Markus Müller on
— Julius Eastman
— and Mathieu Kleyebe Abonnenc
Julius Eastman is one of the most well known mysteries in modern American music. Classically trained at Ithaca College and the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia he made his debut as a pianist at New York’s Town Hall in 1966. In 1970 he joined the Center for the Creative and Performing Arts at SUNY Buffalo and met Petr Kotik, with whom he co-founded the S.E.M. Ensemble. The S.E.M. Ensemble quickly established itself as one of the foremost international interpreters of contemporary music and performed a wonderfully heterogeneous mix of music by composers that were both new and established in a quite polarized environment. In addition to New School/Old School representatives like John Cage, Morton Feldman or Earle Brown the S.E.M. in its first concert ever introduced Cornelius Cardew’s Treatise. A graphic musical score comprising 193 pages of lines, symbols, and various geometric or abstract shapes, Treatise undermines the traditional hierarchy that separates the role of composer from that of performer; Treatise positions itself at the center of the convergence of the Jazz and Classical Music worlds. Consequently S.E.M. also represented compositions by African American composers and improvisers like Muhal Richard Abrams, Roscoe Mitchell, Leroy Jenkins, and Henry Threadgill, in addition to Julius Eastman’s work. This is remarkable in so far as African Americans were generally underrepresented in any classical and experimental musical setting beginning in the early 70’s and documented (involuntarily) by the programs of festivals such as the New Music America events in the 1980s and 90s1.
In 1973 Eastman sang the lead in the recording of Peter Maxwell Davis’ Eight Songs for a Mad King, which made his beautifully elegant yet brassy 5-octave baritone internationally recognized. After this, his singing was in demand and he collaborated with Meredith Monk on a number of her productions, as heard, for example, on the first recording of Dolmen Music (1981) for ECM Records. By the beginning of the 80s Eastman had composed a handful of piano pieces as well as Stay on It (1973) for voice, clarinet, two saxophones, violin, piano and percussion, 440 (1973) for voice, violin, viola and double bass, Femenine (1974) for chamber ensemble, and the sensationally dynamic and poignantly titled If You’re So Smart, Why Aren’t You Rich? (1977) for violin, two French horns, four trumpets, two trombones, tuba, piano, two chimes, and two basses.
Stay on it is usually considered to be Eastman’s best-known work. And it is quite understandable how a piece that was composed and presented with such enthusiastically upbeat drive could make an impact on the dry, austere, sincere, no frills-beginnings of minimalism. Stay on it predates both Steve Reich’s Music for 18 musicians and Philip Glass’s Music in Twelve Parts, and certainly foreshadows the minimal-musicpop-amalgamation of the later 80’s and early 90’s that led from Kraftwerk’s Autobahn (1974), Manuel Göttsching’s seminal E2-E4 (1984) via Juan Atkins and Derek May to the minimal techno of Basic Channel and Wolfgang Voigt.
Apropos dryness, beginning in 1979, Eastman composed a trilogy of pieces for four pianos entitled Evil Nigger (1979), Gay Guerrilla (c. 1980), and Crazy Nigger (c. 1980). According to Kyle Gann’s liner notes for the one and only (posthumous) commercial recording of Eastman’s work to date,2 the concert for the only recording of these riotously reclaiming and redefining titles at Northwestern University on January 16, 1980 was met by concern and censorship, so much so that the provocative titles of the compositions were not printed in the program. To rephrase Carlo Levi’s book title, it was if Richard Pryor stopped in Chicago. The collision of radical black power and gay rights responses to political oppression made clear Eastman’s interest in expanding the boundaries of music beyond the radicality of form into the inscription of subjectivity.The overtly titled compositions were spiked with such irony and bitter wit, as if they were obviously informed by Pryor’s drawing of a thin line between parody and tragedy. One could also possibly point out that such irony, was anathema in a New Music context that had taken in the Adornian critique of anything mass — or pop cultural. The music world, in other words, was not ready for Eastman’s radical contemporaneity. The dire consequence was that the “damned outrageous”3 one did not quite find a professionally sustainable footing in neither the performance nor the academic circles of his times.
Suffice it to say that the consequences of the Thatcher-Regeanite recalibration of the State’s support for the arts did not really help the programmers and the institutions that were dedicated to presenting the new and oftentimes commercially unsuccessful artistic contributions from the forefront of creative practice. And even though Eastman’s relationship with alternative spaces like The Kitchen in New York, where George Lewis programmed both Crazy Nigger (Febuary 1980) and The Holy Presence of Jeanne d’Arc (1981), clearly shows that he was not only very wellconnected but also highly regarded by some of the most prominent representatives of the alternative New York scene of the early 80’s (Eastman’s assistants for the performance of Crazy Nigger included Wharton Thiers, Glenn Branca, Yasunao Tone amongst others). However, Eastman’s connections, as well as his expanding œuvre did not translate into a stable economic reality for him. His increasingly desperate impoverishment led to his homelessness he was evicted from his flat in the early 80s. He lived for a time in the drug-infested environment of the Tompkins Square Park in New York’s notoriously public homeless scene in the mid- 80’s. Eastman died under unknown circumstances in late 1990 and his first obituary was published only eight months after his death4.
