Tuesday 31 December 2013

Stay on It: On the Music of Julius Eastman

What is that distinguishes this piece by Julius Eastman from the similar pop-minimalism of the Philip Glass Ensemble and on to the music of an even-more watered-down populist-assimilator like Michael Torke, which its anticipates but far surmounts? That distinguishes it from those generations’ softening of the stringencies of the first generation minimalists, from their softening of that first generation's stringent asceticism -- infinity in a grain of sand, the biggest canvas from the smallest materials or a deliberate poverty, austerity of means as against romantic swoll excesses of cod- or post-romanticism? Unlike Glass and unlike Torke, Eastman’s music is not content to be aural wallpaper but to actually swell itself, in ambiguous bursting or reduction, in massed small ensemble as orchestra (Eastman’s pieces - the 'nigger series', say - are often open in terms of instrumentation, so that 18 stringed instruments would do; 4 pianos would do; the perversity of combinations and the ear for texture, bright and clean in some pieces but also capable of a thick murk building up and out of and into rhythmic insistence). #Stay On It#, the absolute fresh happiness, as it seems, of the recurring pop-py chordal figure reduced or amplified, reiterated or swelled, down to solo piano near the end, or stuttered, broken into rhythmical suspension as bars are left out for silence as emphasis or interruption, burst out of somewhere mid-way as saxophones and clarinets mesh improvisationally into moaning, wailing modes of joy that, like much of Eastman’s music, have a latent melancholy and desparation in their triumph: the strength of the damned and oppressed, up against the wall, staying on it, smart but not rich, evil and crazy guerilla nigger outcasts: the melancholy that finally trickles on its own as the piano part winds down and we are finally left with only the continuing shake of percussion as the bereft yet determinedly still present ghost of that rhythmic obsession-insistence Eastman so loves.

Eastman’s pieces focus on process, organic form, the latent content of each piece in at its beginning and evolving out like the big bang: or, in the certainly minimal, but not conventionally ‘minimalist’ 'If You’re So Smart, Why Aren’t You Rich', a deliberately bull-headed slow upward scalar ascent, forcing the trumpet to ‘stay on’ high figures of a Maynard Ferguson quality, brass ensemble like the smashed remains or sketches for some film score stretched beyond latent melodrama to the point of absurdity and then back. Tubular bells ringing into the silent hollow. Scratchy twisting bending amplified violin over nightmare chattered ensemble iterations. Edge of the fucking seat in tense and tensile boredom. Bull-headed, in your face. Shattering the Glass enclosure.

Eastman’s pieces are about ensemble, co-ordination, non-privileging of individual voice, complex interlocking of parts, moving almost into chaos and even staying there for a bit, but then back: “ONE, TWO, THREE, FOUR”, shouting in time for the unison re-entry of addictive riff in 'Evil Nigger'. Ba-DUm, Ba-DUm, ba-Dum, as Kyle Gann says of the rhythmic figures in 'Gay Guerilla'. The pre-climactic use of Martin Luther's hymn 'A Mighty Fortress is Our Lord', in anthemic reclamation. You want to be a solider, a martyr, a gay guerilla, in subverted Lutheran hymn, that granite flow. Stay the fuck on it.

Joan d’Arc’s presence is holy because it is defiant. “Speak BOLDLY,” the climactic line of Eastman’s solo recitation-prelude to his multi-cello ‘The Holy Presence of Joan d’Arc’, in which the massed hordes of speaking saints say over and over, insist that Joan stay on it, excluded but defiant. Speak Boldly. Say it, over and over again. Joan of Arc is holy AGAINST the church – “a reminder to those who think they can destroy liberators by acts of treachery, malice, and murder….[L]ike all organizations, especially governments and religious organizations, they oppress in order to perpetuate themselves” – the holiness of her presence a raggedy collective, a whole made up of parts only just staying on it, speaking off the same page, from pop, pop-classical, jazz, the singular. Here’s the dissonance which Kyle Gann sees “dissolving into transcendence”, outside the comforting trance of Glass, reflections shone blinding your eyes in coolest shade, spooks; but no transcendence as mere escape, in material returning transformed to stay here on it, to show you process not bamboozled, not spiritual-droned to ecstatic guru surrender, New York incense chamber, but bold-face fucked up.

