On Saturday 19 November Apartment House bring a programme spanning 100 years of compositional variety to the Granary. Kate Romano writes about the enigmatic and elusive Julius Eastman, the composer of Joyboy which ends this distinctive programme.
Those closest to Julius Eastman – his friends, his collaborators, his lovers – talk of never really knowing him. Born in 1940 in New York, he was a black, gay musician working in a predominantly white, straight, classical music environment. He was outstandingly gifted - a pianist, singer, dancer and choreographer. He absorbed and embraced musical influences from disco to opera, from jazz to the Brooklyn Philharmonic. He was - according to various sources - frustrating, impossible, charming, radical, outrageous and magnetic. He had a deep and courageous desire to discover everything about himself, constantly searching for the form that his art would take. ‘What I am trying to achieve ‘ he said in an interview ‘is to be what I am to the fullest – Black to the fullest, a musician to the fullest, a homosexual to the fullest. It is through art that I can search for the self and keep in touch with my resource and the real me’.
Eastman could easily have been forgotten. By 1990 he was homeless, mentally and physically ill, and he died just a few months before his 50th birthday, leaving virtually no legacy. He kept neither scores nor recordings of his performances, and, as the result of his strange insistence of keeping his door unlocked, he also had very few possessions. But eight years after his death, the composer and performer Mary Jane Leach (who had worked with Eastman in the 1980s) began tirelessly collecting and tracking down his lost work. Battling decades of dead ends and frustration, Leach and other champions of Eastman’s work have brought his music back to life.
When Apartment House cellist and founder Anton Lukoszevieze discovered the music of Julius Eastman in 2016, he described it as ‘a revelation’. As the ensemble worked on the pieces, they found a unique musical voice: uncompromising, playful, unfettered by rules, traditions or conventions. Eastman’s work has origins in 1970s American minimalism, but it’s a minimalism ahead of its time. Eastman called it ‘organic music’, freely integrating jazz improvisation, looping melodic phrases and pop harmonies as he saw fit. He was less concerned with abstract patterns and more excited by mixing up genres - an idea that would be taken up by others in the future.
Eastman’s music is notated in a kind of compositional shorthand and he relied heavily on close working relationships with musicians to bring his ideas to life. Crucially, in the 70s, he was part of the ensemble too and he made it his mission to collapse the distinction between composition and improvisation into one Performance Art. Today, without the presence of the composer, performing Eastman is a challenge. The score for Joyboy (composed in 1974) is just a single page, sparsely notated - a mere sketch, a scribbled blueprint for a structured improvisation. Eastman employs written directions in his music, such as ‘move back in harmony’ or ‘displace one note’ to keep the notation simple. Instrumentation is suggestive, not prescriptive, and a stop-watch tells players when each section starts and ends. Just as it would have been in the 70s, rehearsals mean making time for a lot of discussion – a time-consuming and personal process. Anton talks of a strong sense of community in the performing and listening experience, which he describes as honest, unselfish and ‘something we aspire to’.
Hear Apartment House on Saturday 19 November 2022 at Stapleford Granary
The picture of Julius Eastman is an anonymous photograph kindly supplied by Anton Lukoszevieze