Thanks to the persistence of a handful of enthusiasts, the work of Julius Eastman has ever so slowly, been made available in different formats and on different platforms. Foremost amongst the composer ’s supporter is the incredible dedication of Mary-Jane Leach5 a composer and performer who has managed to preserve the remaining remnants of Eastman’s musical legacy and cared for what survived his eviction.
In the last several years, Mathieu Kleyebe Abonnenc, the young, Paris-based French artist has engaged Eastman’s work at the level of a critical resuscitation of the composer’s late 1970s and early 1980s piano quartet trilogy. Abonnenc’s interest in Eastman’s work began when he first read about Eastman in an inf lammatory essay by Stacy Hardy that was published in 2007 in the South-African magazine Chimurenga. After reading Hardy’s essay he contacted her and thus began the process of excavating the theoretical and practical possibilities of performing the Nigger Series. The result was a presentation of a truncated version in a monographic exhibition by Abonnec at Le Plateau in Paris in 2010. However, an invitation to participate in La Triennale 2012, offered a second opportunity for the full realization of the full scope of the entire pieces presented live in the cavernous rotunda of Palais de Tokyo. Together with Jean-Christophe Marti, who is conducting the Nigger Series at La Triennale 2012: Intense Proximity, Abonnenc developed a way to turn Eastman’s scores, which are very much based on improvisations of the performer, into approximations of what Eastman had done with them in the course of his own performances. The fact that Abonnenc and his co-conspirers have performed the single parts of the trilogy eleven times in the course of La Triennale 2012: Intense Proximity, and will perform the totality in one sitting on the last day of the exhibition sounds a bit unreal given that these piano quartets might have received less than five public performances since they were composed 33 years ago.
The defining, almost overwhelming visual component of Abonnenc’s presentation are the four grand pianos (looking like the ultimate hyper-bourgeois, four-leaf clover sculpture) centered in the cavernous Agora of the Palais de Tokyo. The combination of the lacquered pianos set in the Tarkowskian post-industrial roughness of the architectural program of Anne Lacaton and Jean-Phillipe Vasall present an uncanny contrast to the structure of the music. Four grand pianos are a rare sight anywhere. And even though there is a tradition of the use of this high culture-symbol in the visual arts (think about Beuys or Allora and Calzadilla) rarely are four of them ever presented in an exhibition context. When not being played one possible reaction to the sight is to ask oneself whether they might be actually played at all. One should also keep in mind that even in its natural habitat, the concert hall, the grand piano might be doubled every once in a while, but four of them are not that common at all (Actually the only other composition I can think of right now, also from 1979, is Simeon ten Holt’s Canto Ostinato).
Once the pianos spring to life, once played, they certainly do fill a room that is much larger than just the Agora. They turn into a physical net of ostinato sounds thrown out to haul the visitors/listeners in.
Eastman’s music and especially the Nigger Series is quite a force of nature: minimalism is vamped up by stomping boogie down-riffs, with injections of the mega-Lutheran “A Mighty Fortress is Our God” (at the end of Gay Guerrilla).
This music swings in glistening, crystal-clear overtones that remind one as much of John Cale’s collaborations with Tony Conrad, as of the English post-punk industrial rhythm inferno of 23 Skidoo or Wolfgang Voigt’s Studio 1 from 1995. The music is demanding and exhilarating, and asks for the maximum physical charge from both the performers and the instruments: the ostinato hammering of Evil Nigger leaves the listener wanting for more, and the instruments in need of tuning. Eastman said that these pieces evolve organically, meaning that phrases are added onto phrases, repeated figures or notes appear every ninety seconds in the case of Crazy Nigger, and Kyle Gann has described the “organic forms” quoting Eastman, as forms “…in which every phrase contains the information of the phrase before it, with new material gradually added in and old material gradually removed: minimalism’s additive process expanded to the level of phrase structure.”6 The very difference between “classical” methods of minimalism and serialism, and Eastman’s approach lies in his all-encompassing ability to include not just hints, but rather tsunamis of the contemporary pop context, as for instance the heavy-metal tinged riffs that are part of the The Holy Presence of Joan d’Arc. Those riffs do make one want to head-bang when listening to the piece. In a similar fashion, the musical references in the four pianos in the Nigger Series recall Jerry Lee Lewis and Mal Waldron’s blues runs and nod to the chimes of La Monte Young’s The Well-Tuned Piano (1964). Only ten years later the people might have danced to it.
Get ready for the dance-floor now!
- 1. See George Lewis: A Power Stronger Than Itself. The AACM and American Experimental Music. Chicago, London 2008, p. 387f.
- 2. Kyle Gann: “Damned Outrageous”: The Music of Julius Eastman in: Julius Eastman: Unjust Malaise, New World Records, New York 2005
- 3. see above
- 4. Kyle Gann: that which is fundamental, Julius Eastman 1940 – 1990 in: Village Voice, New York 1991
- 5. http://www.mjleach.com/eastman.htm
- 6. Kyle Gann; Damned Outrageous, see above