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Consider The Mysterious Life & Death Of African American Composer, Pianist Julius Eastman For Your Next Film Project

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by Tambay A. Obenson
May 29, 2014 1:17 PM
6 Comments
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Yesterday marked the 24th anniversary (May 28, 1990) of the death of Julius Eastman, the relatively-unknown African American composer who died rather young, at just 49 years old.

I initially learned about him a couple of years ago, as I was doing some reading on black classical music composers, inspired by a few items others had posted here on S&A at the time, specifically on films in production that centered on black composers of yesteryear, which were not-so-surprisingly, near zero.

I'd never heard of the man before until then, and afterward, I found myself devouring his past compositions, thanks to YouTube, where you'll find several of them uploaded.

I think that his story, fully researched, is one that would make for an interesting film. 

Julius Eastman (born in 1940) was an African American composer of works that can be described as minimalist. Or as one writer put it, "minimal in form but maximal in effect." He was also gay.

Primarily a pianist, although he was also a vocalist, and a dancer, all of his work had similar minimalist flourishes. He's said to be among the first musicians to "combine minimalist processes with elements of pop music," and, as you'll see in the clip I embedded below, he gave his pieces provocative, controversial titles, with political intent, like Evil Nigger and Gay Guerrilla, to name a couple.

From what I could find of him online, in short, he grew up in Ithaca, New York, and began studying piano at age 14, learning rapidly; He studied under master Polish pianist Mieczysław Horszowski, who was a child prodigy himself. He eventually made his big public debut as a pianist in 1966 at Town Hall in New York City, and is known for wearing motorcycle boots on stage, while he performed - something that was (and likely still is) considered quite unorthodox in the field. Considered a pioneer, he had a brief, though illustrious, and tumultuous life and career, and as we've seen with past geniuses, his latter years were some of his most challenging. Frustrated by the racism he faced within the world of classical music, feeling like it was a system rigged against him and his progress, Eastman reportedly withdrew from performing, and became addicted to alcohol and drugs, as his life crumbled. Work and jobs were lacking; At one point he was evicted from his apartment, his belongings (including scores of music) tossed onto the street, and he was forced to live in Tompkins Square Park, as a homeless man. 

Although his critics say that Eastman had numerous enviable opportunities, which he squandered, because, while it was universally-agreed on that he was musically gifted, he, in short, didn't work well with others, and was often amid conflict - whether within himself, or with those who had any professional dealings with him.

Eventually, and rather sadly, Eastman died alone at the age of 49 in Millard Fillmore Hospital in Buffalo of cardiac arrest. And even sadder, no public notice was given of his death until an obituary appeared in the Village Voice, a full eight months after he died. There's no mention of any family members, or lovers who would've cared. It's not even entirely clear what exactly led to his cardiac arrest.

His story reminded me somewhat of director Carol Morley's investigation into the mysterious life and death of Joyce Vincent in her docu-drama Dreams Of A Life - a film we covered extensively on this blog 2 years ago. 

Maybe inspired by cinema, often when I see a homeless man or woman on the streets of New York, I actually find myself wondering what their past life was like, and if they just might be some genius artist who, for whatever reason, lost everything, ending on living in the streets, with no one really knowing who they are anymore, or used to be.

Composer Mary Jane Leach has a great piece you should read about Eastman on her website; She launched an online space called the Julius Eastman Project, which includes his scores (those she could get her hands on) posted on the website; apparently they met and worked together.

In terms of legacy... the question about Eastman seems to be, what legacy? Any rediscovery of his music is said to be a difficult task, partly because he worked with several people, and there may be rights issues and such; And also because he didn't make much of an attempt to recover the music he wrote, that was tossed out of his apartment when he was evicted. In essence, some of his work is just, well, lost.

But I'm still digging.

