A Decade of Julius Eastman

In this research-profile, DMA candidate Richard Valitutto documents his ongoing work into the music, performance practice, and personality of Julius Eastman. Committed to keyboard cultures across their long history—including those from the nearest past—this research is proudly supported by the CCHK in synergy with the Cornell DMA program in keyboard studies.


Julius Eastman Collage

July 2009. I’m in a college dorm room in North Adams, a small post-industrial town in Western Mass, hanging out with a couple of composers and percussionists. We’re between rehearsals at the Bang on a Can Summer Festival, a two-week residency at nearby MASS MoCA, currently entrenched in one of those free-wheeling gab sessions that happen when like-minded nerds of any age get together at a festival or conference. Even though the topic is decidedly music-centric, the conversation has the feeling of one long non-sequitur, scattering tenuously-connected ideas, stories, and anecdotes (likely apocryphal) about pieces, composers, bands, and so on. The more esoteric, underground, or just plain gossipy, the better. Bootleg files of scores and recordings may or may not have been promiscuously shared. Then:

—“Oh, yo! Have you heard of Julius Eastman?”

I’m among the ignorant parties: “Who?”

—“Julius Eastman. Kinda like, punk rock minimalism? Just check this out…”

On a laptop screen, a scrawled music manuscript is brought up to go with the recording. Interrupting the white landscape of five-line staves, strings of little black note-heads mostly repeat the same pitch, like indeterminate chains of ominous ellipses. (“Is that the score?”) Huge, jagged letters at the top spell out: EVIL NIGGER. (“WAIT. THAT’S the TITLE?!”) I’m speechless. And yet, the jarring, polemical nature of this naming in some ways undergirds, in other ways belies, the corresponding sounds blasting tinnily from the computer speakers, not that I’m sure I really understand the written notes anyway. But neither that ambivalence, nor the rough, unfinished sound quality of the “old-sounding” live concert recording diminishes the energetic verve of the music: four pianists hammering out vigorous three-note tattoos, sporadically interspersed amidst the relentless, rhythmic tremolos. It’s wild and weirdly beautiful, but in an almost-too-intense, trance-like way. My intrigue is further jolted when a strident voice on the recording shouts, “ONE, TWO, THREE, FOUR!” A literal count-off. Responding to the surprising verbal cue, the pianists launch in unison into a chugging, eight-note refrain, closer to an up-tempo hard-rock riff than any genteel “musical phrase.” (Although I do remember noticing, wondering to myself, “Did he just quote César Franck???”)

At the time, I was a “new music” novice. Having just graduated with a degree in classical piano from the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music (CCM), that summer festival opened my eyes, ears, and mind. Casual dorm room music-sharing was just one of many insightful and revelatory experiences, among some of the earliest in my pursuit of rapidly expanding creative paradigms. I was headed to start an MFA at the California Institute of the Arts (CalArts), a thrilling prospect, in stark contrast with the stuffy, classical CCM, drastically different locales notwithstanding. Given my limited exposure to the contemporary side of classical music, I was already pushing my own conceptual limits playing pieces of classic minimalism—with their rhythmic polish and clear formal processes—such as Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians (itself a performance highlight of my summer at Bang). I had also had experiences with “less formal” music making, but even so, nothing about Eastman’s music made much sense to me at the time, other than the obvious recognition of its immediacy and visceral nature. I don’t think I was ready for his aesthetic and scope, at least not as it was captured on that one recording.

That album, Unjust Malaise, had been released in 2005, just a few years before I heard it, and it was the only document of his music that I, like many, would know for a few years to come. As I then careened into my mid 20s—a cross-country move, two kaleidoscopic years of artsy grad school, then the beginnings of a musical career in Los Angeles, replete with plenty of other budding musical discoveries—I didn’t obsess over Eastman’s music, at least not at the time, and definitely not the way I’ve seen people do recently. Still, I couldn’t shake the memory of that revelation at Bang. But even when I would go back to that album, I usually couldn’t make it all the way through a single piece without losing the thread of the work, to say nothing of the complete album. These were long, seemingly amorphous pieces, lacking in the sleek, cultivated orchestration and demonstrable organization I had been taught to assume was necessary for most “composed music.” On the other hand, it was decidedly different from the eclectic, long-form potpourris or rhapsodic, lyrical expansive jams that comprised my understanding of “free improv” as well.

