Hammered Into Clouds: Nine Beginnings for Julius Eastman

The afterlife of a pioneering composer who changed New York, then disappeared


Julius Eastman was a black, gay composer in a scene with no antecedents for him. His 1970s compositions open up a counter-narrative for new music in downtown New York, foregrounding race, sex, and politics while turning the patter of minimalism into a hard rain. Eastman connected Eastern thought and Western tonality, and made art songs sound like pop songs. He painted his face silver without telling anyone. He left New York without telling anyone. He changed New York without telling anyone.

By the time of his death in 1990, Eastman had faded from view, but he is still with us. In the beginning of 2018, the Kitchen presented “That Which Is Fundamental,” a combination of live performances and a gallery’s worth of visual work related to, or inspired by, Eastman.

Eastman’s artistic practice was wildly varying, and the current renaissance follows suit. His work was at the center of “We Have Delivered Ourselves From the Tonal,” an event recently presented in Berlin by the SAVVY Contemporary gallery and the MaerzMusik festival. Last November, New World Records released The Zürich Concert, a seventy-four-minute piano and voice improvisation recorded in 1980. This brief list does not include the films and performances rooted in Eastman’s work. If Julius were still alive, he would turn seventy-eight this year.

He began in Ithaca and found the piano as a boy. At the age of seventeen, Eastman became the accompanist at a local dance studio. His compositions were strong enough to catch the attention of Lukas Foss and earn him a spot with the Creative Associates at SUNY Buffalo in 1969. His baritone landed him the role of King George III in a recording of Peter Maxwell Davies’s Eight Songs for a Mad King, released by Nonesuch in 1973 and nominated for a Grammy. By 1976, he had moved to New York and written several works for multiple instruments that played hard and fast with the role of repetition in notated music. By 1984, Eastman had mounted dance pieces, solo concerts, and ensemble works in both New York and Europe. By 1990, he was dead.

As a singer and a pianist, Eastman was a prodigy, though that’s not the narrative he chose. He was a middling student and, later, an inconstant professor, uncomfortable with institutions of any kind. Hierarchies held no appeal on the page or in the street. As his friend Ned Sublette — also a navigator of the space between composition and pop performance — told me, “Julius was anti-pompous. He would talk with absolutely anybody. Julius did not have a nickel of snobbery in his body.”

And yet Eastman chose to work through notation, in the concert hall, even as friends like Arthur Russell were using the studio to make records for the club. Eastman went along to the disco for dancing and cruising, and his solo concerts involved improvised lyrics that suggested disco songs. (The first piece Eastman performed live after arriving in New York, a solo performance called Praise God From Whom All Devils Grow, contained these lyrics, and only these: “Why don’t you make me feel like a real woman?”) Eastman’s work combined the constant and the chaotic in a way that was absent from the work of composers doing what critic and former Voice columnist Kyle Gann called “living room minimalism” — the guys who you know. Eastman once told David Borden he thought Philip Glass’s music “sounded French.” 

Eastman never aligned with anything, including his own death. The composer died in Buffalo on May 28, 1990, at the age of forty-nine. Gann wrote what he called “a ridiculously belated obituary,” which ran in the Voice in January of 1991. Gann’s piece was one of the few ways to learn about Eastman until late 2005, when New World Records released Unjust Malaise, a three-disc set of archival recordings, and a revelation.

Unjust Malaise was supervised and brought to market by composer Mary Jane Leach. Working alone for years, Leach has kept Eastman’s reputation alive, rescuing many of his scores and posting them on her website. In 2016, frozen reeds issued a 1974 performance of Eastman’s Femenine, a major development in the process of bringing Eastman back into the light. Plangent and rounded, unlike the ferocious pianos and cellos of Unjust Malaise, Femenine confirmed that Eastman’s directness is not limited to the context of Seventies New York — it is absolute.

A susurrating blend of sleigh bells, vibraphone, piano, strings, and horns, Femenine became a soundtrack for me when it came out in 2016. The piece twists around a coiled vibraphone trill, a familiar figure in Eastman’s music, where single notes are hammered into clouds.

