Contemporary music, like dance, has often been created in collaboration with its performers; composers have conveyed their ideas through a mix of graphic notations and verbal instructions. A historical performance can be re-created with a good degree of accuracy if both a score and a recording survive. If only one or the other is available, then performers can take some interpretive liberties. If neither exists, the work is gone.
These are the conditions that those interested in the work of Julius Eastman (1940–1990) must contend with. A prodigious talent as a pianist and singer, Eastman studied composition at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, wrote for and played with the renowned SEM Ensemble at the University of Buffalo, and was active in New York’s performance scene in the late 1970s and early ’80s. But when he was evicted from his East Village apartment in 1982, many of his scores were discarded. The traces of his life and work are scattered across institutions and among family, friends, and collaborators. Major efforts have been made to recover his output in the last fifteen years: Unjust Malaise, a three-disc set of recordings, was released in 2005, and Gay Guerrilla, a collection of essays about his work, came out in 2015. As a resident at the Philadelphia music nonprofit Bowerbird in 2014, filmmaker Tiona Nekkia McClodden began a research project on the composer that yielded a performance series and an exhibition that took place at Bowerbird in May 2017 and traveled to the Kitchen this winter.
The exhibition consisted of two parts: “A Recollection” featured archival materials, while “Predicated” was an imagined retrospective. Responsive to the interdisciplinary energy of the downtown scene, Eastman made paintings and films, but none of them survive, so McClodden assembled fourteen new and recent works meant to evoke his spirit. Some of the former were direct responses to the commission: Kameelah Janan Rasheed, for instance, produced a scorelike wall installation with a stripe of black paint as a staff and paper cutouts bearing time stamps like those that Eastman used in his notation. Other pieces were more atmospheric, such as a swath of canvas that McClodden had seen lying on the floor of Ash Arder’s Detroit studio, where it had collected the residue of the artist’s process, which involves harvesting fiber from stinging nettles. The object had the air of a funeral shroud. In a tour of the show, McClodden said it spoke to themes of embodiment and loss present in Eastman’s work.
These pieces were interspersed with projections of old snapshots of Eastman and friends, new photographs that McClodden took in Buffalo and elsewhere while conducting research, and scores and program notes. These snippets of information were displayed primarily in video montages, where they moved too quickly for viewers to get more than a vague impression of what they were. The result was a presentation of the fact of research, not findings that viewers could learn from. Moreover, the radically divergent agendas of the exhibition’s two parts—fidelity to sources on one hand and curatorial fantasy on the other—mystified rather than clarified Eastman’s work. The combination didn’t make him any easier to see.
But the accompanying performance program let us hear him. It was organized to exceed the commonplace notion of Eastman as a Minimalist composer doomed by his blackness and gayness—a reputation arguably reinforced by the solemnity of his best-known pieces, where the hollow, majestic sonorities of octaves and fifths blur into dissonance through the gradual introduction of stepwise motion over hammering rhythms. The series took inspiration from Eastman’s flexibility and openness to collaborative experimentation. Dustin Hurt, the director of Bowerbird, scored Gay Guerrilla (1979), written for multiple pianos, for an ensemble of electric guitars, and conducted two pieces written fifteen years apart as a single extended work. Eastman’s versatility was perhaps most evident in the final program, where Trumpet (1971), a piece for seven trumpets, and The Holy Presence of Joan d’Arc (1981), for ten cellos, bookended Macle (1970), a vocal quartet with Cagean allowances for improvisation. The singers belted out bits of pop songs, shared personal anecdotes, and ran through the lobby of the Kitchen, while also exploring the range of extended vocal techniques—howls, shrieks, whispers, warbles—that Eastman himself used as a performer.
The series began with Jeremy Toussaint-Baptiste and LaMont Hamilton’s synthesizer rendition of Evil Nigger (1979), one of Eastman’s most famous works for piano ensemble. In five performances over the course of a day, they delivered its minor-mode grandeur as a dancer appeared to exorcise the pathos of Eastman’s life. It was a tribute made with the same humility and fervor that Eastman expressed in his dedication for The Holy Presence of Joan d’Arc: “Dear Joan,” he wrote in the program notes, “This work of art, like all works of art in your name, can never and will never match your most inspired passion. . . . But I offer it none the less. I offer it as a reminder to those who think that they can destroy liberators by acts of treachery, malice, and murder.”