For years, this inscrutability and inaccessibility was partly what kept Eastman’s music ever-present in the back of my mind—alluring, beguiling, confusing, raw, something to puzzle over. Also, to my knowledge at the time, no one was performing this music, but I also couldn’t blame them. Even after playing a lot of considerably “out stuff” by the time I graduated CalArts, his scores still made little sense to me, even as I revisited them and found more through Mary Jane Leach’s website, “The Julius Eastman Project,” a small but valuable resource she maintained for years after he died. Where were the performance instructions? Where were the dynamics, the tempo, and the instrumentation? The bar-lines and rhythms forgodssake?? I pored over these scores, selflessly provided by Leach for free, but the sounds I heard on recording, while arresting and assertive, still barely made sense when I compared them with what I saw on the page. I wanted to play this music, and I had no idea where to start.

All along, besides these many frustrating details, the thing I really couldn’t shake was Eastman’s voice: the sound of it, the unstrained, obvious power of it. On top of that: his oratory, heard only in the unassuming format of the short, preconcert remarks on the album, for which I had no context other than the place and date. (I had somehow lost the liner notes to that album; reading Kyle Gann’s elucidating, elegiac essay therein would have proven helpful.) Either way, hearing Eastman’s verbal explanation of his use of the n-word in the pieces’ titles was fascinating—his quality of speech was peacefully urgent, gently insistent, but also provocative. Nevertheless, I could barely follow his rhetorical through-line. It was appropriate, I guess, paralleling my experience of the pieces themselves. His vocal music on the CD was as hard for me to wrap my mind around as the instrumental works, but that too kind of made his virtuosic solo a cappella work Prelude to the Holy Presence of Joan d’Arc all the more arresting. Speaking, singing, or shouting, his was simply a voice that demanded the listener’s attention. And for years, whenever I thought of Eastman, I mostly just wanted to cue up that shouted count-off: “ONE, TWO, THREE, FOUR!” What would have been an unacceptable intrusion in even the most avant-garde classical paradigms, it pleased me for that exact reason, the primal necessity somehow exceeding practical function. It was transgressive, a head-rush, a little bump of unadulterated performance. But I also loved the nostalgia it stirred up in me: high school memories of my unavoidably nerdy rock band screaming count-offs to badly-played cover songs which we would then also scream in awful pseudo-harmony. How I had wished we could play at the “real” punk rock clubs or even the unofficial, venueless shows I was then frequenting as a tween and teen. Either way, I was still more than content just to be there, another flailing, young audience member at some grungy tavern or parking lot, seeking catharsis.

As I would later learn at CalArts, Eastman’s shout functioned for me as something Wadada Leo Smith refers to as a “musical moment”: a salient sliver of ongoing musical time, whole unto itself while part of something bigger, where the temporal suspension is a beautiful, important power, a singular gestalt transcending aesthetics, style, and politics.

— Yeah, okay. Sure. It also fucking rocks.


Late 2018. Years later, I’m discussing potential large-scale performance projects with my advisor, Xak Bjerken. It’s my first year as a doctoral student in Cornell’s Music Department. The same music department that had ultimately withheld from Eastman a long-promised job. Despite his obvious talents, experience, and homegrown roots here in Ithaca; despite his recent eviction and homelessness; despite his obvious need for support in a position which he could have more than made up for and fulfilled with his obvious gifts, someone(s) at Cornell dangled a carrot, only to withdraw. The same department and campus where Eastman had over years, over decades, given virtuoso art song recitals and solo piano concerts (sometimes both on the same program!) performing masterworks, new work premieres, and ex tempore improvisations. Where he had presented his own music alongside works by Robert Palmer, the venerable professor who started the Cornell DMA composition program, as well as current Cornell students and other esteemed faculty and guests. Naturally, as a Cornellian myself, I also now live in Ithaca, writing these words a mile or so from his family home where his mother Frances moved her young family from the risks of New York City. The home where he played the piano with his younger brother Gerry after he returned from choir practice. The town where he precociously started piano studies at Ithaca College before attending the revered Curtis Institute. After graduating as one of Curtis’ very few Black graduates, he would return to Ithaca numerous times for years to come, to visit family, friends, and lovers, to give concerts between his longer stints and stays in Buffalo and New York City.