At the end of January, as part of “That Which Is Fundamental,” four pianists performed “Evil Nigger” and “Crazy Nigger,” two of the works that make Unjust Malaise essential. Hearing these two pieces at Knockdown Center in Queens, played on four grand pianos, was remarkable. Built from what Eastman described as “musical thoughts,” these pieces chain together sections of specified lengths with notated motifs that do not specify absolute pitches — these are chosen by the musicians during any given performance. “Evil Nigger” and “Crazy Nigger” are examples of what Eastman called “organic music,” an additive and subtractive process that allows Eastman’s thoughts to reach genuine bloom.

At Knockdown Center in January, Eastman’s combination of notation and improvisation sounded like a recalibration of what minimalism could lift and where it could lead. Looser and heavier than the piano works of Reich and Glass, these pieces strip themselves of minimalism and present incremental change as a function of character rather than as a formal device, change as the lay of the land rather than a way to cross it. A proposal for non-narrative music emerges. The tenth minute is no more or less resolved that the first, and the ends of these pieces do not explain or release the component elements they’re built from. Progress here is not teleological but self-referential, a series of circular views into a center, rather than an argument rendered as a linear sequence of sound events.

Eastman wrote approximately fifty-eight pieces, and the scores have been found for only sixteen of them. Nine of these compositions are available commercially as recordings, but the archival holdings at the University of Buffalo suggest that number will grow. When the Julius Eastman box set finally exists, even if it contains no more than nine compositions, it will change how musicians look at late twentieth-century New York.

Episode 2 — Julius Eastman In His Own Voice


To deal with a composer whose work is alive in so many ways, I talked to some of the artists and scholars who’ve connected with Eastman. (You can hear Eastman himself talk in this 1984 interview conducted by David Garland.) That Julius Eastman is performed more now than in his lifetime is not a story of neglect and recovery. Eastman left us with concentrated, intense, thorny work. Julius Eastman refused to be finished. Think of the following as nine more beginnings.

1. JACE CLAYTON, musician and writer

Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts told me about Julius Eastman in 2011. The music was something else. It just did so much. It was epic, muscular, romantic. The titles were like conceptual artworks — “Evil Nigger,” “If You’re So Smart, Why Aren’t You Rich?,” “Gay Guerrilla” — with their own lifespan. Eastman himself was such a figure, this in in-your-face leather queen, black and outrageous. He had sung on Meredith Monk’s Dolmen Music, which is amazing. He’d also performed one of John Cage’s Song Books pieces in Buffalo, right in front of Cage himself, and made it explicitly gay. That didn’t fly with Cage, who was closeted. That kind of sealed the deal for me. I just loved him.

I did an early version of The Julius Eastman Memorial Dinner in 2011 and we started touring the project in 2013. European bookers were passing at first because they had no idea who Eastman was, but now they want to book it.

Classical presenters are saying “What can we do?” They’re getting feedback that it’s all too white and male. But can any of those presenters name another black composer? Julius Eastman doesn’t need to be solving this particular problem for anyone. He is his own topic.

2. EMILY MANZO, pianist

I hope it’s not just a trend that goes away. One of the most racist things we could do is to let Julius be a trend.

3. TIONA NEKKIA MCCLODDEN, artist, co-curator of That Which Is Fundamental

I saw a picture of Julius composing music, and the caption said, “Black gay experimental avant-garde composer.” That got me. I was struck by the picture, because I don’t see too many pictures of black men composing music. The caption complicated the image. It prompted me to see if this really was a person with all of these things inside him.

I realized that Julius was someone that I was going to be dealing with for a bit of time when I was going through the first round of research that [co-curator] Dustin Hurt did. I was skimming and found this clipping of an interview where Julius said he wanted to be “black to the fullest, homosexual to the fullest.” I was like, “OK, that’s what I want to be, too.” I really took into consideration what it meant for him to say that at the time. I was struggling with how to deal with all the multiplicities of my identities and how they existed, and then there was this posthumous mentor delivering me these words. That was the foundation for everything that I’ve tried to do on his behalf, in honor of him.

4. KODWO ESHUN, theorist and artist

[Eshun refers here to The Third Part of the Third Measure, a film made with the Otolith Group that combines a four-pianist performance of “Evil Nigger” with new readings of the remarks Eastman made at a Northwestern University performance in 1980.]

You remember in the [Northwestern] speech, he says, “At this point I don’t feel that gay guerrillas can really match with Afghani guerrillas or PLO guerrillas, but let us hope in the future that they might.” The idea of our film is that the pianists are the gay guerrillas, thirty-seven years after Julius Eastman’s speech. They have come to communicate with us, and we the audience need them. They are something between assassins, soldiers, samurai, and scientists, and they’ve come to train us in vigilance and resilience and steadfastness. The idea is that freaks like us are being targeted. We face all kinds of wars and we are the targets, so we’d better get fit and we’d better get ready for the wars that are coming toward us right now.

