Those who speak of history’s spiral, warns Ralph Ellison’s invisible man, are about to boomerang you in the back of the head. That novel begins with a solo voice accompanied by a turntable underground. It ends the same way. Of course, a vinyl record is as fine a spiral as there is. Its coil of sound ends in what’s called a runout groove—where the spiraled sound-writing loops back on itself to form a circle. We hear it as silence or quiet skipping. The runout groove creates a suspended time calling the listener to flip the record or restart. Linear time is a sham.
For all his many absences, the composer and musician Julius Eastman has been defined in recent years by a series of ongoing introductions. Each one drops the needle on his historical record in much the same way. We rewind to see what myths of progress skipped over. The excitement with which Eastman is now embraced is a result of healthy enthusiasm, prurient interest, and collective, corrective zeal. In the span of a few years, Eastman has emerged from the shadows into visibility as a secular saint. We converts proselytize and repeat. But what about Eastman as problem? How to harness his antagonistic energy? What if Eastman is not a figure to be celebrated—after all, reverence is a form of forgetting—but a snarl of questions to be asked?
My engagement with Julius Eastman began in 2011, when I created a twelve-minute piece for voice and piano called The Julius Eastman Memorial Dinner. Two years later I debuted a much expanded evening-length version of the performance under the same name, which continues to tour internationally. I also made a related album version called The Julius Eastman Memory Depot. However, back then he was still an obscure figure. This lack of visibility fascinated me—but it all started with a piano.
Performa had commissioned a short radio play from me, to be staged at a venue with a baby grand tucked away in the corner1. While living in Barcelona I’d founded an ensemble called Nettle, dedicated to the interplay between electronic and acoustic soundworlds (e.g., processing a string player’s sounds through my laptop), so this struck me as a perfect opportunity to continue that exploration, focusing now on piano timbres. Writer Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts suggested that I check out the music of Julius Eastman as a possible source. I did and was floored. It was muscular, romantic, delicate, momentous. Many of his works are longform compositions written for multiples of the same instrument, thus insuring that their realization requires a coterie of highly trained performers as well as the financial resources to get, say, four grand pianos in the same room. (This is not inexpensive.) Those pieces were the first I heard. My thrill deepened as I looked over the handwritten scores. Eastman marked precise timings next to particular sections—meticulously organizing sound down to the second. It was incontrovertibly epic.
Yet prior to Sharifa’s tip, I’d never heard of Eastman. He was not present in any of the many cultural histories of New York City in the 1970s and ’80s that I’d encountered. As it turns out, I’d even heard his voice—Eastman’s potent baritone graces Meredith Monk’s Dolmen Music, a longtime favorite—but had no sense of his contexts.2 My surprise was not only about the historical lacunae. Yes, various bigotries influence the way rumor and action condense into accepted narratives. But I understood Eastman’s absence from the historical record as a complex sign of success. He was in-your-face and self-effacing, a composer devoted to bending sound and time into unruly shapes—and, critically, also invested in the agency of (self-)destruction. He had an ambivalent attitude toward institutional acceptance, demonstrated little faith in archival memory. Eastman resisted easy historicization—and suffered the consequences. This is where things got interesting.
Every person is multiple, but Julius Eastman amplified his multitudes by scattering them across enough categories to confuse any logic that might attempt to keep them separate. To take one example, let’s look at how Eastman’s song titles continue to perform this bristling work. Titles such as Nigger Faggot (1978), If You’re So Smart Then Why Aren’t You Rich? (1977), and Crazy Nigger (1980) operate as conceptual artworks. They draw attention to who can say or print them, limit where they can be performed, even dramatize the perceived identities of the musicians performing them. For better or for worse, the spells cast by these words likely had the biggest impact on Eastman himself. More people would have had the opportunity to experience the brilliance of Evil Nigger if Eastman had named it Music for Four Pianos, that’s for sure. These titles were part of his many and varied efforts to frustrate his own institutional legibility.
