Julius Eastman

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Julius Eastman (October 27, 1940 – May 28, 1990) was an African-American composer, pianist, vocalist, and dancer of minimalist tendencies. He was among the first musicians to combine minimalist processes with elements of pop music. He often gave his pieces titles with provocative political intent, such as Evil Nigger and Gay Guerrilla.


Eastman grew up in Ithaca, New York, with his mother, Frances Eastman, and older brother, Gerry, where he began studying piano at age 14 and made rapid progress. He began college at Ithaca College and transferred to the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. There he studied piano with Mieczyslaw Horszowski and composition with Constant Vauclain, and switched majors from piano to composition. He made his debut as a pianist in 1966 at Town Hall in New York City. He also had a rich, deep, and extremely flexible singing voice, for which he became noted for his 1973 Nonesuch recording of Eight Songs for a Mad King by the British composer Peter Maxwell Davies. Eastman's talents brought the attention of composer-conductor Lukas Foss, who conducted the composer's music in performance at the Brooklyn Philharmonic. Gerry Eastman, a jazz guitarist and bassist, is the proprietor of Williamsburg Music Center in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.

Eastman often wrote his music following what he called an "organic" principle. Each new section of a work contained all the information from previous sections, though sometimes "the information is taken out at a gradual and logical rate." The principle is most evident in his three works for four pianos, Evil Nigger, Crazy Nigger, and Gay Guerrilla, all from around 1979. The last of these appropriates Martin Luther's hymn, "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God," as a gay manifesto.[1] Eastman's Stay On It from 1973 was an influential postminimalist piece that incorporated pop music influences.

In 1970, Eastman joined the Center for the Creative and Performing Arts at SUNY Buffalo, where he met the Czech-born composer, conductor, and flutist Petr Kotik. Eastman and Kotik performed together extensively in the early to mid-1970s. Eastman was a founding member of the S.E.M. Ensemble. From 1971 he performed and toured with the group, and composed numerous works for it. Many of the earliest performances of Eastman's works were given by the Creative Associates ensemble of SUNY Buffalo, of which he was a member from 1968.

A 1980 piece for Eastman's voice and cello ensemble, The Holy Presence of Jeanne d'Arc, was performed at The Kitchen in New York City. In 1986 the choreographer Molissa Fenley set his dance Geologic Moments to Eastman's Thruway, which was premiered at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Also a vocalist, Eastman recorded with Meredith Monk's ensemble for her influential album Dolmen Music (1981).

Despondent about what he saw as a dearth of worthy professional opportunities, Eastman grew increasingly dependent on alcohol and possibly on crack-cocaine after 1983. His life fell apart. He had taught theory at SUNY Buffalo. A promised job at Cornell University failed to materialize. At one point he was evicted from his apartment, his belongings (including scores) confiscated by the sheriff, and he was forced to live in Tompkins Square Park.

Despite a temporary attempt at a comeback, Eastman died alone at the age of 49 in Millard Fillmore Hospital in Buffalo of cardiac arrest. No public notice was given to his death until an obituary by Kyle Gann appeared in the Village Voice; it was dated January 22, 1991, eight months after he died.[2] Eastman's notational methods were loose and open to interpretation. Revival of his music has been a difficult task, dependent on people who worked with him.

Artistic legacy[edit]

The composer Mary Jane Leach has sought out scores by Eastman and posted her finds of his work to her website.[3]

In 2007 the California E A R Unit gave a performance of Crazy Nigger at REDCAT (The Roy and Edna Disney CalArts Theater in the Walt Disney Concert Hall Complex).

Eastman's piece Crazy Nigger was performed March 15, 2008, during 7th Edition Dag in de Branding Festival, The Hague, the Netherlands.[4]

On March 26, 2013, New Amsterdam Records released an album by Jace Clayton entitled The Julius Eastman Memory Depot. The album includes performances of "Evil Nigger" and "Gay Guerilla" by David Friend and Emily Manzo that have been manipulated and re-arranged by Clayton. The album's final track is a tribute to the late composer titled, "Callback from the American Society of Eastman Supporters."

