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The Nearly Forgotten Music of Julius Eastman

Donald Burkhart
Composer Julius Eastman at work.

In a prelude to what could become a full-blown festival, Bowerbird, the experimental music presenter, stages two events on Friday, October 16th and Saturday, October 17th making a case for Julius Eastman, a Curtis Institute-trained, African-American composer who became a fearlessly provocative figure in the 1970s avant-garde. The Philadelphia Inquirer's David Patrick Stearns reports.

David Patrick Stearns: Julius Eastman. Just the name sounds like that of a notable composer. And he was. But prior to his 1990 death at age 49, he was writing music in cryptic notation. Many of his scores were lost in an apartment eviction during his self-destructive final period in New York City. For Bowerbird founder Dustin Hurt, resurrecting Eastman is singularly daunting.

Dustin Hurt: His whole repertoire, I'm going to guess, it's 40 pieces. I think the three piano pieces are the only ones that can be performed. It's the only thing we have scores for in his hand that are complete, the whole thing.

DPS: Written for multiple pianos, those pieces can be poundingly repetitive, some with provocative titles containing epithets that alienated him from his own African-American community, as if his being openly gay didn't do that already. In this archival recording, Eastman explains one of his tamer titles, Gay Guerrilla, as in guerrilla warfare.  

Julius Eastman: A guerrilla is someone who, in any case, is sacrificing his life for a point a view. If there's a cause and if it is a great cause, those who belong to that cause will sacrifice their blood because without blood there is no cause.

DPS: For some 1970s composers, art was a byproduct of self realization. To others, composing was almost rocket science that tests the definition of what music can be. Eastman falls into both categories. 

DH: Is he important? He's definitely not influential, but it's also he did stuff way more interesting than a lot of people we do know a lot about.

DPS: Certainly, few have written music that's so mathematical and spiritual, maddening and gratifying, obscure and quite possibly, profound.