Here's a section from Mary Jane Leach's piece:

I met Julius Eastman in early 1981. We were both hired to be vocalists in a theatre piece by Jim Neu for which Hugh Levick was writing the music. At the first 10 a.m. rehearsal, Julius showed up in black leather and chains, drinking scotch! Julius, while externally outrageous and almost forbidding, was genuinely generous and warm, and not unkind. He was brutally honest, which doomed him (as well as many others) in a field which, if not dishonest, certainly is not forthcoming and can be surprisingly timid and conformist (and which has become increasingly so since that time). In the fall of 1998, I was asked to teach a course in composition at Cal Arts for "real" instruments. I thought a really interesting approach would be to focus on music for multiples—pieces written for four or more of one instrument—and one piece for multiple cellos that I knew I wanted to include was Julius's The Holy Presence of Joan d'Arc (Joan) for ten cellos. I had attended the premiere of it at The Kitchen in 1981, and I loved its energy and sound. Thus began an almost quixotic seven-year search for the music of Julius Eastman who died in 1990 and whose final years were a life spiraled out of control to the point where he was living in Tompkins Square Park. He'd been evicted from his apartment in the East Village—the sheriff having dumped his possessions onto the street. Julius made no effort to recover any of his music. Various friends, though, upon hearing of this, tried to salvage as much as they could. Most was probably lost. One of the problems of writing about Julius is that it is difficult to state anything with certainty. A lot of the information out there, if not contradictory, has slightly different details. 

Read the rest HERE. Lots of good information and stories about him and his work there.

There seems to be a lot of mystery around him, and not a lot of information available; and I think an investigative documentary would be a great idea to start (if not a work of historical fiction) - if only because names like this shouldn't just get lost in history. There are likely so many other talented artists of African descent who need be re-discovered, if you will, and what better way to introduce them to the world than through the universal reach of cinema.

I couldn't find any footage of Eastman, whether performing or in conversation in interviews. But I did find some of his work on YouTube; so listen to one of his haunting compositions, Evil Nigger, below:

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6 Comments

  • Blackman | June 1, 2014 3:43 AMReply

    Seems to me THEY killed him and used his music in a blockbuster. First they Drugged him. They they made sure he didn't make money. then they boozed him. and while he was getting evicted, some of his most HATED people showed up to belittle him. so when he walked away, they CONTINUED to plunder what was left of his brilliant talents.

    These are white people. Look at africa, plundered. China Sent backwards with opium by England and India demoralized, annilated and plundered by who? White people.

    There is always a patter and it ALWAYS points to people who evolved from Frozen places. Europe

  • Ibrahim El Mahboob | May 31, 2014 2:59 PMReply

    Thank you for this piece - sad that it joins a still short body of coverage on Eastman.

    Unjust Malaise (2005) & The Julius Eastman Memory Project (2013) are two great releases of his work.

  • BluTopaz | May 29, 2014 9:55 PMReply

    I always find the correlation between brilliance and unorthodox behavior fascinating. I know nothing about classical music, but I have listened to this clip several times in a row and it's definitely haunting like Sergio said. Almost like listening to a mad, genius spirit.

  • Andre Seewood | May 29, 2014 2:02 PMReply

    In reading this piece I am reminded of the fact that the idiosyncratic and eccentric behaviors of Black artists and geniuses are often not tolerated to the extent that those very same behaviors are often tolerated in White artists and geniuses. Why must the Black artist/Genius always be tamed, controlled, obsequious and grateful- and White artists/Geniuses of sometimes even dubious credibility are allowed to challenge, confront, offend and even at times reject their benefactors, audiences, admirers, lovers, wives, children, and pets? Perhaps that is a rhetorical question with a shameful answer. Here's another: Why must the Black artist/Genius be controlled and contrite in the face of White freedom of expression and self indulgence? Any bio-pic of this great talent's life must explore these themes of Black constriction vis-à-vis White liberty...

  • Miles Ellison | June 1, 2014 12:47 AM

    Those themes should certainly be explored, but that film never gets made or seen if they are.

  • BluTopaz | May 29, 2014 9:51 PM

    Amen, Andre.

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