Julius Eastman – Femenine (2016)
This is a moment of dreams. The emergence of a long lost and otherwise unavailable recording by Julius Eastman. Arguably the most important composer to come to prominence during the second half of the 1970’s and early 80’s – unquestionably the most neglected. Eastman was Black, queer, aggressive, flamboyant, brilliant, strung-out, and unapologetic. In the eyes of all but a few, everything about him was wrong.
His tale is of highs and lows – from unquestionable genius, to the victim of America’s worst drug epidemic, shackled with all the seeds of racism and neglect that our country sows. Eastman was a child prodigy. From the moment he placed his hands at the piano, he could bend it to his will. Though historically regarded as a composer, beginning his creative life as a member of Creative Associates – a group of experimental composers that included Morton Feldman, Lukas Foss, and Pauline Oliveros, during his lifetime he was regarded as a stronger pianist and vocalist, performing in multiple ensembles, most notably S.E.M (which he helped found), as well as with Pierre Boulez, Meredith Monk, and Arthur Russell, among others.
Details of Eastman’s life are difficult to stitch together. During the 1970’s he maintained a balancing act as a darling of the avant-garde, and an uncompromising thorn in its side. Classical music, no matter how progressive, has always had an orthodoxy – a set of rules, behaviors, and practices, which could ultimately be defined as White and heteronormative. Two roles that Eastman could never play. He was as vocal about being Black as he was Gay. Most narratives mention his “difficult” personality, and “self-sabotage.” I suspect that race and sexual orientation had a far greater role in the neglect he suffered (and continues to) than people care to admit. It seems he saw fear in the eyes of the establishment and set to the grind. Eastman rightly understood his job as a challenge to status-quo – an instigator of progress, but he bore the weight of rejection heavily. By early 80’s, after a decade of failed attempts and neglect, he suffered the consequence by succumbing to addiction – the most dire result of which was the eviction from his home, and subsequent loss of his scores. From this point, the last seven years of his tale are largely blank. Sometime between 1983 and 1990 he quietly made his way to to Buffalo where he died alone at the age of 49.