Eastman’s relationship with the contemporary classical music world was as agonistic as it was intimate. His 1975 performance of a John Cage score is perhaps the best-documented example of this.3 Cage was in the audience. The ordinarily soft-spoken man found Eastman’s onstage proceedings so offensive that the following day he banged on a piano and shouted a public declamation against him. What the avant-garde patriarch John Cage perceived as overt provocation takes on new shades of meaning when one stops to consider that, in many of Eastman’s contexts, the mere presence of black skin and/or open gayness registered as a threat to the status quo. In an early instance of this, Eastman studied composition at Philadelphia’s prestigious Curtis Institute—the conservative institution that had rejected Eunice Waymon a decade prior. Long after she achieved worldwide fame as Nina Simone, she repeatedly discussed the rejection, blaming it on racist hostility towards the simple notion of a classical pianist who happened to be young, gifted, and black.
Back in the 1970s, naming conventions within new music at the time were, as now, respectably vanilla. Brusque self-referentiality was in vogue: The Well-Tuned Piano, Music for Eighteen Musicians, and so on, linguistic versions of the ersatz neutrality of the gallery’s white box. Eastman’s titles did not allow his compositions to exist apart from the messily social world. The music defies all attempts at circumscription, sure as its titles strain against the very idea that a piece of artwork is (only) itself.
How can we think of the space between Eastman’s bristling titles and the instrumental music they name? You can call it the distance between signifier and signified, or the difference between hearing Evil Nigger on the radio (not knowing what you’re listening to), then having the announcer disclose the title. Part of it manifests a spirit of Christian anarchism that runs throughout his work, where gutter/heaven inversions are a key way to challenge worldly values. This can be heard when chords from Martin Luther’s hymn A Mighty Fortress Is Our God come crashing into Eastman’s Gay Guerrilla.
By charging the air around his works, Eastman’s title scoff at the notion of pure formalism or neutral aesthetic choices; not just for his music or his body, but for everyone’s. Eastman understood that one never “hears” music; clear or natural reception is never possible. Music results from listening closely; listening brings to bear extra-musical prejudices and joys in unequal measure; and only by acknowledging our inability to fully listen can one begin to hear anything at all. This is a starting point. And to make it he had to use titles that positioned him on the edge of historical silence.
Evil Nigger and Gay Guerrilla became scripts and commands for The Julius Eastman Memorial Dinner (JEMD) as I developed it in the expanded form. As titles, they still perform the work of problematizing who can speak them, and how. As compositions and performances, they demand that we listen, respond, and shift our understanding of the canon in response—they are that powerful. That said, I didn’t see a point in re-presenting these works. Nor did I want to remix them. The former relies on revival and lineage, the latter is aligned with DJ culture and novelty. JEMD was the first large performance I’d staged under my own name (and not as DJ /rupture) and stepping away from notions of mix/remix were important.
More to the point, neither classical “playback” nor contemporary “remix” felt compatible with what I understood as Eastman’s resistance to standard historicization, and that friction was precisely what I found so kinky about his work. Here was a problematic figure by all accounts. His multi-sited oeuvre doesn’t ask to be accepted in a canon—despite all the championing doing precisely that—it asks that we rethink historiography itself.
Grappling with these issues informed the structure of JEMD. I created theatrical interludes in which I’m being interviewed for a job as a Julius Eastman impersonator (with verbal and musical jokes), wrote a new libretto and song with vocalist Arooj Aftab, and brought in two world-class pianists to perform Evil Nigger and Gay Guerrilla.4 As the pianists do their thing, I take a microphone feed from each piano and route the audio into my laptop, where I morph and otherwise transform it using my own Sufi Plug Ins and an array of third-party software. A listener determined to experience masterful interpretations of Evil Nigger and Gay Guerrilla can certainly get that—but they’ll also get all manner of denaturalized piano sounds from me. As I like to say: at The Julius Eastman Memorial Dinner, pianists David Friend and Emily Manzo provide the music, I provide the problems, and dinner will not be served.
In JEMD the twin pianos are doubled—electronically, asymmetrically. I step inside Eastman’s logic of the multiple and treat it as a site of departure. The twin pianos’ sounds merge with my manipulations to create an organic, if alien, soundfield. I don’t add any external audio; all the material I transform comes, in real time, from the pianos.