Performer/Composer Amy Knoles has recently created a 4.0 solo live electronic version of Crazy Nigger and toured Europe and the Pacific Northwest in the Fall of 2013, with a program called Julius Eastman FOUND[5] (performed on the MalletKat with an elaborate system of loops that she developed in Ableton LIVE with the Keith McMillen 12Step foot controller).

Known works[edit]

  • Tripod (1960s) for unspecified instruments
  • Piano Piece I (1968) for solo piano
  • Piano Piece II (1968) for solo piano
  • Piano Piece III (1968) for solo piano
  • Piano Piece IV (1968) for solo piano
  • Thruway (1970) for chorus (plus other unspecified instruments)
  • The Moon's Silent Modulation (1970) for dancers, vocalists and chamber ensemble
  • Touch Him When (?) for piano 4 hands
  • Macle (1971) for voices and electronics
  • Comp 1 (1971) for solo flute
  • Mumbaphilia (1972) for solo performer and dancers
  • Wood in Time (1972) for metronomes
  • Stay on It (1973) for voice, clarinet, 2 saxes, violin, piano and percussion
  • 440 (1973) for voice, violin, viola and double bass
  • Femenine (1974) for chamber ensemble
  • If You're So Smart, Why Aren't You Rich? (1977) for violin, 2 French horns, 4 trumpets, 2 trombones, tuba, piano, 2 chimes and 2 basses
  • NF (1978) for piano
  • Piece for 2 pianos (1979)
  • Evil Nigger (1979) for 4 pianos
  • Gay Guerilla (ca. 1980) for 4 pianos
  • Crazy Nigger (ca. 1980) for 4 pianos
  • The Holy Presence of Joan d'Arc (1981) for ten cellos
  • Untitled [Prelude to The Holy Presence of Joan d'Arc] (1981?) for solo voice
  • His Most Qualityless Majesty (1983) for piano and voice
  • Piano 2 (1986) for solo piano


  • 2005 - Unjust Malaise, by various artists (New World 80638) (Includes Stay On It; If You're So Smart, Why Aren't You Rich; Prelude to The Holy Presence of Joan d'Arc; The Holy Presence of Joan d'Arc; Gay Guerrilla; Evil Nigger; Crazy Nigger; and Spoken Introduction to Northwestern University Concert)
  • 1987 - Davies, Peter Maxwell. Miss Donnithorne's Maggot; Eight Songs for a Mad King. London: Unicorn-Kanchana. (Includes Julius Eastman, baritone.)
  • 1983 - Monk, Meredith. Turtle Dreams (Includes Julius Eastman, organ.)
  • 1982 - Dinosaur L. "24->24 Music" (Includes Julius Eastman, keyboards and voice.)
  • 1981 - Monk, Meredith. Dolmen Music. (Includes Julius Eastman, percussion and voice.)
  • 1972 - Kolb, Barbara, and Richard Moryl. New York: Desto. (Includes Julius Eastman, narrator, on Side A.)


  1. ^ Wellins, Matt (2005-12-06). "Dusted Reviews: "Julius Eastman: Unjust Malaise"". Dusted. 
  2. ^ Gann, Kyle (2005). "That which is fundamental: Julius Eastman 1940-1990". Music downtown: writings from The Village voice. University of California Press. p. 289. ISBN 0-520-22982-7. 
  3. ^ "Julius Eastman Scores". Mary Jane Leach. 2009-05-27. Retrieved 2009-06-04. 
  4. ^ "Festival eigentijdse muziek Dag in de Branding EXPECT THE UNEXPECTED!". Dag in de Branding Festival. 2008-03-15. Retrieved 2009-06-04. [dead link]
  5. ^ Recent performances, Amy Knoles.

External links[edit]

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