With Xak’s encouragement and help, I decided to create a festival here last year to honor and celebrate Eastman and his legacy. Drawing on my deepening knowledge and experience of his story and music, and reaching out to years of contacts and friends in the Eastman orbit, I situated his music alongside that of four other local composers—Robert Palmer, David Borden, Ann Silsbee, and Sarah Hennies—several generations of creative, modern, and experimental music by Ithacans past and present. With the generous support of the Cornell Center for Historical Keyboards (CCHK) and other organizations (e.g. the Cornell Council for the Arts, etc.), Ithaca Sounding 2020 was presented exactly one year ago. Performers, scholars, and audiences from local and visiting communities alike gathered for four days of events: concerts, talks, presentations, workshops. It wasn’t technically supposed to be an “Eastman festival” per se, but his influence proved to be a vibrating undercurrent through the other presentations and performances. Eastman’s spirit surged, at times unexpectedly, winding through the festival, culminating in a full Saturday of all-Eastman events: a morning of insightful papers delivered by scholars Ellie Hisama and Matthew Mendez flowed into two back-to-back concerts of Eastman’s music, one at Cornell and one at Ithaca College, featuring many performers from both schools, as well as guest artists from around Ithaca and New York City.

Ithaca Sounding 2020
Ithaca Sounding 2020. For the full program booklet, visit https://docs.google.com/viewerng/viewer?url=https://www.historicalkeyboards.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/02/Ithaca-Sounding-2020-Program-Booklet.pdf

Of course, such events don’t spring out of nothing, notwithstanding the full year of planning and fundraising leading up. I’m thankful to Xak and the folks at CCHK, especially its director Annette Richards, for their support in helping me identify and acknowledge my work on Eastman as an already important part of my own performance practice, but more importantly as the essence of contemporary performance practice itself, writ large, the literal concentration for the degree for which I am now a doctoral candidate, and an important component to the CCHK’s mission.

In the 2010s, between my introduction to Eastman and my arrival at Cornell, his name had begun to pop up in various networks of my freelance activities in Los Angeles, New York City, and elsewhere. As my East LA neighborhood was rapidly gentrifying, in certain circles the act of name-dropping Eastman carried almost the same cachet as knowing whatever new indie act had popped up at The Echo (before they got big, of course), or whatever fusion-something restaurant was briefly au courant. Unlike them, however, Eastman couldn’t sell out and didn’t fade out. I could see and feel his slow-burning legacy glowing brighter and brighter. Because he died in 1990 with so little documentation for posterity, this initial intrigue of unknowability couldn’t and wouldn’t disperse (not even under the withering gaze of the most ironic, aloof hipster).

Wild Up—an ensemble I had played with in LA since 2010—made our Disney Hall debut in 2014 with our version of Eastman’s Stay On It for voices and ensemble. Our arrangement was painstakingly crafted from our own members’ transcriptions of the recording, also influenced by another transcription by Paul Pinto for ThingNY. It was a watershed moment for Wild Up, but also, apparently, for Eastman’s legacy. The weight of this fact really hit me when I saw it prominently mentioned in Matthew Mendez's chapter about the piece in Gay Guerrilla, the co-edited volume by Leach and Renée Levine Packer, Eastman’s biographer. Five years after first hearing about Eastman, Gay Guerrilla was the first book I ever pre-ordered, urgently entering my credit card details the moment I received the email announcement of its forthcoming release. I read it cover to cover, mentioned it to music friends. I wasn’t the only one, apparently—things had really started picking up. Tinder, kindling, and fuel set, the book basically lit the match for the “Eastman revival” or “renaissance” (or, in some circles, “Eastmania”), a fire which has grown exponentially since. Thankfully, Eastman’s name is no longer reduced to being a hipster badge, an erudite shibboleth for underground, insider elbow-rubbing. People were actually playing his music, and I was one of those people. Turns out what the scores needed for me to understand them was the insight that comes from less contemplation and more collaboration.

The long-running LA concert series Monday Evening Concerts and my friend Jonathan Hepfer, its new Artistic Director, invited me to join the MEC Echoi Ensemble in their presenting multiple concerts dedicated to Eastman’s music.[1] For three seasons from 2017-19, I worked with him and the assembled group to mount these monumental, beautiful, and at times overwhelming pieces. Eastman’s long-time pianist collaborator and friend, Joseph Kubera, came out for the first concert from his Staten Island home, where Eastman visited him in 1986, the last time Kubera saw him. He guided me and two other young, SoCal pianists through the intricacies of performing Eastman’s Crazy Nigger (CN): an hour-plus, stamina-obliterating tour de force that culminated with a dozen “assistants” joining us at our four pianos onstage to hammer out an undulating, pulsating spectral chord for several minutes—an ecstatic, ritualistic ending if there ever were one. I suggested to Hepfer that we stage this by emulating an account I thought I had heard about from a previous performance of CN: after listening attentively for forty-five minutes, the piano assistants emerged out of the audience like a flash mob, jumping up over the front of the stage, breaking the fourth wall:

“That’s so fucking punk rock!” he exclaimed when we tried it out at the dress rehearsal.

I smiled, “Yeah. It kinda is, isn’t it?”