JEMD aims to create a constantly shifting soundfield, where interpenetration is the operative procedure. At times, my additions are minimal. For example, in the beginning of Gay Guerrilla I will often pass the sparse staccato piano notes through a cloud of reverb and pitch the resulting ambience up by several tones, so that the rising tension of the piano chords floats atop a musically-related drone bed, which is filtered (to give a shimmering quality to its soft texture) and slowly raised in volume (so that one cannot readily distinguish where the reverberant piano “ends” and the processed sonics begin).
In certain moments, electronics overwhelm the pianos’ audio. One technique I use for coaxing divergent soundworlds from them is called granular synthesis. This involves capturing the incoming audio as tiny slivers of sound (“grains”), which can then be manipulated—frozen, stacked, reordered, and more—in unorthodox ways, live. What emerges can be tonal or organic in feel, but it lends itself to industrial sounds. Each piano gets sent through its own processing pathway (which can be plugged into itself in any number of ways), so at any given moment I can be producing two very different streams of audio.
A British journalist called JEMD “prophetic satire” because it imagines a world in which Eastman fandom is rampant, with lots of corporate sponsorship to boot, while the actual JEMD performances and album helped to spread the composer’s queer gospel. When we began booking the project in 2013, it was impossible to bring to Europe. Nobody had heard of him. In the past three years, his rising recognition changed everything. Now we play in Europe more than in the States. What can we learn from looping back to Eastman now?
First, we have to leave behind any idea of progress in canonizing Eastman. The carefully ordered canon is better thought of as a site to traverse rather than a resting place. Alongside the positive enthusiasm about reconsidering Eastman lies a certain amount of performative wokeness. Eastman’s face provides great optics to advertise an otherwise staid concert series’ upcoming season. Reviving an “unjustly malaised,” black, gay talent, who is no longer able to speak back to our many uses of him, confers a kind of sideways ethical blessing on all involved.5 But Eastman didn’t die for our historiographic sins. He died unsung. Who are we missing, now? How can we support the regular ole crazy niggers and joy boys and gay guerrillas enshrined in his titles? To be unheroic. To be downwardly mobile. To be on the wrong side of history and realize there’s a lot of people beside you, like you, untalented in a million ways. Spotlights create shadows—how to turn off these bright lights?
- See http://11.performa-arts.org/event/performa-radio.
- Eastman forms part of six-person ensemble that performs wordless vocalizations on the title track of Meredith Monk’s 1981 ECM album Dolmen Music. He’s instantly recognizable. Eastman is also credited with percussion.
- There are transcripts of the proceedings, at least one theater play based around the incident, and most useful to my thinking on this issue is Ryan Dahomey’s scholarly article “John Cage, Julius Eastman, and the Homosexual Ego,” in Tomorrow Is the Question: New Directions in Experimental Music Studies, ed. Benjamin Piekut (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 2014). See also https://www.academia.edu/4327444/John_Cage_Julius_Eastman_and_the_Homosexual_Ego.
- Friend and Manzo referenced the Unjust Malaise compilation recordings of performances Eastman led as well as his handwritten scores that, back in 2011, were freely available as PDF scans on Mary Jane Leach’s website. They have since been taken down. Archive and survive.
- Ask not what Julius Eastman can do for you, but what you can do for Julius Eastman.
Jace Clayton, “Reverence Is a Form of Forgetting,” in Creative Black Music at the Walker: Selections from the Archives, ed. Simone Austin and Danielle A. Jackson, Vol. IV of the Living Collections Catalogue (Minneapolis: Walker Art Center, 2020). walkerart.org/magazine/reverence-is-a-form-of-forgetting/
New York–based artist and writer Jace Clayton is also known for his work as DJ /rupture, under which he has released several critically acclaimed albums. Clayton is the author of the book Uproot: Travels in 21st-Century Music and Digital Culture (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016) and the recipient of numerous fellowships and awards. He is currently on the Music/Sound faculty of Bard College’s MFA program.