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Timeline: Julius Eastman Part 6 - Organic Music

This is a manuscript excerpt of the symphony "Femenine" by Julius Eastman. Eastman called his compositional technique "organic music" in which material would build on top of itself, adding new notes and rhythms as the piece progresses.
Wild Up / used with permission
This is a manuscript excerpt of the symphony "Femenine" by Julius Eastman. Eastman called his compositional technique "organic music" in which material would build on top of itself, adding new notes and rhythms as the piece progresses.

James: We’re at part six of our ten-part series exploring the life, work and influence of composer Julius Eastman. We’ve talked a lot about Eastman’s past and personality, in this episode we’ll focus on his music.

Early in his career, Eastman had made a name for himself as a performer of other people’s music. He was invited to join the Creative Associates, an avant-garde Classical music program at SUNY Buffalo’s Center for the Creative and Performing Arts. He had a financial stipend with very few strings attached and began creating his own works.

You may remember Mary Jane Leach from earlier in this series. She’s a composer whose work has brought Eastman’s music to a new generation and really followed the changes in Eastman the man, and his music.

Mary Jane: He started taking more charge of his pieces. He just was much more specific about what he wanted.

James: Eastman caught the attention of other composers as well like Kyle Gann, who wrote for The Village Voice in the late 80s and 90s. Kyle says Eastman’s works were pretty radical for the times.

Kyle: You know, there was a tremendous, tremendous wall between pop and classical music at that time. You could not cross that line. Julius brought a pop sensibility into minimalism earlier than anybody else would have dared do it.

James: Author John Killacky, says Eastman’s music especially stood out because it was 1976. It was a different musical era then.

John: …and if you think about the kind of new music scene in New York back then. It was Philip Glass, wonderful, Steve Reich. But they're minimalism was kind of a cool, detached, mathematically precise building into their crescendos and everything had kind of a balance to it. So Julius and his pieces at that same time in his 70s, he had these four grand pianos pounding, pounding at each other in the pieces or 10 cellos. And it wasn't minimalism. I mean, it was at that beginning time that that was happening, but he had a fire in it that was quite different.

James: What made Eastman’s music different from his contemporaries? Well, let’s start with how Eastman characterized his own work. He used the term “organic music” to describe his compositional technique.

Julius: What I call, make “organic music.” That is to say, the third part of any part, the third measure, or the third section, the third part, has to contain all of the information of the first two parts, and then go on from there.

Kyle: You know, minimalism was about slow change. Julius' organic idea was that you would play some material, then you would play some more material with it that would contain the old material. And then you would go on and play something that contained that material.

Mary Jane: It is very organic, because when you start dealing with a harmonic series, or things like that, there's something very basic that I think people respond to. It’s almost visceral, in a way.

Kyle: And some of his music, which was very strange, it was that he would start out very, very tonal. And by 20 minutes into the piece, you'd be playing all 12 pitches at once, or you'd be playing 12 different keys at the same time. Despite the pop sensibility, he wrote a lot of chaos. And he would let the chaos evolve gradually out of the opening, very simple material.

James: This concept of “organic music” brings to mind the image of a fractal, repeated patterns that evolve and shift with infinite complexity defined by simple rules. That's why so many ensembles and bands are being drawn to Eastman’s music; there's always something new to discover.

Richard: The way that different groups are really taking the works and making them individual.

James: That’s Richard Valitutto from the new music ensemble Wild Up.

Richard: I think one of the first examples of that was the Horse Lords recording of “Stay On It,” the jazz quartet. Which it is, in my opinion, they play the work in a way that not a lot of arrangements will necessarily play the capital W work.

John: It's so interesting, because you hear the infusion of the sounds and building on the sounds into words, but you also hear this inflection and this beat that goes into it, and then it becomes very propulsive, you know, moving forward and very joyful, just very joyful.

James: There’s life and joy in so much of Julius’ music. However, some of his titles say something else entirely. In our next episode we’ll ask what’s in a name? Stay with 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.