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Timeline: Julius Eastman Part 8 - Songbooks

Early in his career, Julius Eastman was a part of several new music ensembles performing the works of other composers, like John Cage.
Mary Jane Leach
used with permission
Early in his career, Julius Eastman was a part of several new music ensembles performing the works of other composers, like John Cage.

DBR: Julius Eastman was a proud, gay, Black man, composer, pianist, inventor I would say in the model of John Cage, who apparently did not like Julius Eastman.

James: That’s the voice of Daniel Bernard Roumain or DBR, who spoke with us in our last episode. That comment he just made about John Cage not liking Julius Eastman is something that came up in almost all of the conversations I’ve had about Eastman. Including one with John Killacky, the author of a recent article about Eastman.

John: There's this great story of when John Cage was doing something and Julius was in residence with the SEM music ensemble.

Mary Jane: In 1975, there was a “June in Buffalo” festival. I think it was the first one...

James: This is Mary Jane Leach, a composer whose work has kept the music of Eastman alive.

Mary Jane: John Cage's Songbooks was programmed; the SEM ensemble had performed that before and Cage loved the performance. So he wanted to know if they would do it again. One of the strictures of the piece was that they couldn't rehearse and they couldn't confer with each other about what they were doing.

Kyle: Well, Songbooks is this big theater piece and it was in a large hall.

James: That’s Kyle Gann, a composer and writer for The Village Voice in the late 80s and 90s. Kyle was in attendance for this performance of Cage’s work. Songbooks is a collection of short pieces, some involve music, instruments and electronics, others are theatrical instructions or suggestions.

Kyle: There were different performers all over the place, so there was no one center of attention. Until Julius started taking somebody's clothes off.

John: Cage’s instructions were “in a situation provided with maximum amplification, no feedback, perform a disciplined action, with any interruptions, fulfilling in whole or in part, an obligation to others.”

Mary Jane: So he gave a lecture on sex.

John: Julius has, I think, a white man that I think he was dating at the time and then a Black woman and invite them to come up on stage…

Kyle: …and undressed the young man on stage tried to undress the woman and she resisted and he didn't do it.

John: He started camping it up, the SEM musicians all started improvising, and doing this whole kind of crescendo of stuff.

Kyle: And, you know, the performance went on after that, nothing ground to a halt. There were still other performers going on that we eventually returned our attention to.

John: The next day, Cage was pounding his fist on the podium deck railing against it.

Mary Jane: And Cage was just furious.

Kyle: He did get angry, he pounded his fist on the piano. I think he resented Julius bringing it out and making a thing out of it, and resented Julius using one of his pieces to draw attention to himself.

Mary Jane: I mean, Julius was always trying to be provocative, sexually. But I think that in a way he was also pointing out that if you don't take charge of your material, you know, don't complain about the results that you get.

John: Well, actually, he did exactly what you asked him to do in his own way.

Mary Jane: And, to me, that was the big lesson from that, it's not that he was trying to rile up Cage. I think he was just pointing out musically, the fallacy of just giving freehand to people.

Kyle: I got the impression by that point, Julius wanted to be doing his own music and seemed to not want to be doing Cage's pieces anymore.

James: Kyle’s impression rings true. After that performance with the SEM ensemble Eastman really did focus on the composition and performance of his own material with some success. So, why is it that so many of us know the name, John Cage but not the name Julius Eastman? Why does one composer get to be remembered, and not another? In our next episode we’ll take a look at the Classical canon, the collection, the repertoire of works that we study and perform in common practice and ask where does a composer like Eastman fit into this paradigm? 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.