on julius eastman’s femenine – issued for the first time by frozen reeds


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.

Though Eastman performed on prominent recordings by Arthur Russell, Morton Feldman, Peter Maxwell Davies, Meredith Monk, and Peter Gordon during his lifetime, the only one issued under his own name was a single track on 1984’s Tellus #4 –  a little know cassette compilation. After that, the first thing to emerge came fifteen years after his death – the striking three CD set of archival recording Unjust Malaise. Though I had been aware of his name in connection to Arthur Russell’s Tower Of Meaning (which he conducted), this was the first time I had heard the remarkable music which he penned and performed. It set forth a longing to hear more. A desire which has largely gone unfulfilled.

Not only is Frozen Reeds’ issue of Femenine the first work unheard work to emerge since the issue of Unjust Malaise in 2010, it is also the first to feature Eastman himself. Beyond its intimate nature and accomplishment, its proximity is fascinating. Eastman is generally placed within a small number of New York composers who inherited the legacy of Minimalism. They are designated as its second wave. What strikes me about Eastman’s work, is how far he pushed beyond what we expect of the idioms structures and tonal relationships. Femenine, recorded in 1974 with the S.E.M Ensemble, finds Eastman’s relationship to the larger cannon of Minimalism more striking than many of his available recordings. Though clearly already pushing forward – exhibiting more complex harmonic relationships, and extended passages, the work is structured around mantra like repetition. Stretching over an hour and twelve minutes, it’s incredible. One of the most beautiful works I’ve heard to date, further complicating our view of history in remarkable ways. A rippling work of profound intellect, this is an album I can’t recommend enough. Though only the third CD in Frozen Reeds’ catalog, it finds itself on a label which takes striking care of the music it places into the world – leaving me anxious for whatever they have to come. Femenine is essential for anyone engaged with the history of the avant-garde. It takes great steps toward correcting history’s sins, and bringing the remarkable voice of Eastman back to our ears. It also includes liner notes by Mary Jane Leach, who some may know for her tireless work tracking down Eastman’s lost scores (she deserves our attention and thanks). The album is out today. I encourage you to pick it up as quickly as you can, and check out the rest of Frozen Reeds’ releases when you do. If you are in the States you can order from Forced Exposure, in Europe from Boomcat or Metamkine. Check out the sample below.

-Bradford Bailey

Femenine (1974)
S.E.M. Ensemble
Recorded live on Wednesday, November 6, 1974 at Composers Forum in Albany, The Arts Center on the Campus of the Academy of the Holy Names, Albany, New York.

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