Eastman found a way to be an internal outsider wherever he was. Wherever he was, he had a disruptive quality and it was also virtuosic. He was just a virtuoso. He was better than everybody, but he was also better at complicating everything.

The thing I think that’s happened in the last seven to ten years is that we do have a vocabulary now for what Fred Moten calls the aesthetics of the black radical tradition. We have a vocabulary for that now, and it wasn’t there in the Seventies or the Eighties. But Julius was.

5. ARNOLD DREYBLATT, composer, visual artist

I studied in Buffalo from 1974 to 1976. I met Julius first in a Pauline Oliveros workshop, probably in 1974. In that period, my perception of him was that he was this very important singer of contemporary classical music and a member of the Creative Associates. There’s that record, Eight Songs for a Mad King, which was quite famous. I had it. Julius was probably at that time one of the very few African Americans in contemporary music. I moved back to New York in 1976 and I met Julius around town. We knew each other from Buffalo, so there was a connection there.

We went with Yoshi Wada and Julius to a bar on East Broadway in Chinatown, which people said was a Chinese mafia bar. You couldn’t really go anywhere with Julius without there being an incident, especially if he would drink. I remember him at the point where he was on the table singing and carrying on, standing on the table in this place where one really shouldn’t rock the boat. It was made clear that we had to leave.

6. PHILL NIBLOCK, composer and musician

He was a weird motherfucker. It didn’t fit in. He was a weird guy, his ideas were weird, he was flagrantly gay, he was incredibly beautiful, just really stunning, and he had this unbelievably deep voice. He was this skinny little guy that made this deep bass sound, and he could sing falsetto. Incredible pianist, he was an amazing musician, relatively amazing composer, and he was weird, and he finally cut himself off, became a homeless guy and lost almost all of his scores. 

7. DAVID FELDMAN, composer, mathematician, and visual artist

I showed him my work in Buffalo — I don’t remember which piece — and he said, “There’s not enough cock in it!” I understood that he meant to challenge my boundaries personally but I also understood that he was saying something serious. “The body” is an overused catchphrase in academia these days, but with Julius, it really fits. He made music with his mind and his whole body and wished that everyone would.

8. GEORGE LEWIS, composer and musicologist

In 1980, I went on the Kitchen’s tour of Europe with Julius, Bill T. Jones and Arnie Zane, Rhys Chatham, Molissa Fenley, Eric Bogosian, and Douglas Ewart. I resonated with Julius — we were both self-fashioned in our relation to new music. Ben Patterson wasn’t around, as far as I knew, so Julius, me, and Bill were about it as far as blackness in the New York downtown scene was concerned.  

Around 1979 the scene started trying to deal with race. I don’t remember hearing Julius talk about that publicly, which would have been a difficult conversation. I’m not sure who, if anyone, he might have felt comfortable with talking about that. Not that many people understood the issues.

I was living in Europe in the 1980s and visited New York sometime around 1986. I ran into Julius on the street and he told me he was living in a shelter. I was astonished and asked people if they knew about that. I kept hearing negative comments about him. Maybe some people were helping him too, but New York can be cruel.

I was at MaerzMusik in 2017 when they presented Julius’s “Nigger” pieces at the famous Haus der Berliner Festspiele. I had never seen Julius’s music presented that way — monumental, spectacular, a packed and super-enthusiastic house, with four nine-foot grand pianos and the timings being read out on computer screens next to each performer.

Julius’s work was being discussed in Berlin in the context of a decolonization of new music. I’d like to see that discussion not only about recovery of the forgotten, but about the music and histories of living Afrodiasporic experimental composers and sound artists who are raising similar questions. It’s a question of new music’s identity — what we have now is mostly related to Fred Moten’s observation that the avant-garde is considered by definition as non-black. Thinking hard about Julius can open up the entire field, which is what I think they were trying to do at MaerzMusik.

