Julius Eastman's music gains new life at Carnegie Museum
Few people remember the groundbreaking, thoroughly original music of Julius Eastman.
That could change soon, thanks to Jace Clayton — best known as the pioneering electronic musician DJ/rupture. Clayton will perform Eastman's music live March 14 at the Carnegie Museum of Art in Oakland.
Eastman was a mercurial minimalist composer and pianist, and defiant outsider to the world of contemporary classical music. As a gay African American working in the late '70s and '80s, fitting in easily probably wasn't an option.
But Eastman was a provocateur by nature. Giving his pieces titles like 1980's “Gay Guerilla,” which appropriates pieces of Martin Luther's hymn “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” probably didn't make his work easier to accept.
He died at age 49, having spent his last few months homeless.
When Clayton discovered Eastman's music about four years ago, he was shocked.
“I was blown away. Long 25-minute epic pieces for piano. It's minimalism, but they're very muscular at points, gentle and delicate at others,” Clayton says. “These overwhelming pieces — it's almost as if there are worlds within them.
“He was ... part of the scene in all kinds of contemporary music — classical minimalist composers, but also in the disco world with Arthur Russell and others. This was very serious and underappreciated.”
At the time he was introduced to Eastman, Clayton says he was interested in doing something with pianos. This led to “The Julius Eastman Memory Depot,” an album interpreting and paying tribute to Eastman.
His concert at the Warhol will use custom-designed software to “process” the piano playing of David Friend and Emily Manzo, with vocals from Arooj Aftab.
“It's two pianists, playing Eastman's scores,” Clayton says. “On top of that, I am taking a microphone from each piano, and pulling (the music) into my laptop. I'm improvising, doing different kinds of effects, real-time sampling and processing, getting real-time piano and transforming it.”
Clayton's DJ/rupture persona is pretty far removed from any sort of classical music, juxtaposing hip-hop music, Jamaican dance hall, South American cumbia, Berber tribal music and other left-field sources into challenging extended mixes. However, he's confident that fans of unusual electronic music will come along for the ride, even into modern classical compositions.
Eastman may just be another case of an artist ahead of his time. But institutional racism, homophobia and a penchant for self-sabotage also affected the sparse, incomplete legacy he left.
“He knew what he was doing,” Clayton says. “He wants to be seen in this (classical music) world, but doesn't want to accept it as it is.”
Clayton also will perform one of his own compositions, “Callback from the American Society of Eastman Supporters” — which imagines a future where Eastman impersonators are as commonplace as Elvis impersonators.
“The conceit is that I'm being interviewed for the job as a Julius Eastman impersonator. It has radio-type sound effects, and a whole story to it.
“There's a small group of people who are like ‘This is a legacy that you shouldn't mess with,” Clayton says. “It's mixing very serious, intense music, with elements of playfulness, surprise and unscriptedness. Which is in Eastman's spirit.”
Michael Machosky is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-320-7901.