Art of the City

‘Speak Boldly When They Question You’: At the Kitchen, a Moving and Multifarious Tribute to Composer Julius Eastman

A performance of Julius Eastman’s Crazy Nigger (1979) at the Knockdown Center in Maspeth, Queens, on January 28.

THE KITCHEN

It is not even the second week of February, but the Kitchen’s festival for the late, great composer Julius Eastman, “That Which Is Fundamental,” has already firmly secured a spot as one of highlights of 2018 in New York. A string of exhilarating performances, all sold out, have concluded, but a treasure box of an exhibition of Eastman’s archival materials remains on view through this Saturday at the Chelsea alternative space alongside a moving show, inspired by the artist’s work, of contemporary art, including pieces by Sondra Perry, Carolyn Lazard, and Chloë Bass. Recordings of the long-neglected musician’s work have trickled online, and there are records available, too, plus a book. If you are not yet a fan of Eastman, who died in 1990, at the age of 49, now is the time to become one.

Many of Eastman’s compositions are ingenious studies in repetition and endurance, plumbing the effects they can generate on a spectrum ranging from the sublime to the monstrous. His works churn and metamorphose slowly—and sometimes violently. His compositions are about how minute ideas and groups of individual players can clash and battle, then come together and yield outside returns. In this way, they have links to contemporaneous creations like the wall drawings of Sol LeWitt, the hand-fashioned nets of Eva Hesse, the blurred abstract paintings of Jack Whitten, David Diao, and Gerhard Richter, and the “Wave” paintings of Lee Lozano. These are all works in which thrilling surprises emerge from relentless repetition. They gallantly engage with chance and improvisation in ways that can evince vulnerability and trauma.

At the Knockdown Center in Maspeth, Queens, on January 28, four players, each at their own piano, hit the keys rapid-fire, building waves of sound as they traded a recurring motif amongst themselves. This was the 1979 work Evil Nigger (1979), and it was, at most moments, amazingly formidable: pure power resounded through that huge warehouse space. But then it would turn precarious, even fragile, as the pianos went in disparate, dissonant directions. When that happened, Joseph Kubera, one of the four players, would shout “1–2–3–4!,” then he and the others—Dynasty Battles, Michelle Cann, and Adam Tender—would be at it again, united, charging deeper into the piece, like a metal version of Flight of the Bumblebee improbably written for piano. The audience, sitting on all four sides of the musicians, rewarded their virtuosic 20-minute performance with thunderous applause.

On February 3, at the Kitchen, ten cellists sliced away at The Holy Presence of Joan d’Arc (1981), a gorgeous melody working its way through a wall of notes, and Trumpet (1970), for which seven players on that instrument squealed in the cacophonous and majestic manner of a good, functioning democracy before retreating to an unlikely peace.

Eastman.

THE KITCHEN

Eastman was raised in Ithaca, New York, and “one of the foundations of our family was that everybody had a piano—all of our grandparents had pianos, there was a piano in my house when I grew up,” his older brother, Gerry Eastman, told the Kitchen on January 27, before performing an improvisation in honor of Julius on guitar with his quartet. “My mother bought my brother a seven-foot grand piano, which I still have in my loft today, when she found out he had some talent.” He listened to Julius play throughout their youth, and, he said, “I never heard a piano player that sounded better than him.”

The tragic stretches of Julius’s life and work have been regularly repeated in stories about his posthumous revival, Gerry said. Many of his scores have been lost. Some others survive only partially, and a few works in the festival, which was organized by Tiona Nekkia McClodden and Dustin Hurt, of Bowerbird, the Philadelphia organization that presented the it last year, were reconstructed by admirers. Late in his life, he may have been mentally ill and was homeless for a period.

But people should also know, Gerry said, that his brother could be the life of the party. During the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s in Buffalo (where he settled after attending Curtis in Philadelphia), New York (he performed at the Kitchen), and abroad, he was a key member of the vanguard music community. In a line that is often quoted, Julius once said, “What I am trying to achieve is to be what I am to the fullest—Black to the fullest, a musician to the fullest, and a homosexual to the fullest.” He composed, collaborated, and performed feverishly, and earned a Grammy nomination for his singing.

And some of the festival’s most touching moments came with the performance of Eastman’s vocal works. For Prelude to The Holy Presence of Joan d’Arc, Julian Terrell Otis performed a capella, with high drama, as he teased nuance out of just a few lines: “Saint Michael said/Saint Margaret said/Saint Catherine said/They said/He said/She said/Joan/Speak Boldly/When they question you.”

Macle (1971) made use of four singers, all from the group Ekmeles, who let out quick yelps, quacks, and coughs, told stories, and performed bits of songs they had selected—“Amazing Grace,” Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance,” the Beach Boys’s “Don’t Talk,” and Jamila Wood’s chorus on Donnie Trumpet & the Social Experiment’s “Sunday Candy”: “You gotta move it slowly/Take and eat my body like it’s holy.” They overlapped their parts, then went quiet, giving each other space to be heard. Before long they were saying, with varying forms of intonation and inflection: “TAKE HEART, TAKE”—a long pause”—“HEART. TAKE. HEART! TAKE HEART!” They ran into the audience shouting it, and then sprinted out of the room, slamming doors behind them.

Take heart. Keep pushing. Keep going. That is the message and the conviction that Eastman’s work radiates, in ways both ultra-sincere and playfully ironic. In Fememine (1974) at the Kitchen on January 25, an almost brutally loud pair of mechanically controlled sleigh bells laid down a bed of thick white noise that a repeating vibraphone worked to break through. A piano provided quiet chords. Flute, bassoon, trombone, and keyboard glided in. It went on for more than an hour, building ever so gradually, with the piano’s chords becoming more extroverted, almost rhapsodic. You couldn’t believe it could get bigger, you couldn’t believe it hadn’t ended, you didn’t want it to end.

Julius Eastman’s Femenine (1974) being performed at the Kitchen on January 25 with the S.E.M. Ensemble.

THE KITCHEN

On that frigid Sunday night at the Knockdown Center, four pianists closed the evening with Crazy Nigger (1979), the high point in a festival that had no shortage of them. It began with insistent, urgent jabs on the piano, order that threatened to spill into chaos. At points, all four players were hammering notes, crescendoing gradually, letting loose cascades of sound that were obliquely romantic and almost unearthly in their density. Near the end, they slowed and fell away. A single player let loose huge, deep notes, which rang through the brick space like the tintinnabulation of a giant bell being struck at a glorious ceremony.

Nine additional people got up from their seats in the crowd and stood behind various players, reaching down to the piano, joining in. The tempo, set by the lowest rings, was deliberate as the other players struck keys, making it sound like the loudest harp in the world was ringing in a cavernous cathedral—it was celestial music, speaking boldly, with nothing held back.

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