Essential music, but listeners who aren’t such purists about analogue may find Unjust Malaise the better value.
The resurgence of interest in composer Julius Eastman has given the artist a renown that he never dreamed of in his lifetime. While he had the opportunity to perform his compositions at Carnegie Hall in 1969, the classical and experimental music scenes in which he operated were not friendly to a flamboyantly gay black man, especially one prone to give his works provocative titles like “Evil N*gger.” Eastman died in 1990 at the age of 49; he was homeless, his manuscripts were assumed lost and his own music was never released. In just a few years, that’s all changed. The N*gger Series issues, for the first time on vinyl, three major compositions recorded in 1980. It’s magnificent music, but vinyl may not be the best way to showcase it, particularly the longer pieces.
You may wonder about his titles. Eastman meant to provoke; when he performed these works in concert at Northwestern University, it was for an audience that was primarily white. But as critic Luciano Cessa writes in Gay Guerilla, a study of Eastman’s work that takes its title from one of the works in this set, the composer used the epithet not out of self-hatred but as a means of empowerment. He seemed to be saying, here’s this ugly word used by people who hate me; listen to the beautiful music I make from it.
Unlike the more varied timbres of the essential 70-minute work Femenine, whose first-ever release in 2016 on the Frozen Reeds label was a revelation, these works are performed only on piano—albeit on four pianos. The recordings here not as immediately transfixing as the piece that may have been many listeners’ introduction to Eastman, but soon enough the big chords and drones evoke the same kind of maximal minimalism.
This two-album set gathers just three pieces. The 29-minute “Gay Guerilla” takes up the album’s first side, and like Femenine it begins slowly. Eastman’s process is an additive one, here structuring the work, as Cessa explains, in a chorale form used by Johann Sebastian Bach. Eastman is inspired here by the hymn “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” whose melody is all but unrecognizable in shimmering crescendos built of elements far above the expertise of this writer to analyze. But the power of that multiple-piano sound is immediate and undeniable to anyone with ears, and the sonic shifts as the pounding chords ebb and flow fills the nearly half-hour with an intense militant drama fueled by its activist title.
While “Gay Guerilla” takes some time to build its world, “Evil N*gger” immediately takes off with multiple hands pounding away at short, intense figures that sometimes evoke silent movie villains. Eastman calls off time as he leads his fellow pianists to take the next set of instructions; each musician was required to keep a stopwatch to mark off sections of the piece, but were free to play a certain series of notes in whatever octave they chose. Again, despite that incendiary title, and a kind of aggressiveness in the rhythms, the combined energy of the pianists seems to be exorcising demons, coming together in thrilling climaxes that suggest that all the ominous undertones of villainous music (and of a certain racial epithet) can be overcome with musical unity.
The set’s final piece, the 48-minute “Crazy N*gger,” consists of 10 sections that together pack the same kind of drama as “Evil N*gger” on a larger scale but with more dissonant touches. This long piece is where the limitation of the vinyl format become an issue. The LP splits this long piece over two sides. The effort of turning over the record minimizes its power—that’s why the even longer Femenine wouldn’t work on vinyl. There’s good news for those who want the uninterrupted Eastman experience, but they make this vinyl issue essentially redundant: the recordings featured here were previously released in 2005 as part of the three-CD set Unjust Malaise. That collection, still available from New World records, marked the first-ever release of Eastman’s compositions, and presents the full breadth of his work from “Stay on It,” which seems like a shorter dry-run for Femenine, to unusual vocal recordings to the four-piano pieces reissued here. The N*gger Series takes an unforgettable slice of Eastman and puts it on vinyl, no small feat. But listeners who aren’t such purists about analogue may find Unjust Malaise the better value.