- Assembling, Flaming, Ringing:Listening to Julius Eastman's Gay Guerrilla
julius eastman was a Black gay composer, pianist, vocalist, conductor, and dancer. Born in Harlem in 1940 , eastman trained classically in piano and composition at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. After graduating in 1966, he joined Creative Associates at suny Buffalo in 1968, one of the hotbeds for the new music scene in the United States under the direction of lukas foss, and began to frequently perform and compose theatrical, electroacoustic, and improvisation-heavy chamber music works with the S.E.M. Ensemble. In 1973, eastman rose to national prominence as a performer for his virtuosic vocal performance on a Grammy-nominated recording of peter maxwell davies 's Eight Songs for a Mad King, and in that same year he premiered a minimalist chamber composition with S.E.M. Ensemble entitled Stay On It, which prefigured many of the encounters between minimalism and popular music that took hold later in the decade. In 1976, he relocated to New York City, where he traversed the downtown, uptown, disco, and new music scenes—performing with composer-choreographer meredith monk, collaborating with cellist and disco producer-songwriter arthur russell, appearing frequently at the performance and new music venue [End Page 351] The Kitchen, and playing in jazz combos with his guitarist brother gerry eastman. Eastman also became deeply enmeshed in the Manhattan queer scene during this time, with reports that he sometimes went by the nickname "Mr. Mineshaft" (after the notorious gay leather bar and sex club on Little West 12th Street). 1
Throughout his career, Eastman theorized his own compositional practice as operating under an "organic principle," meaning that his pieces took on a structural logic of accumulation. 2 In many of Eastman's compositions, musical phrases never simply replace other musical phrases as the piece unfurled in time; instead phrases and motifs persist dissonantly even as new material is introduced on top of and around them. The past of Eastman's pieces piles up even as new sounds are introduced. No musical material ever disappears; it is only buried. By calling his compositional technique "organic," Eastman evokes life cycles, chemical transformations, and the ecological returns of rotting matter; and yet Eastman's compositions also sound like history to me: slow and heavy, repetitive and yet morphing as they accumulate. Melody and harmony become texture in Eastman's gradually mutating blocks of sound. The formal structures that undergird Eastman's compositions are audible—an additive structure slowly being built and breaking down simultaneously under its own weight, older material sonically covered over by the accretion of new material. Eastman created musically violent structures that resonated critically with the structural violence he navigated throughout his life. By 1979, Eastman was touring his formally insurgent works across the United States and Europe, often challenging the division of labor between the composer and the performer by performing his own works and putting his body on the line in an overwhelmingly white
"By calling his compositional technique "organic," Eastman evokes life cycles, chemical transformations, and the ecological returns of rotting matter; and yet Eastman's compositions also sound like history to me: slow and heavy, repetitive and yet morphing as they accumulate." [End Page 352]
and straight new music scene. But by the early 1980s, his trajectory of increasing institutional success despite the institutions' whiteness and heteronormativity seemed to spin out of control. In 1983, he was evicted from his apartment, many of his scores were destroyed in the process, and a hoped-for faculty position at Cornell failed to materialize. This is where things get blurry in the written accounts of Eastman's life. Reportedly, Eastman all but disappeared from the downtown music scene for the next seven years; he developed an intimate relationship with harder drugs, bounced between residing in Tompkins Square Park and shelters in Buffalo, and eventually died in a hospital in Buffalo in 1990 of uncertain causes—perhaps due to complications related to AIDS, perhaps not. What is known by musicologists and music historians is that it took eight months for news of his death to reach colleagues in the Manhattan music world through an obituary...