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Julius Eastman - Unjust Malaise

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Artist: Julius Eastman

Album: Unjust Malaise

Label: New World

Review date: Dec. 6, 2005

In 1969, after working with Peter Maxwell Davies on a score for his film, The Devils, Ken Russell funded the recording of the Nonesuch release of Eight Songs for a Mad King. A theatrical music piece, perhaps the most audacious of Davies’ career, in many ways matched Russell's flair for the surreal. At the center of the piece, a flamboyant king, in a truly virtuosic display, attempts to teach a group of caged birds to sing. The king on the record was Julius Eastman.

Until now, this performance has been the only document of Eastman's immense talent and controversial position in contemporary music. However, in their continuing commitment to contemporary composition, New World has just made available Unjust Malaise, a three-disc glimpse at the work of a true musical anomaly. Here, Eastman's commitment to experimentation and his unique vision is readily on display for a truly indebted, if unknowing younger generation.

The first piece here, "Stay On It" from 1973, is a surprising variation on the conceptual rigidity of minimalism. Eastman begins with an upbeat and airy motif; the incessant repetition easily foreshadowed the emotional territory and process of Steve Reich's pieces from five years later. Yet, Eastman is not concerned with structuralism, or hypnotic disorientation, or the American appropriation of "ethnic" musics by Reich and Glass. While Reich was mining the musical methods of Ghana's drumming music, Eastman, an African-American and homosexual in a climate of predominantly white, hetero composers, was concerned with something entirely different.

"Stay On It" is an attack, albeit a quiet one, on its musical materials. It begins by repeating a phrase, seemingly more of an exploration of redundancy than one of "gradual process," as Kyle Gann suggests in Unjust Malaise's liner notes. As the piece continues, Eastman continually subverts and deconstructs the melody; he inserts decay and chaos into the repetition as a way of slowly degrading the systems he set up for himself. The only piece that comes to mind as any sort of precedent is Luc Ferrari's "Interrupteur,” yet Eastman is far more lucid and comprehensible in "Stay On It.” The piece ends with a sole rattle, the sound of music disintegrated and fading away.

This sense of defiance seems present in all of Eastman's markedly political pieces. He effortlessly transforms idioms. "If You're So Smart, Why Aren't You Rich?” begins as a shrill experiment in chromaticism (which Eastman must have been extremely familiar with as a student of Morton Feldman's and a member of the S.E.M. Ensemble), but eventually succumbs to something much more understandable, something more harmonious, with anticipated rhythms and a sense of weight. Density, in fact, becomes the major preoccupation of Eastman in the other four pieces contained on this set.

"The Holy Presence of Joan D'Arc,” "Gay Guerilla,” "Evil Nigger,” and "Crazy Nigger" are all notable for their malignant instrumental homogeneity, the first piece being for 10 cellos, and the latter three being written for four pianos. Rather than indulging in harmonically-dense drones, Eastman flirts with melodic, idiomatic, and political ideas and uses the multiple instruments as a way to attach lead shoes to his pieces. "The Holy Presence of Joan D'Arc" is a romantic piece, swelling and unfurling with tinges of dissonance, yet the rich, honey-like sinews of cello melodies seem to drag the piece into horrified immobility, a frozen portrait of Carl Dryer and Maria Faloconetti's Joan, eternally aflame.

"Gay Guerilla" starts with a serenely shimmering gallop that inevitably flows out in a deep, sprawling river, replete with a liberal quote from the Martin Luther hymn, "A Mighty Fortress is Our Lord." This slow, accumulating build, suggesting a growing strength in the gay community, serves somewhat as what Gann refers to as Eastman's "gay manifesto." The beautiful symmetry that Eastman achieves by layering the same instrument over itself could be an exploration of this aspect of his sexual orientation.

"Evil Nigger" runs at a breakneck pace and the sheer density begins to drown out the percussive nature of the instrument. Eastman then manipulates these swarming clusters into extended tones that serve the piece's melodic development. Finally, Eastman strips the density away, leaving nothing but a few knotty notes punctuating several minutes of silence. "Crazy Nigger," the longest work presented here, borrows ideas from the other pieces, often instating a repetitive pulse in order to keep time, in a manner reminiscent of Terry Riley, except with a fluctuating pitch. It maintains Eastman's sense of strong melodic motifs, proclivities towards weightiness, and employment episodic structures, all of which become personal trademarks by the end of the three-disc set.

As apparent from the titles, Eastman's political concerns are at the forefront of these compositions. Yet, Eastman is remarkable for the non-assaulting nature of his work. He seems to have an innate ability to make elegant cascading rhythms and balance subtle melodies while simultaneously dealing with the charged politics of being outcast from society. Unjust Malaise is as much an anomaly as Eastman himself, except now, there is finally a chance to truly appreciate it.

By Matt Wellins

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