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Timeline: Julius Eastman Part 3 - Unjust Malaise

Julius Eastman's music was all but forgotten until the release of "Unjust Malaise", a 3 CD set put together by composer and Vermont native, Mary Jane Leach.
Ron Hammond
Wild Up: New Amsterdam Records
Julius Eastman's music was all but forgotten until the release of "Unjust Malaise", a 3 CD set put together by composer and Vermont native, Mary Jane Leach.

We’re focusing on the life and influence of Julius Eastman, a composer who is just now getting his due attention in the classical world. For decades, Julius’ music was all but forgotten; that is until another composer, a friend of Eastman, got involved.

Mary Jane: I just sort of accidentally became a musicologist by collecting all of this work of Julius Eastman’s.

James: This is Mary Jane Leach, a composer, performer, professor and a native Vermonter.

Mary Jane: I was getting ready to teach a course at CalArts. The school had a lot of what I call gadget and computer/electronic music composers. So they said, “We want you to do a course on real instruments.” And so I thought, well, I’ve always been fascinated with multiples of the same instrument, you know like, nine oboes and in Julius’ case it was 10 cellos. I really wanted to use that piece in my class.

James: The piece that Mary Jane is referring to is Julius Eastman’s The Holy Presence of Joan of d’Arc for voice and 10 cellos. It made quite an impression when it premiered in 1981 at The Kitchen, one of New York City’s oldest nonprofit venues

Mary Jane: And, the one thing I never did find was the score, unfortunately. His ex-lover has made a point to tell us or tell people that Julius used to use the pages of his score for that cello piece to line the cat box.

James: So with the score missing, Mary Jane turned to the performers. She tracked down the cellists who had played that piece years ago and it turned out that one of them still had a tape of the performance.

Mary Jane: Bryan Rulon, who was another composer, made me a copy and because it was on cassette it was done in real time. So, as he’s dubbing the cassette, he started telling me about how Julius’ music had disappeared. I sort of thought it was really sad, but I didn’t think a lot about it. But as I was trying to find more of his music, I realized that his music really had, indeed, disappeared.

James: But Mary Jane wasn’t gonna let that happen. In fact, she decided to go deeper into unearthing Julius’ life and background. It wasn’t any easy job culling through old recordings.

Mary Jane: There were some that had been dubbed to cassette and the rest of them were on reel-to-reel and at that time, the reel-to-reel tapes were defective. The plastic and the emulsion had become separated. So, if you tried to play it on a tape machine the emulsion would come off and then you’d just have a piece of plastic. So, the thing is you have to bake them at like 200 degrees and it’s like a one-time solution. You bake them and then you digitize them and then buy more tape. I was so traumatized by that whole process because it just seems guaranteed to get screwed up. I had a dream that I found these bags of Julius’ dirty clothes. I dreamed that I washed them and then I put them in the cassette deck and they played perfectly.

James: Surprisingly, Between found archival tapes at the University of Buffalo and Northwestern University, Mary Jane was able to pull together an impressive collection of Julius’ music. She then set out to share this collection with the world.

Mary Jane: I produced a three CD set called Unjust Malaise, which is an anagram for Julius’ name, and I had produced that for New World and I thought that that would be it. But, it turned out that it wasn’t, because people were interested in it. At that point people would go, “Oh yeah, you know, I knew Julius. Did you ever check out this or check out that?”

James: Unjust Malaise was widely influential and just the beginning of a revival of interest in Eastman’s music. In our next episode we’ll talk with a new music group that just released their second album of a seven volume recording project dedicated to the music of Julius Eastman. We’ll speak with the ensemble and sample their recordings. Stay tuned 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.