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Timeline: Julius Eastman Part 5 - Village Voice

Julius Eastman was an openly gay, black composer that died nearly forgotten, penniless and homeless in 1990.
Chris Rusiniak
used with permission
Julius Eastman was an openly gay, Black composer that died nearly forgotten, penniless and homeless in 1990.

James: We’re deep in our series exploring the life and legacy of composer Julius Eastman. We’ve already spoken with authors, composers and musicians who are bringing Eastman’s music and story to a new generation. In this episode, we have the chance to hear more of the story first-hand.

Kyle: You know, I knew Julius. I first heard him when I was an undergrad in 1974.

James: That’s the voice of composer and author Kyle Gann. For 19 years, Kyle was the new music critic for The Village Voice in New York City from 1986 to 2005.

Kyle: The Village Voice was the only publication in the country that had a dedicated critic for just new and experimental music. And, I went to a lot of weird concerts.

James: However, by the time Kyle started at The Voice, Eastman was already invisible.

Kyle: I don't think he had performed since about ‘82, or ‘83, and I joined the voice in ‘86. So, he had kind of disappeared and then in 1989 or 90 just before he died, I saw him in line for tickets at Brooklyn Academy of Music. I was really happy to see him and I was hoping maybe he'd perform again and I'd get to write about him. He died soon after that, no one knew about it. I heard a rumor, and eight months after he died, wrote an obituary about him, which was the first chance I had to write about him at The Voice.

James: So, Julius Eastman dies and the tragedy here is that no one noticed for months.

Kyle: Julius was a really big deal in the downtown New York scene, as were a lot of other composers. All of those composers deserve to be revived.

James: Talking with people who knew Julius, I keep hearing the same stories from different individuals about interactions that Julius had with universities and other composers, but for a lot of it, Kyle was there, in person.

Kyle: I've thought a lot about him over the years. And his energy comes back into my music occasionally. And he did have amazing charisma.

James: Talk to me about his charisma. What made that amazing?

Kyle: It was partly his voice, which was very deep and his manner, which was slow and careful.

Julius: …one can play this piece therefore with just four people.

Kyle: And he would be very direct. If he was attracted to you, he'd say that. He had a real centeredness to him. And he was such an unusual character. He seemed athletic, thin and wiry. You just never met anybody else quite like him.

James: What is bringing about this kind of revival of interest in the music and life of Julius Eastman.

Kyle: Julius’ story really hit people. They really identify with it. He has relevance in a lot of worlds that don't really connect with the classical music world. There's a really good interview that David Garland did with him while Julius was homeless. And he admits “Oh, yeah, I’m living in Tompkins Square Park..” or something. He acts like it's the most normal thing in the world.

James: In our conversation together Kyle mentioned a specific rhythm that he borrowed from Eastman’s music.

Kyle: In “Gay Guerrilla” he has this driving beat, dum-ba-ba-bum-ba-ba-bum-ba-ba-bum, and I’ve included that in two or three pieces as kind of an homage to Julius.

Kyle: It was an aspect of minimalism that you could pick up without being so associated with Glass or Reich, I guess. Glass and Reich might as well have patented their devices, but Julius had these wonderful ideas that you could go and develop.

James: Almost organic, you would say, maybe.

Kyle: Yeah.

James: Eastman did call his work “Organic Music'' and in our next episode we’ll explore that term meant to Julius and to the performers who are realizing his work today. Stay tuned 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.