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Timeline: Julius Eastman Part 9 - Righting the Canon

The classical canon heavily favors white, European men. What would it take to "right" the canon and make room for more diverse voices and composers?
Public Domain/Chris Rusiniak
used with permission
The classical canon heavily favors white, European men. What would it take to "right" the canon and make room for more diverse voices and composers?

This whole project was sparked by an article written by John Killacky entitled “Arts Appreciation: Long Overdue – Homage to Julius Eastman, Fierce Black Queen Iconoclast.

John: You know, perhaps he was so overlooked in his day because of the systemic racism that has been in our classical music fields. The mainstream music world didn't know what to do with him. Suddenly, I think the music world is trying to “right” the canon.

James: The Classical canon is a collection of pieces that are the most often played and studied; sort of like the greatest hits of classical music. It’s a curated list of quote/unquote “important” pieces, composers and works. This curation started in the 19th century and the list heavily favors white, European men. When John says “right” the canon, he’s referring to “right” r-i-g-h-t; making room in this list of important works for diverse voices and composers.

Richard: In the attempts to “right” the cannon in both senses of the word, we must then acknowledge that the canon is indeed constructed.

James: That’s Richard Valitutto, the pianist and keyboardist for the new music group Wild Up. So far Wild Up has released two volumes of a seven volume recording project dedicated to the music of Julius Eastman. And we’re lucky to be hearing from Richard. Since we last spoke to Wild Up, back in episode four, their Eastman recordings have been nominated for multiple Grammy awards.

Richard: There’s a number of performers who are taking his work and really, really stretching it creatively and it’s really amazing to see. I don’t know how much that’s actually contributing to the canonization of Julius Eastman.

Christopher: Part of it for me at the beginning was what if Eastman could join the canon?

James: This is the artistic director and conductor of Wild Up, Christopher Rountree.

Christopher: But immediately, the first question is, do you think he would want to be in the canon? Do you think that that's a goal? I think it's a really, really good question.

Kyle: You know, as a music professor, I need a canon just as a basis. The current canon is more full of holes than Swiss cheese.

James: This is Kyle Gann, a professor and composer who was also the new music critic for The Village Voice in the late 80s and 90s.

Kyle: The canon needs to be shaken up continually, and should not be thought of as a kind of permanent thing as we often think of it. There's a lot of music in the canon that I would love to get rid of. There’s a lot of people greatly overvalued, a lot of other people unjustly forgotten. What's important is that we hear the best music and the best music often doesn't make it into the canon, or some of the best music doesn’t, and for stupid, contingent reasons.

Richard: Yeah, the canon has its issues and I kind of just worry what happens if Eastman is brought into the canon but only through this very small percentage of his work that happens to be a little closer to the works that the classical music establishment does.

James: What Richard says here, about who gets to be in the classical music canon, brings to mind an article I read by musician Jace Clayton about the current resurgence of interest in Eastman’s music entitled “Reverence Is a Form of Forgetting”. Clayton says quote: “First, we have to leave behind any idea of progress in canonizing Eastman… Alongside the positive enthusiasm about reconsidering Eastman lies a certain amount of performative wokeness. Eastman’s face provides great optics to advertise an otherwise staid concert series’ upcoming season. Reviving an “unjustly malaised,” Black, gay, talent, who is no longer able to speak back to our many uses of him, confers a kind of sideways ethical blessing on all involved. But Eastman didn’t die for our historiographic sins. He died unsung. Who are we missing, now?”

Christopher: To take one of the works on, you have to spend many hours having discourse about what it means. You can't just sit down and have it work. Because it's about discourse, and it's about agency. So the only way to not disenfranchise this composer is to give a lot of time.

Richard: And I'm curious to see in the attempts to “right” the cannon, in both senses, with regard to Eastman, maybe that will fail, but in the best possible sense. We think what should happen is this thing over here with like, “Yay, we get to put his picture up next to all these other ones!” and what will in fact happen is maybe that shelf with all those photos on it will be completely torn down and replaced with a new.. something that holds all of these great experiences and music in a different way.

James: In our next episode we’ll tear down the shelf and wrap up our series on Julius Eastman – the human and hear personal stories told by the people that knew him. 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.