Julius Eastman with Violin

I hadn’t really planned or decided to be a “scholar” or “specialist” or “expert” of Eastman and his music, whatever those words might mean in my case. But I had often wondered how the climate, trends, and personalities of the musical communities of which I was a part would end up directing my musical life and, by extension, my whole life. My coming of age, as it were, happened just as Eastman’s long-overdue story was being told and his work being rightly shared, performed, studied, celebrated, and in some ways, saved. It was decided for me, I guess. It helped that many of my most treasured experiences as a young professional musician were because of Eastman’s music, performances as memorable for the camaraderie of collaborative commitment as the obvious euphoria of the audience’s experience.

That said, certain less-glamorous truths about Eastman cannot and should not be ignored. The obvious fact of Eastman’s gay, Black identity underscores and highlights the quiet tragedy of his story—an amazing, fecund career that ended sadly, almost anonymously (as would his life soon after)—in many ways the inevitable result of systemic racism and various related injustices. There was also the unavoidable fact that practically everyone who knew him acknowledged he was difficult: needling, mischievous, at times incorrigible. However, in early 2018, around the time I received my acceptance letter from Cornell, Schirmer Editions acquired his compositional catalog, thus making news for something Eastman no doubt would have loved to have experienced when he was actually still alive. I started wondering: What’s going on here? What is the real reason his music is being salvaged and celebrated now? How do institutions and organizations seemingly benefit from the “diversity” he posthumously brings, now doubly benefit from no longer having to deal with him as a person, volatile artist or not? In all the well-intentioned attempts to revive his music and retell his story, what is being rewritten, avoided, or glossed over? On the most practical level, what is really happening (better: what is really being done) when Eastman’s compositions are performed and shared now? Especially given these works’ heavy reliance on Eastman’s in-person directions in-the-moment, the social and creative dynamics he generated with his presence and guidance could rightly be considered an ever-emerging semi-oral tradition. Where do I and my collaborators fit in this on-going legacy?

Julius Eastman in performance

In the attempts to answer, or at the very least, sit with these questions, I am thankful and indebted to my ever-growing community of colleagues and collaborators—too numerous to adequately acknowledge here—from Los Angeles, New York, and now, at Cornell, and the many experiences, opportunities, and shared resources over which those communities have come together. In January and February 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic had just begun to change the world as we know it, I was thankful to host several members of these communities here in Ithaca and at Cornell, Eastman’s hometown and old stomping grounds, however uneasy that historical tension may be. The CCHK has made it clear in its mission that its “dedication to the intersection of performance and scholarship… promotes the integration of historical, technological, cross-cultural, and analytical approaches to the keyboard and its repertories… [and] aim[s] to bridge boundaries of time, geography, and culture.” Yes, both I and the CCHK represent a mostly European, mostly white tradition of colonial and patriarchal music, systems of privilege and access in which Eastman—however embedded and integral he was to them throughout his life and career—was more often than not tokenized, if not simply excluded. I am all the more thankful to the CCHK and Cornell’s Music Department for recognizing and supporting the ongoing and vital work that I, in the footsteps of other champions of Eastman (performers, scholars, historians), continue to pursue, humbly considering myself among them. I’m indebted to the CCHK for envisioning a historical performance practice that includes even the most very recent history of modern musical practices, as well as histories of the disenfranchised and underrepresented, as urgently and profoundly as the long history of historical keyboards and their centuries of storied and celebrated personae.

Without overlooking or obscuring differences of race, as a queer person myself, I’ve also been awestruck, inspired, and gleefully invigorated by Eastman’s example of gay living and queer world-making. When performing his music, I feel an unbridled enthusiasm, energy, freedom, and power—pride in the truest sense, perhaps more than any other composer I’ve played. These are matched only by feelings of great responsibility as well. Not the responsibility to “get it right” or “play it as he intended”—I’ve never found that kind of dogmatism of certain interpretive ideologies all that compelling or fulfilling. Eastman’s story and oeuvre barely maps onto such a deified enshrining of “The Composer’s Intentions” anyway, try as some might to capture and cage his work in that now-wearisome, unacceptably colonial practice of canon-building and -maintenance. In my mind, the responsibility I feel to Eastman’s music is in part to avoid such appropriation and misrepresentation. Reconstructing his legacy as a composer, building an “Eastmanian performance practice” requires great care and nuance, taking a cue from Muñoz’s calls for “utopian readings,” after Sedgwick’s “reparative hermeneutics.”[2] What is required is a thoughtful and considerate treatment of Eastman’s wholeness as a human—as he famously proclaimed, “Black to the fullest, a musician to the fullest, a homosexual to the fullest”—while accepting and acknowledging any gaps or unsavory facts equally.[3] Anything else would be tantamount to opportunistic white-washing and queer-baiting, replicating, commodifying, and reselling his work—body and soul—now neatly stripped of its problematic bits, or worse: retaining just the most salacious or race-baiting parts to feign authenticity, totally devoid of context and human complexity. Let us not reduce Eastman’s story or works to tabloid headlines or classical music clickbait, merely “useful” during this period of racial reckoning and institutional attempts at restructuring and decolonizing, only to be forgotten as a fad.

