Photo: Bryony McIntyre

Julius Eastman

Evil Nigger

Event

11 May 2007  •  The Sage Gateshead, Gateshead

Artists

What we wrote at the time...

Julius Eastman is an undeservedly overlooked American minimalist composer; for me his works certainly stand up against anything produced by Reich, Riley or Young.  In fact, I’d say that in considering Julius’s character, (he was the only gay, African-American, defiantly politically minimalist composer of that time), and his at times outrageous, and in the end quite desperate lifestyle, his work takes on an even greater depth, a deep emotional resonance. Julius studied at Buffalo University in the late 60’s and early 70’s with Lukas Foss, and later Morton Feldman, before moving to NYC, where his work to on a more radical mien; titles of pieces written in Buffalo (like The Moon's Silent Modulation) giving way to more openly confrontational ones: If You're So Smart, Why Aren't You Rich, and Evil Nigger being charged examples. 

From what you read, it seems like he performed on a reasonably regular basis in the 70’s, including a fairly infamous reading of part of Cage’s Songbooks at the first June in Buffalo festival, with a fuming Cage in attendance (performing part of Cage’s score which simply stated ‘give a lecture’, Julius presented a discourse on sex, with male and female volunteers, who he attempted to undress  - with some but not complete success). 

But his own, often incredible, work was poorly and sadly under documented, and from the early 80’s on, with few opportunities, he started using crack, and drinking heavily.  After a very brief spell working at Tower Records, he was evicted from his flat, and his property (including his scores) were (depending on what you read) either left in the street or seized by the sheriff, although some were salvaged by friends.  He died of an apparent heart attack in 1990. So for more than 20 years, his work has hardly, if ever, been performed; which is stupefying when (thanks to a recent release from New World Records) you now hear it.  I guess it’s minimalist, but the best of it (which I personally would say are the 3 great pieces for multiple piano, Evil Nigger, Gay Guerilla and Crazy Nigger) is utterly maximalist in impact, as the repetitive and percussive nature of the piano is drowned in swarming clusters of notes, forming extended tones in pulsing, episodic  structures, organic and teeming with detail: the dense symmetry achieved by layering the same instrument over itself, an exploration of his sexuality, or what Kyle Gann of the Village Voice has called his Gay Manifesto.  It’s taken months to track down the score for the piece and as far as I can tell it’s not been performed for decades.  Joe Kubera, along with Phill Niblock, Mary-Jane Leach, Alan Licht and Paul Tai have all helped with that search, and we’re lucky enough to be able to bring Joe over to perform the piece alongside Kate Thompson, David Murray, Alan Fearon and Simon Passmore. Joe performed with Julius in the 70’s, and is one of the leading interpreters of new music, having worked closely with Alvin Lucier, La Monte Young and Morton Feldman among others.