From Anna Kisselgoff’s New York Times review of his 1986 dance collaboration with Molissa Fenley, ‘Geological Moments’ (the music for which was actually shared with Glass, and which, as the review notes, forced itself on the dancers in a way that Glass’s, eminently ignorable, did not): “[Eastman] performed as a soloist with both dissonant resonance and a strangely muted evangelical fervor.” Both taking the implicit piss out of, by contextual oddness of placing, and fully participating in and channelling that Church rigour, that church fever, that bull-headed staying on; you might say, too simply, it was a Protestant retort against some decadent un-focussed transcendence, were you to miss, whatever, the moral imperative against the kind of moral condemnation that would be turned against Eastman’s own ‘kind’ (kinds) by precisely that kind of model. Or, he makes use of both, Joan’s ecstatic shattering of roles into that different raggedy-ass but completely precise collective, out of Cage, indeterminacy, improvisation, militarized minimalism-discipline, sacred and profane, mighty fortresses whose walls might come crumbling down any second only to rise again, building the city in momentary negotiation, “majestic rising modal scale”, as someone put of the conclusion to ‘Gay Guerilla’, “Right thought, right speech, right action, right music,” as Eastman himself put it in 1981, “always making new inversions”, adjustment to justice, to a judgement not imposed from above but in ethical drive right ON.

Because also, as Andrew Hansen-Dvoracek notes in an invaluable MA dissertation on the three pieces (Evil Nigger, Crazy Nigger and Gay Guerilla) performed at the 1981 Northwestern University concert from which are taken many of the recordings on ‘Unjust Malaise’, the three CD set of Eastman’s music released on New World records, the use of Luther’s hymn is re-appropriation: as Debussy’s 'En Blanc Et Noir', which uses a similar alternation between the white and black keys of the piano, uses that hymn as an intrusion into the lush impressionistic tonality of his own language, as (crudely) German armed forces invading the French countryside, Eastman appropriates it as counter-weapon, not valourizing despoiled weakness but fighting back, ten years after Stonewall, a new militancy in reference to Afghani or PLO guerrillas, that invoked spirit; as he re-appropriates ‘nigger’ as equivalent Holy Name to the ‘99 names of Allah’ – “either I glorify them or they glorify me”; Martin Luther become a nigger faggot minimalist warrior.

This appropriation as re-arrangement, transposition, subversive playing of roles, which is always connected, to whatever greater or lesser extent, to that element of parody to Eastman’s persona that we hear or read about from reports on performances and appearances and in the music too. This is that which so dismayed John Cage: Eastman’s performance of one of Cage’s Songbook pieces (“give a lecture”) as ‘Professor Paga of La Jolla, California’, with his boyfriend and sister as his ‘assistants’, discoursing on a new sensuality of love, which managed to dismay Cage, to offend Cage, by being both too frank in its homosexuality (his boyfriend nude by the end of the piece) and too sarcastic, too much a caricature, in its satirization of the academic world to which Cage was now at least partially indebted too or reliant on for artistic capital, in its flamboyant display of a sexuality Cage had concealed form his music and which it at once seemed to question and to too-securely or solely inhabit. Or hear Eastman’s rock-solid baritone on Arthur Russell’s Dinosaur L tracks, as he swoops up through octaves to emphasize the mutant panic at the heart of the disco collective Russell so loved: “Go-o-o Ba-ANG!” Eastman’s high note at the end almost becomes a police whistle, the invasion of a safe space, fluidity rigidly funked into rhythm and surrounded by the hostility of homophobes and cops.

And yet and against that which disco might sound too smoothly like to us today, an earthiness, a dirtiness, reclaimed: “and what I mean by niggers is that thing which is fundamental, that person or thing that obtains to a basicness, a fundamentalness, and eschews that which is superficial or, what can we say, elegant”; the “great and grand” American economic system, based on the “first and great nigger, the field nigger.” The underclass in the hall of the mountain king, bashing across the entire harmonic series on four concert grands, swooping in and moving on up from below. So it’s entirely appropriate to hear him booming out “in the corn belt, corn corn” on that other Dinosaur L track ‘In the Corn Belt’, alongside guitars, muted trombones, his own organ, bouncing percussion; a jam that at once flits away into what David Toop or Simon Reynolds might call the ‘oceanic’ and that Stays On It, stripping away whatever veneers or masks it wears. As Russell puts it on ‘Go Bang’ – “I wanna see all of my friends at once": but this isn’t some hippy-dippy imagined family as false internationalism, pot-pourri soft-imperialism to provide a soft wash on the speakers of bougie flats done up in aromatic cleanliness, in their best feng-shui; it is messy entanglement hard and bright and dark and sad and strong.