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Timeline: Julius Eastman Part 7 - What's in a name?

Julius Eastman was an amazingly talented composer and performer who boldly challenged classical and academic system simply with the titles he chose for his pieces.
Ron Hammond
used with permission
Julius Eastman was an amazingly talented composer and performer who boldly challenged classical and academic system simply with the titles he chose for his pieces.

James: This is the seventh of our ten part series about Julius Eastman; a composer whose work has been experiencing a renaissance lately as a new generation is discovering his individual musical style.

John: He wrote these pieces that I kind of called “proto-minimalism,” because they were very different then what Glass and his contemporaries were doing at that time.

James: This is John Killacky, the author of a recent article about Eastman.

John: But he also decided to name these things in very provocative titles.

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

James: That’s Richard Vallitutto, the pianist and keyboardist for Wild Up, a new music ensemble currently working on a seven-volume set of recordings dedicated to the music of Julius Eastman.

Richard: There are these various arcs where there's groups of pieces that are all kind of within a certain, poetic trope. And there was that batch of pieces for a few years where things were highly, highly charged with racial and sexual identification markers.

James: I’ll jump in here to say that I am uncomfortable even reading some of the titles Julius Eastman chose for his pieces, and that’s the point. Eastman wasn’t interested in comfort, which is evident in his use of the “n” word and homophobic slurs. It sometimes caused controversy, like when he performed at Northwestern University in Illinois in 1981.

Kyle: I still had a recording of Julius’ concert.

James: That’s the voice of Kyle Gann, a composer and the new music critic for The Village Voice in the 80s and 90s.

Kyle: He had played three of his multiple piano pieces, two of which use the “n” word in the title and there was naturally some controversy about it.

John: The Black fraternity was outraged.

James: But even then, the stories he told in his music weren’t all ugly.

Mary Jane: There's almost an inverse ratio of provocative and beautiful.

James: This is Mary Jane Leach, a composer, scholar and longtime advocate of Eastman’s music.

Mary Jane: Earlier on, he had kind of beautiful titles, but kind of provocative music. And then, as he progressed, he wrote beautiful music with provocative titles.

Richard: The title and the music work in tandem, to project a singular artistic vision. The titles were censored because of some protests from student groups and the administration ended up censoring his posters. The compromise that they came to was that he would then speak about them.

Kyle: And so he came out and gave a little speech beforehand explaining his benign reasons for using the word.

Julius: I want to say a few words about the music. There was a little problem with the titles of the pieces. There are some students and one faculty member who felt that the titles were somehow derogatory in some manner.

James: So here’s Julius Eastman, this amazingly talented composer and performer who is boldly challenging classical and academic systems. He was forcing conversations of complex issues simply with the titles he chose. It seems that Eastman was more than just a musician…

DBR: I think he was a poet, I think he was a philosopher.

James: This is composer and artist activist, Daniel Bernard Roumain or DBR, who has worked with the music of Julius Eastman for years.

DBR: I think he had real aspiration; frustration and aspiration. I think the thing that we share in common is that our titles suggest a perspective, an opinion, a better world, a landscape. All titles have certain information, all titles. They betray and reveal a certain privilege or posture. So even Sonata #1, you're saying something. All arts are political; all of them. All the arts are. Swan Lake, political, you know, in C, political. I think what Julius Eastman has done is, I see this as a challenge, that the titles challenge us, provide and provoke us, I would say, to a deeper understanding, a kind of intimacy. Hopefully the piece delivers, you know.

James: And that’s the challenge, to sit with the music and the titles and hold the tension of what Eastman is saying as an individual and as an artist. In our next episode we’ll look at how Eastman’s personality affected not just his music but his relationships with other composers. 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.