Timeline: Julius Eastman Part 10 - The Holy Presence
James: This is our final episode in our ten-part series on the life, music and legacy of composer Julius Eastman. Over the course of ten episodes, we’ve talked about art, race, sexuality, expression, and who gets to be in the classical canon. As we wrap up this discussion we remember Julius Eastman separate from his musical legacy, Eastman the person. And hear some stories told by the people who knew him.
John: Meredith Monk told me that after he was just living on the street, he would show up at odd times and she said, “Okay, I’ll feed you.” And she said that they would sit down after dinner and they would play four-handed piano, and one night sang the Henry Purcell songbook.
James: That’s John Killacky. John wrote an article for The Arts Fuse on Eastman back in July of 2022. It sparked this entire project
John: Molissa Fenley, the choreographer, who in 1986 was commissioned to do a piece at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, and she commissioned Philip Glass to do a section and Julius Eastman to do a section of the piece. It was called Geologic Moments. Well, Julius, at this time was homeless. And so Melissa would have to call his brother, who's a jazz musician, who lived in Brooklyn, to find out where Julius was to remind his brother, find him so he could show up at rehearsal. Julius didn't have a piano to rehearse with, right? They would sneak him into the second theater, so the stage crew didn't know about it and would play for hours. He would sit there and play on the piano for hours. He would sleep backstage and so she would wake him up for the performance. And then, once the performance started, he played piano and he sang. He was ferocious. He was unbelievable. He was brilliant, she said; this whole other side of him that was fully alive came on stage.
Mary Jane: He and I were hired to be vocalists for this theater piece.
James: This is Mary Jane Leach, a composer friend of Eastman’s.
Mary Jane: I think it was like a 10am rehearsal or something like that and it was just him and me and the composer. He walks in wearing black leather and chains, with a scotch in his hands. And I’m going, you know, I thought I was like, somewhat cool, but he just kind of left you in the dust.
Kyle: I think he did want to kind of put his own identity in people’s faces and make the public deal with things that classical music audiences usually don’t have to deal with.
James: That’s Kyle Gann, he was a music critic for The Village Voice back in the late 80s and 90s.
Kyle: I’m afraid he kinda gets the public image of sort of a wild man and he wasn’t. He was very gentle. He had this wonderful deep voice. He was easy to talk to. I enjoyed his company.
James: Mary Jane remembers when Eastman was evicted from his apartment in New York City. And she says even while living in the park, he found a way to take care of others.
Mary Jane: Everybody goes, “Oh poor Julius.” But, all these friends went to his rescue and they raised money so he could pay his back rent. And he turned around and gave it to somebody else and said, “Well, he needs it more than I need it.”
James: This selfless behavior was the hallmark of Eastman’s last years.
Mary Jane: He went to the men’s shelter on third street and, you know, washed their feet and clipped their toe nails. So it has that sort of messianic kind of feel to it.
James: Actions like this were evidence of Eastman’s beliefs. He was a student of all religions and well-versed in many different philosophies. When Eastman walked away from his work, his scores, his belongings after being evicted, he also walked away from a quote/unquote “normal” life. He seemed to be rejecting the expectations of others and starting his own path.
Mary Jane: One of the things that has stuck with me was when I talked to his mother. His mother said he didn’t even like to be touched as a baby. I mean, have you ever heard of a baby or an infant that didn’t want to be touched? To me that just sets the whole course of his life, you know, he’s the center of attention but he’s also unavailable and untouchable in a way. And he was the master of his destiny.
James: For years after his death, Eastman's music, and humanity remained invisible, alongside too many marginalized, forgotten or ignored voices in the classical world. But these days, Julius Eastman is getting his due. His name is celebrated, and his music is touching a new generation.
I’m James Stewart, thanks for listening and remember to follow the Timeline.
Special thanks to Myra Flynn for help in editing this entire series for Timeline.