I have learned from those who knew Eastman best—as well as those who have come to know him by devoting incredible time and energies to him and his work—that to study him and to perform his music means committing to understanding and empathizing with his strength of spirit and breadth of vision, not just the letters and words on his pages (or lack thereof). I had to learn this attitude (and not easily!) from musical-spiritual elders and forebears, some of whom I’m inspired and grateful to call colleagues, similarly dedicated to Eastman’s music and related practices, walking a fine and studied line that takes time and thoughtfulness if we are to honor with respect while avoiding erasing or manipulating.

Maybe it took a decade, but I am now obsessed with Eastman. As immediacy is often matched by its own ephemerality, nothing worthwhile comes quick and easy. So, I prefer this long-term appreciation and understanding to any flash obsession. Because of my colleagues’ examples of shining musicianship and thoughtful scholarship, this obsession is due in part to the processes of creation and exploration in realizing his elusive scores and progressive visions, to study his fascinating life of myriad experiences, diverse talents, and many creative and social circles. There is also a not insignificant amount of hope, however futile, to recover and rectify that which is nevertheless irretrievably lost: the too-short life of a brilliant gay Black man, a musician whose greatest celebrations, while wonderful and exciting, have regrettably happened without him.

Eastman with fellow composers Tania León and Talib Hakim, and Corrine Coleman, program director of the Brooklyn Philharmonic Community Concert Series, outside the old New York Times building in Midtown Manhattan in the mid-1970s. Photo by Marbeth, via Tania León.


[1] Mark Swed, “The Resurrection of Julius Eastman: Gay, Black and Brilliant,” Latimes.Com, January 24, 2017, accessed October 3, 2018, http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/arts/la-et-cm-monday-evening-concerts-review-20170124-story.html. Monday Evening Concerts, “Program Booklet: A Portrait of Julius Eastman,” January 23, 2017, http://www.mondayeveningconcerts.org/uploads/6/2/6/5/62651779/eastman_program_booklet.pdf. Swed, “The Ecstasy of Julius Eastman’s ‘Femenine,’ and How Angst and Anger Turn to Beauty and Grace,” Latimes.Com, May 22, 2018, http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/arts/la-et-cm-monday-evening-concerts-julius-eastman-review-20180522-htmlstory.html. Monday Evening Concerts, “Program Booklet: Meredith Monk and Julius Eastman: [MASCULINE] / FEMENINE,” May 21, 2018, mondayeveningconcerts.org/uploads/6/2/6/5/62651779/eastman_monk_program_booklet.pdf. “Program Booklet: Julius Eastman and Sarah Hennies: ‘The Gender of Sound,’” January 14, 2019, http://www.mondayeveningconcerts.org/uploads/6/2/6/5/62651779/gender_of_sound_final_program_note_.pdf.

[2] José Esteban Muñoz, Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity, 10th Anniversary edition. (New York: New York University Press, 2019). Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity (Durham: Duke University Press, 2003).

[3] Renate Strauss, “Julius Eastman: Will the Real One Stand Up?,” Buffalo Evening News, July 17, 1976.

Image credits (from top)

- Eastman during a rehearsal with the S.E.M. Ensemble at SUNY Buffalo, 1974. Photo by Chris Rusiniak.

Untitled (Julius Eastman), ca. 1980, © Andrew Roth.

Ithaca Sounding 2020 program booklet, artwork, and design by Laura Anca Chichisan.

- Eastman takes a break from rehearsing with S.E.M. Ensemble at the Griffis Sculpture Park, East Otto, NY. Photo by Chris Rusiniak © 1975, 2018.

- Rehearsing Peter Maxwell Davies's Eight Songs for a Mad King (1969), November 1, 1970. Photo by Jim Tuttle.

- Eastman with fellow composers Tania León and Talib Hakim, and Corrine Coleman, program director of the Brooklyn Philharmonic Community Concert Series, outside the old New York Times building in Midtown Manhattan in the mid-1970s. Photo by Marbeth, via Tania León.

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