Julius Eastman - Three Extended Pieces for Four Pianos
Over the last decade and a half, it’s been incredible to witness the ascending star of the composer Julius Eastman. A celebrated figure within the New York experimental music scene during the 1970s and '80s, over the years following his untimely death in 1990 he and his work drifted into sinful neglect. Largely thanks to a series of archival releases attending to his work - New World Records' Unjust Malaise and The Zürich Concert, Frozen Reeds' Femenine, Blume Editions' The N*gger Series, etc. - attention has finally come his way, placing him at the centre of the consciousness of a new generation of listeners. Within this gathering momentum, numerous ensembles at the vanguard of contemporary experimental music - Wild Up, So Percussion, Kukuruz Quartet, Apartment House - have recently begun issuing albums of new and exciting interpretations of the composer’s work. High among these is Sub Rosa’s latest, Three Extended Pieces for Four Pianos, featuring brand new recording of three seminal works composed by Eastman between 1970 and 1980 - Evil N*gger (1979), Gay Guerilla (1980) and Crazy N*gger (1980), realized live in 2019 by Nicolas Horvath, Melaine Dalibert, Stephane Ginsburgh, and Wilhem Latchoumia, at the Festival Musica in Strasbourg, France. Stretching across up two full CDs and accompanied by a 10-page booklet with new liner notes by Mary Jane Leach, these performances are absolutely stunning and impossible to recommend enough.
During his tragically brief life, Julius Eastman burned like a wild fire. A brilliant composer, pianist, and vocalist who, with contemporaries like Arthur Russell, Arnold Dreyblatt, Ellen Fullman, Rhys Chatham, Glenn Branca, and numerous others, pioneered the development of post-minimal music, he was among only a handful African American artists at the center of New York’s experimental music scene during the 1970s and '80s. Contentious, confrontational, and brash, he was also among the first artists to draw the subjects of ethnicity and queer identity into conceptual sphere of that scene; interventions that rarely went down well within a context that was dominantly middle-class, heteronormative, and white. Sadly, this led to attacks upon him by prominent composers like John Cage, a factor that contributed to the long-lasting degradation of his legacy that has only just begun to be repaired.
Among the most explicit of the works attending to these subjects - race and sexuality - were those falling under the heading of the N*gger Series, premiered by Eastman in January of 1980 at Northwestern University, just outside of Chicago. Three of these - Evil N*gger, Gay Guerilla, and Crazy N*gger - make up the totality of Sub Rosa’s Three Extended Pieces for Four Pianos, featuring brand new recording made by Nicolas Horvath, Melaine Dalibert, Stephane Ginsburgh, and Wilhem Latchoumia.
While none of the works within the N*gger Series explicitly state they must be executed on piano - being composed by Eastman “for any number of similar instruments” - since their debut by the composer on piano in 1980, they have almost always featured the same instrumentation. The first of these, Evil N*gger, sets the tone by launching forward with franticly paced tonality, moving effortless through passages of multi-tonality, before reaching a conclusion of beautiful restraint and sparsely placed notes. The second work in the collection is Gay Guerrilla, easily the most dramatic of the three, which rises, in the words of the composer Mary Jane Leach, as “a queer call to arms, both sacred and secular”. The final work, Crazy N***r, extending to almost an hour in length, takes up the entirety of the second CD in the collection, and is a sprawling sonic study of startling density and minimalist restraint that traverses a wonderful harmonic and rhythmic range.
Standing tall among only a tiny number of recordings of these works since Eastman first laid them to tape, Three Extended Pieces for Four Pianos is a truly essential immersion for any fan of the composer’s work. This wonderful double CD edition, is issued by Sub Rosa with a 10-page booklet, complete with brand new liner notes by the composer and Eastman scholar Mary Jane Leach. Impossible to recommend enough.