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Julius Eastman was a pianist, dancer, vocalist and composer whose creative approach to minimalism and repetition confounded the power structure in classical music. He was a gay Black man in a space reserved for straight white people, and the politically-charged nature of his work scared those who weren’t ready for his fearless authenticity. Though they winced at the composition titles Crazy Nigger, Evil Nigger and Gay Guerrilla, they were nonetheless intrigued by the immersive nature of the work. He’d often begin with a piano chord, slowly building upon it until the music swelled. While it took patience to absorb Eastman’s work, the results were always intriguing; you had to let the piece build to something that transcended dimensions.
Born in 1940, Eastman grew up in Ithaca, New York and began studying piano at the age of 14. A quick study, he soon landed at Ithaca College but transferred to the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, where he studied piano with Mieczyslaw Horszowski and composition with Constant Vauclain. He eventually went back to New York and settled in Buffalo, where he continued to hone his craft. Eastman debuted professionally at Town Hall in New York City in 1966, and swiftly gained traction as a capable pianist and vocalist with an immaculate baritone.
Four years later, he joined the creative and performing arts school at the State University of New York at Buffalo, where he met the noted flutist Petr Kotik, with whom he started performing in the early 1970s. They co-founded the S.E.M. Ensemble; in 1974, in the arts center at the Academy of the Holy Names in Albany, the Ensemble performed what might be Eastman’s best work: Femenine. According to The New York Times, collaborator Mary Jane Leach had long possessed audio of the composition, but didn’t think she could release it due to rights issues. That was until Ian Fenton, who runs the Helsinki-based label Frozen Reeds, put it out to massive acclaim. “People started flowing to ‘Femenine,’” Leach told the paper. “And it’s just been building up. I gave up trying to keep track of it.”
Femenine begins with looping sleigh bells that operate as the backing beat. After the crowd settles and the horn section tunes its instruments, the music lunges into what it’ll be for the next hour-plus: a gorgeous spiral of flute, vibraphone, piano, violin and cello that emits a saintly aura, as if white gates are opening above the clouds. I admire the discipline it must’ve taken to play this piece. Artists evolve from one note to the next, so to hit the same chords for an extended time demonstrates the machinelike precision that the Ensemble employed. Still, there’s an unfolding happening here: The composition builds upon itself, ascending and receding, each section slightly different from the previous one.
Though Eastman would have other productive years, with his most provocative work coming at the end of the decade, Femenine represented the moment when his talent and ingenuity converged. The ambitious prodigy met the industrious scholar; the results still challenge and inspire today. Eastman was never given the credit he deserved. By the early 1980s, he struggled with drug usage and mental illness, and was evicted from his New York City apartment. His scores were confiscated by local law enforcement, and he lived outside and between shelters at one point. Eastman eventually made his way back to Buffalo, where he died of cardiac arrest. His friends and colleagues didn’t know he had passed until eight months later when The Village Voice ran an obit. He was 49. Still, the circumstances of his demise shouldn’t be his legacy; instead, we should celebrate Eastman as the creative mastermind he was.