist. We’ll talk about his reputation and his struggles with being an openly gay, Black man in the late 70s and early 80s. We’ll discuss the triumph and tragedy and also discuss the place that Eastman’s music has, or should have, in the canon. Of course, that means talking about the very concept of the classical canon itself and who gets to be in it.

Over the coming weeks, we’ll talk with an author of a recent article about Eastman’s life. We’ll meet the individual who is responsible for making Julius’ music available to a new generation, talk with other composers of color who share if their experiences align with Eastman’s, and speak with a new music ensemble that is recording a seven-volume anthology of Julius Eastman’s music in a modern context.

Join us in the coming weeks for this exploration of the life and music of Julius Eastman and follow the Timeline.

Special thanks to Myra Flynn for help in editing this entire series for Timeline.

James Stewart is Vermont Public Classical's afternoon host. As a composer, he is interested in many different genres of music; writing for rock bands, symphony orchestras and everything in between.