Sunday the 27th of October would have been the 73rd birthday of Julius Eastman the ‘forgotten’ minimalist composer. In the midst of Lou Reed’s passing its occurred to me that I often find it just as sad (if not sadder) when artists die before receiving the appraisal that they deserve and Eastman to me certainly fits into that category.
Living and working in New York Eastman is thought of as one of the first composers to attach notions of popular music with classical composition. Presenting his music at the likes of Arthur Russell’s iconic performance space The Kitchen in the 70s he titled his extensive pieces names such as ‘Gay Guerrilla‘ and ‘Evil Nigger‘ sprouting political agenda into the conservatism of the classical world. Known on the circuit in New York he often played with the likes of John Cage and Meredith Monk but never did his own individual work escalate to a higher level. Much like how Arthur Russell’s music has been ‘rediscovered’ over the last decade so has Eastman’s but his decision to never venture too far into the diversity of disco seven inches and acoustic love songs like how Russell did has made it harder to trace his music.
Existing in the classical structure meant that having your compositions performed was a strenuously long process therefore its quite incredible that Eastman’s work still exists today. Even more so in context to the end of his life; contemporaries of Eastman have confirmed that circumstances largely out of his control contributed to his obscurity especially the tragedy of his own unexplained death. The last ten years of his own life spiralled out of control and ended with him living in Thompson Park Square losing most of his possessions (and his music) and finally dying alone at the age of 49 in 1990 in Millard Fillmore Hospital in Buffalo of cardiac arrest. What does exist of his music is completely sublime, however the question over why his work is not as well known rises over his own identity as a homosexual African American, a tough place for any young man to be at the time but especially so in the stifling world of classical music. It is so sad that there was no one to nurture Eastman in the way that he deserved; no one to archive his talent so it could be more in the open now and that he has remained so anonymous and unappreciated for so long.