Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

My father knew Julius Eastman

April 11, 2007

Julius Eastman
Not really. It's just that there is a part of me that would like to imagine Eastman as a late 20th century Charles Ives – a multi-talented rebel with his own idiosyncratic approach to music. But, of course, there really aren’t many unusual parallels between the two, I think it just makes a good title. Eastman trained in NY and was active in the avant-garde music scene in the 70s and 80s. He died in 1990 in virtual obscurity following years that were marred by homelessness and drug abuse. However, he was known as a excellent vocalist and composer and had worked with such contemporaries as Morton Feldman and Peter Maxwell Davies. I'm not going to spend more time on Eastman's interesting history here given that Kyle Gann and Mary Jane Leach among others did know him and have written elsewhere about him.

For those worried that Salonen’s departure will mean less contemporary music in LA, tonight was a reminder that there are still plenty of other games in town. A sizable crowd (including a visiting Peter Sellars) came out to hear members of the California EAR Unit at the REDCAT downtown in a program that featured a performance of one of Eastman’s pieces for four pianos entitled Crazy N*****. (The *** are mine. Eastman had a penchant for politically provocative titles and while that is perfectly fine for him, publishing them in my blog is another matter.) The work builds on a minimalist tradition where chords and simple two-note structures are repeated over and over again with minor alterations over time. Not unlike Riley’s In C, sequences fade in and out as they replace one another over an ongoing basic pulsing rhythm. At just under 50 minutes the piece creates a hypnotic effect, similar to In C, with short small bursts of beauty and color that builds into a greater cacophony over time. In the end, the piece requires so many lines be played simultaneously that the four pianists must be augmented with an additional six performers to perform on the same the four pianos.

This performance by the four primary pianists Vicki Ray, Erika Duke-Kirkpatrick, Amy Knoles, and Dorothy Stone was a wonder. Crazy follows the tradition of most great minimalist music where the beauty comes not so much from a specific melody, but from an altered sense of time that arises in the course of hypnotic repetition with minor variation. It’s not unlike the films of Jacques Rivette and in many ways I love pieces like this for the same reason I love Celine et Julie Vont en Bateau. What initially seems ridiculously simple and banal slowly takes on a life of its own and develops its own internal logic. The joy is in the details of the mundane and the predictable, a lot like life itself. There is a great 3 CD set of Eastman's music available through New World Records called Unjust Malaise and the recording of his performance of Maxwell Davies' Eight Songs for a Mad King is available overseas. Check them out.


To paraphrase Peter Schickele, "Julius Eastman has been dead a long time; no use covering up for him now." Your blog, your rules, but censoring the man's own title is pretty prissy.
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