9. SUSAN STENGER, musician, composer

Although I last saw Julius sometime in the late 1980s, my happiest memories of him are from my formative years in Buffalo. We met around 1971, when I was still in high school and he was performing with Petr Kotik’s S.E.M. Ensemble and the UB Creative Associates. I had sought out Kotik for private flute lessons, having become intrigued by the wide range of experimental music he was presenting, and got to know Julius as well. I’d seen him perform Eight Songs for a Mad King and was in awe of him. He seemed to appreciate that I’d become bored at school and had taken my own education in hand (which he had also done at my age). Once he grabbed my backpack and examined all the books I was lugging around. Mixed in with the Simone de Beauvoir, Jean Genet, and Samuel Beckett were Claude Brown’s Manchild in the Promised Land and James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time. I can still hear his huge distinctive laugh and stomping foot as he exclaimed, “What kind of white girl ARE you?” (This actually wasn’t unusual reading material for the time, but it amused him nonetheless.)

We became much closer when I skipped graduation in 1973 to take part in New Music in New Hampshire, Kotik’s summer workshop at an old inn in the White Mountains. Julius joined him on the faculty, along with David Tudor, Fred Rzewski, Gordon Mumma, and David Behrman. I was impressed by what a great teacher he was and how fiercely he worked to shepherd performances of work by the young composers there, particularly a difficult but beautiful multipart vocal piece by Richard Hayman. Still, he seemed very vulnerable and lonely at times. Richard had established a little hideaway in the cupola of the barn that housed all the performances, reached by precarious ladder rungs and a trap door. Once he and I were up there and Julius climbed up and banged on the hatch. We ended up hanging out, talking, and “three-ply spooning” (Julius in the middle) high up in the rafters. It was sweet.

Having decided to focus on music, I stayed in Buffalo and took courses at UB until autumn of 1975, when I went to Prague to study with Kotik’s former flute teacher. Julius encouraged me, took me under his wing, and made the time to accompany me on piano in practice (“Once again, please”) and recitals. He led a student chamber group that I joined, along with Michael Pugliese, who later worked with Cage and Cunningham. We learned [Eastman’s] Stay On It, which was an eye-opener. Having performed Rzewski’s Les Moutons and Riley’s In C, it felt familiar at first, but it was a huge step into a bold new Eastman frontier. It had a repetitive, shifting, layered quality, but also included elements of improvisation and raucous rhythmic funk. Playing it with Julius over and over was a revelation. In retrospect, it seems like a precursor to a lot of cross-genre work to come.

He was in such great form in those days. I remember the 1974 performance of Rzewski’s Coming Together at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery. Julius was transcendently magnificent. But although he seemed to be bursting with ideas and potential, I think he was also getting restless and finding academia kind of limiting. It showed in Morton Feldman’s 1975 June in Buffalo festival, at the famous S.E.M. Song Books performance that upset Cage so much. As part of his group of pages, Julius had the instruction, “Perform a disciplined act.” For a previous iteration I’d seen, he’d done a complex and elegant rope-jumping sequence. This time he gave his lecture on a “new form of love.” He told me afterward that he’d just wanted to do something different. He seemed surprised at how angry Cage was, but that’s not to say he wasn’t intending to tweak him a bit, especially about his sexuality. I played in an event a few days later on the grounds of the Albright-Knox that included pieces by Julius (played simultaneously in different locations) called Masculine and Femenine, so the issue was clearly on his mind.

When I came back from Prague, Julius had long since moved to New York and completed the progression from neat dark suits to leathers, chains, and biker boots. Having moved there too, I saw him often at gigs and heard some powerful new work, including the “nigger series” and ten-cello The Holy Presence of Joan d’Arc. I was playing with S.E.M., Phill Niblock, and Jackson Mac Low. It wasn’t until later, though, after I’d returned from a few years away and started playing bass in Band of Susans and hanging out with Arthur Russell, that we began to meet again for coffee or a drink. Ever the mentor, he seemed delighted that I had become a bass player and started calling me “Bootsy.” He claimed to have heard us at CBGB with Arthur once, although I never saw him in the audience. Although happy to see him again, I found these meetings heartbreaking, because he often seemed to be quietly unraveling. He absolutely refused to take any money from me or even let me pay for coffee. His dignity and pride would not allow it. When I had no way to reach him I would sometimes leave signs around Tompkins Square: “Julius, call Susan.” Rhys Chatham used to do this too. Julius had my number and if I wasn’t home would leave messages on my answering machine in his characteristic drawl: “Suuuuuusan, how aaaaaaare you?” The last one was probably in early 1989. I never heard from him again. I miss him all the time.

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