Review Summary: .. .. .. .. ..I
It makes sense that last year multi-page layouts on the life and work of Julius Eastman were run by the New Yorker and several other high profile publications. Eastman was black, openly gay, a drug addict, by all accounts a deeply unsettled, troubled man; and one whose staggering talent was intricately plaited with his personage. In the late 70’s, he came to represent something of an addled vitality, a man wedged in the bottleneck of counterculture, an iconoclast whose sociopolitical aspects cast a brief glare on the downtrodden, the disenfranchised, the chronically destitute, and how much artistic clout and vigour was being cradled and ultimately lost in the parts of the population that those espousing ordained living deemed as little more than stuck underfoot. By today’s standards, all of Eastman’s traits come bearing far more benevolent angles, and ones that nowadays are infinitely marketable. His drug-propelled misanthropy, race and sexual preference, his reticent outspokenness about existence, all conflate into a mold that seems perfectly crafted to be condescendingly beloved (if never actually listened to) by young zeitgeisters. The stifled hope here is that perhaps this time around, the short, but achingly exquisite body of work that Eastman left behind won’t be thrown by the wayside or fade into the ether.
Born in New York City, in 1940, Eastman’s musical ambitions flowered early and rapidly. Stints in Ithaca College and the Curtis Institute in Philly (where he apprenticed under the legendary small-handed piano genius of Mieczysław Horszowski) led him to delve into composition. By the time he was graduating, Eastman’s easy skill, nimble playing style and textured voice were staring to carve a clear path for him, all of which led him to Buffalo, where a living stipend allowed him to insulate himself in relative financial comfort, and dive into his art without quotidian, pedantic worry. It was there and then that Eastman started conceiving the pieces that would go on to form Unjust Malaise
, highly-tense exercises in complex symmetry, that existed in a state of coiled hermetic swirls, matching notes overlapping as every composition’s acts shifted in sequence, all of it immaculately assembled into primordial elegance, that was as taut as it was raw.
By then, he had already cemented his standings in New York’s experimental circles, his name becoming a well-known entity in the city’s self-enclosed caches of minimalist composers. However, for Eastman, avant-garde music did not seem to exist in a space of sheer aesthetics. His politics, angry and conscientious, were profoundly interlaced with his performances, something that may have lifted his cultural status in theory, yet all the while alienated his peers from him, the bulk of whom had consigned themselves to compositional beauty as an apolitical, sequestered moment.
Eastman’s turmoil, faced with little attention outside small releases and niche groups, inevitable turned inward. By the end of the 70’s, he had plunged into addiction, led a quarantined lifestyle, one that only worsened as the years ran on. By the time of his death in 1990, he was homeless and utterly ruined, his possessions thrown out and lost, amid them, music sheets, tapes of concerts, writings and what essentially amounted to most of his life’s work.
That turmoil becomes Unjust Malaise
, nervously felt in the eerily articulate agitation of “Evil Ni**er” in the patiently hewn whorl of “Crazy Ni**er,” in instrumental music that miraculously, impossibly feels like it moans and screams and rants, as if a living thing. Swept under, left behind or whatever else it may be, Julius Eastman remains a largely-forgotten monument of New York genius, a small beam of sharp light that shoots a constant signal onto beauty that’s nurtured in only in the most shattered places..
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