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Timeline: Julius Eastman Part 2 - Fierce Black Queen Iconoclast

The ensemble Wild Up used this image as the cover art for their second volume of music devoted to the works of Julius Eastman entitled "Joy Boy."
Wild Up: Julius Eastman Volume 2: Joy Boy
New Amsterdam Records
The ensemble Wild Up used this image as the cover art for their second volume of music devoted to the works of Julius Eastman entitled "Joy Boy."

This is part two of our series on the life and works of Julius Eastman, a deeply neglected composer of contemporary music in the late 70s and early 80s. In fact, he was almost forgotten. I, myself, had barely heard of Eastman in all my musical studies and he certainly wasn’t on my radar, that is until an email appeared in my inbox.

John: Throughout my life I’ve been an artist and an arts administrator.

James: That’s John Killacky, the Executive Director of the Flynn Center for eight years. These days, he’s a writer. John recently published an article for The Arts Fuse and wrote Timeline to ask if I would like to interview him about it. The piece was titled “Arts Appreciation: Long Overdue – Homage to Julius Eastman, Fierce Black Queen Iconoclast.” With a title like that I had to say yes!

John: I wanted to write this article because I really wanted to talk about the glory of Julius Eastman and not the tragedy of Julius Eastman.

He was quite a figure. In 1976, he was interviewed in the Buffalo Times, and he said his aspiration was “to be what I am to the fullest; Black to the fullest, a musician to the fullest and a homosexual to the fullest.”

James: One of the benefits of talking with someone like John Killacky is that we get to hear about Julius Eastman from a person with first-hand knowledge and not just from a Wikipedia biography. John and Julius’ paths crossed quite often.

John: I would see Julius a lot in New York in the 70s. I would see him at performances. I lived across the street from Meredith Monk at the time and he was working with Meredith on a piece called Doimen Music. So, I knew the placid side of Julius Eastman. And then I would see him at gay clubs, and he was this outrageous, out-sized persona at the clubs.

He had a lot of issues going on in his life. He struggled economically to make a living. He struggled with substance use disorders. Somewhere in the mid-80s he was evicted from his apartment for nonpayment of rent. The tragedy there was they took all of his scores, and he was a very prolific composer, all of his notes and threw them out on the curb and Julius said “Oh, I don’t need them anymore” and walked away. Sadly, he died in 1990 homeless and completely forgotten. Now decades later there’s been this resurgent interest in him, and I’m so thrilled about that.

James: In 2005, a composer friend of Eastman’s, Mary Jane Leach released a set of archived recordings of Julius Eastman’s music titled “Unjust Malaise” and in 2015 Leach wrote a book called Gay Guerrilla: The Life and Music of Julius Eastman. “Gay Guerrilla” is the title of one of Julius’ more notorious pieces.

John: “Who was this guy?” There weren’t any scores left, but people had played this music. So, they started reconstructing some of the scores from archival tapes of the music.

James: In our next episode, we’ll hear from composer and Vermont native Mary Jane Leach and talk about her efforts to rediscover the music of Julius Eastman. It’s a fascinating story. Join us 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.