JULIUS EASTMAN – Unjust Malaise

(New World)

Thanks to the hard-headed commitment of composer Mary Jane Leach, who spent seven years in search of recorded and written material about her old comrade, we have now the chance to unveil the lost treasure that is the music by Julius Eastman, a black gay artist whose scores belong for the large part in the post-minimalist area (even if the opening track “Stay On It” dates from 1973, well before several masterpieces by Reich, Glass and Riley). Eastman was a deeply inquisitive man with a strong political conscience fueling a “chip-on-the-shoulder” attitude towards the musical establishment, whose members often considered him as “outrageous”, which was barely acceptable at that time. It is safe to assume that his life was destroyed by the lack of recognition for his art: Eastman could not accept that such a great talent lacked public appreciation, dissipating his being until he died homeless in 1990, less than 50 years old. This 3-CD set is the very first release presenting him as a composer. The first disc contains the above mentioned “Stay On It”, a truly great piece based on an obsessive cadenza alternated with improvised sections that reaches the deepest levels in its final part, a well-perceivable irony leaving room to a reflective “rallentando” over pretty sad chords, developing a mournful atmosphere which already gained a high spot in my own graduatory of emotional minimalism. Somehow, I associated this section to Gavin Bryars’ melancholically beautiful Hommages. The nicely titled “If You’re So Smart, Why Aren’t You Rich?” is a chromatic study for large ensemble, perhaps a bit hard for the uninitiated even if its architecture is perfectly detailed and comprehensible. “Prelude To The Holy Presence Of Joan D’Arc” finds Eastman in a vibrant solo voice performance which clearly shows the reason of his admiration for Meredith Monk (he sang in the latter’s Dolmen Music and Turtle Dreams). The main section of the piece, scored for ten cellos, is an incredibly modern vision where a dissonant chain of repetitive figurations mix Led Zeppelin, Bela Bartok, Tony Conrad while predating Mikel Rouse and Andrew Poppy; yet it is unquestionably typified by Eastman’s unique rhythmical/contrapuntal perception. The same insight moves the last works found here – divided onto the second and third disc – namely the pieces for multiple pianos: “Gay Guerilla” is an eight-handed creature whose lyricism spans through constantly morphing harmonies installed on a semi-spiraliform shape reminding of Simeon Ten Holt’s ever-lasting piano cavalcades, only with more refined systems of chordal multiplication. “Evil Nigger” is a propulsive series of rainbow arcs whose ends fall into raging tonal phenomena and melting dissonant ambiguities, its driving pulse affirming it as the most energetically intense composition of the whole set. The longest “Crazy Nigger” alternates delicate raindrops with vehement redundancy, its passionate character mixing “traditional” minimalism and more uncontrollable tendencies to the disgregation of tonality. In various moments of this collection I clearly felt the aching desperation deriving from shredded willpower; no words or notes could help this man to break free from the mental prison called injustice, the very same evil force which decides that mediocrities can become wealthy and famous, whereas fiery intelligencies like Julius Eastman’s remain undisclosed for decades. With the release of Unjust Malaise, a deserving soul is not unknown anymore. Here’s hoping that he can smile, now.


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