Jace Clayton, who usually performs and records as DJ/ rupture, is applying for a job he knows he’s not going to get. He wants to impersonate Julius Eastman, an obscure gay African-American composer, pianist, and vocalist from the late 20th century. Unfortunately, there were a lot of applicants for the position and he just didn’t cut it.
“I am sorry to inform you that you have not been selected for this position. We wish you both personal and professional success in your job search and the future,” says Pakistani musician Arooj Aftab on “Callback for the Society of American Eastman Supporters,” an original composition that closes out Clayton’s recently released album and the first under his own name, The Julius Eastman Memorial Depot. “The Julius Eastman Memorial Dinner is an equal opportunity employer. All candidates will be considered regardless of—” Isolated, dissonant piano chords cut her off before she finishes listing the rest of the employment non-discrimination act in disaffected song.
It’s all just an act, of course. No such position exists and there is no such thing as the Society of American Eastman Supporters. In actuality, The Julius Eastman Memorial Depot is essentially the recorded form of the Julius Eastman Memorial Dinner, a performance piece Clayton created as a tribute to the late minimalist composer that will be staged this Sunday at MoMA PS1. Both mediums revolve around reinterpretations of Eastman’s provocatively-named piano pieces “Evil Nigger” and “Gay Guerrilla”; “Callback” is an additional theatrical scene that tells Eastman’s story through the premise of a job search for his impersonator.
Though Eastman was a formative part of the 1980s Downtown New York scene, playing and conducting alongside Meredith Monk, Arthur Russell, and John Cage, he died in 1990 alone and broke, an alcoholic and a crack addict. When he was evicted from his East Village apartment, much of his sheet music was thrown out with him and never recovered. “Eastman is of interest to me because overall, his is the path of most musicians. You make music for a while, you try to get somewhere, you fail, and then you descend into obscurity,” Clayton tells me across a wooden table in the living room of his Sunset Park apartment. He explained that when someone like Eastman has been historically overlooked—his Village Voice obituary, riddled with errors, was written eight months after his death, and one San Francisco art institution wrongly described his music as containing elements of early house, for example—there’s a misplaced desire to recuperate that history.
Clayton did not take one formally trained friend’s advice that Eastman’s work—which writer Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts recommended to him when she heard he was looking for piano music—should be presented in the post-European classical tradition, which values straightforward interpretation over the taking of creative liberties. Instead, Clayton went in the exact opposite direction.
“There’s this guy who’s doing these playfully contentious song titles, pretty muscular hypnotic music with a lot of shifting parts, and I thought the way to respect that was to take that spirit of freedom I heard in his work and run with it,” he says, twisting around in his chair to show me Eastman’s scores, pinned to the wall behind him, and pointing to a scrawled time marker. “See? There, he wants something to happen.” So Clayton rearranged Eastman’s original compositions for two pianos and a laptop, which electronically processes the piano lines based on his Sufi Plug Ins, audio software tools informed by the same non-Western ideas of sound that Clayton also draws upon for his international-leaning DJ/ rupture mixtapes.
“If you have a reverence meter, it can go up and down throughout the course of [The Julius Eastman Memorial Depot],” he says. “At times I’m flowing with it, at times I’m flowing against it. There are some moments where I’m doing the electronics, but there are other moments where his composition is guiding it.” The result is transfixing. Eastman disturbs Part 1 of “Evil Nigger” with a single-note piano line that scuttles like insect legs over the bare floor. When Clayton takes over Part 2, he muffles and warps the composer’s original notes like he’s drowning them, bringing a phrase up for air only to submerge it again. “People have trouble saying ‘Evil Nigger’ on the radio,” Clayton says. “It’s like a spell that’s really potent. In a way that’s a sign of great art, and it’s a human thing I can resonate with.”
But there’s another side to Eastman, and it’s actually kind of funny. One of his songs, for example, is called “If You’re So Smart, Why Aren’t You Rich?” Clayton, who sees Eastman as something of a kindred spirit, wanted to tease this side out in the performance and recordings. He also wanted to comment on the “Eastmanification of all of us,” the idea that Eastman’s own career difficulties connect with those of modern-day artists and writers “freelancing for beans.” Both of these led indirectly to the idea for his and Aftab’s “phone interview,” which was also informed by a somewhat surprising source: colonial Williamsburg.
“In a way, it’s my sense of humor,” Clayton says. “My joke was a historically accurate colonial Williamsburg with all the violence, like at 3 o’clock every day we whip the slaves. And then I was thinking about this piano piece and I was like, of course, this Julius Eastman Memorial Dinner is a fully-owned subsidiary of the Historically Accurate Williamsburg Corporation.” He was imagining a dinner theater somewhere in midtown Manhattan where Eastman’s downfall was retold again and again, like a Promethean torture cycle of the same Broadway musical.
Though he created The Julius Eastman Memorial Depot—which he keeps referring to as a CD because, unsurprisingly for a DJ and now classical composer, he hasn’t quite wrapped his head around the idea of an album—as a document, he practically mandates attendance at Sunday’s Dinner. “Seeing two grand pianos being banged away at more or less in unison adds this level of viscerality that is important to the works,” he says. “And then, of course, with two pianos in the room all these amazing overtones and harmonics emerge. When we’re practicing, my heart will start beating faster.”