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A Movie About Julius Eastman Is Necessary... Somebody Make It Happen!

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by Tambay A. Obenson
November 9, 2012 10:53 AM
5 Comments
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Eastman

As I said on Facebook this morning, I'm mad at myself for the fact that I'm only just now learning about Julius Eastman, the African American composer who died rather young, in 1990, at just 49 years old.

I came across him when I was doing some reading on black classical music composers, inspired by the recent few items we've posted here on S&A about films in production that center on black composers of yesteryear.

Never heard of the man before until recently, and since then, I"ve been devouring his compositions, thanks to YouTube, where you'll find several of them uploaded.

While not necessarily film related, in reading up about the artist, I immediately felt that his story is one that I'd love to see fully researched, and told on film. 

Julius Eastman (born in 1940) was a gay 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 primarily a pianist, although he was also a vocalist, and a dancer, all of his work having similar minimalist tendencies. 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.

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.

From what I gather, in short, he grew up in Ithaca, New York, and began studying piano at age 14, learning rapidly; 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. Eastman reportedly became addicted to alcohol and drugs, and 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. 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, eight months after he died.

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, and no one really knows who they are anymore.

But I encourage you to read Leach's extensive piece on him; apparently they met and worked together.

In terms of legacy... the question seems to be, what legacy? Revival 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 out there; and I think an investigative documentary would be a great idea. 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 listen to one of his compositions, Evil Nigger, below:

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5 Comments

  • Mary Jane Leach | November 14, 2012 3:24 PMReply

    Thanks for writing about this. Oddly enough there was a film a while ago, A Caveman's Valentine, about another black musician who ended up homeless and dying in Inwood Park. Everybody thought this was about Julius, but I managed to track down the author of the book (who runs a series of story-telling called The Moth), and he told me that it wasn't about Julius, but another musician whose death he had read about in the newspapers. I'm putting together a book of essays about Eastman with another writer, so hopefully some of the missing details will be filled in.

  • Kelea | November 10, 2012 2:04 AMReply

    Wow, wonderful composition. Stories like this one always make me sad, the worst part of his story in my opinion isn't that he was underappreciated while alive, but that most of his legacy is lost and that it will be hard for future generations to appreciate his talent. I will definitely remember Julius Eastman. A movie on his life, showing the complex man that he was, is certainly in order! Rest in Peace Mr. Eastman.

  • JMac | November 9, 2012 2:06 PMReply

    Powerful stuff there. Never heard of him either unfortunately there'll be 200 Tupac biopics before we see anything on Eastman.

  • Laura | November 9, 2012 10:26 PM

    I've never heard of him. I like his work. It's a shame. A very powerful intense and beautiful composition.

  • urbanauteur | November 9, 2012 4:07 PM

    Exactly!...thanks 4 this story Tambay i never heard of him also..he sounds like a cross between painter-Jean-Michel Basquiat & jazz composer-Herbie Nichols...

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