The Julius Eastman Memory Depot
The Julius Eastman Memory Depot is a fascinating recording on multiple levels. In this latest work by provocateur Jace Clayton, better known as DJ /rupture, the focus is on the work of one man: gay, African-American composer Julius Eastman (1940-1990). The album features two multi-part piano pieces composed in 1979 by Eastman that Clayton realized by dramatically manipulating the live playing of renowned pianists David Friend and Emily Manzo (performed at New York City's Merkin Concert Hall) using laptop-based, custom-built digital tools. Clayton recently has presented the piece live in a slightly different form as the Julius Eastman Memorial Dinner, which incorporates three Eastman compositions and video and theatrical supplements and thus makes the album a “depot” of sorts for the content included within that live performance.
So, first, who was Julius Eastman? A NY-based composer and associate of Meredith Monk, Morton Feldman, and John Cage who composed and performed from the late ‘60s to the ‘80s but who also battled alcoholism and crack addiction and tragically spent the last months of his life homeless. That his temperament was a difficult fit for the traditional classical music world is intimated by the titles of “Evil Nigger” and “Gay Guerrilla,” both of which appear on Clayton's recording. And remarkable and engrossing works they are, especially when they unfold with a real-time unpredictability. The listener follows their labyrinthine trajectories, never knowing in what direction the material might travel next.
“Evil Nigger” begins with a staccato stammer that quickly morphs into an intense, rapid-fire theme of ominous portent, and it is this that forms the raw material for Clayton's mutations. The first part is the least radically manipulated of the four, with Clayton largely content to let the pianists lay out Eastman's multi-layered terrain, even if it feels at times like Clayton's amplifying the music's reverberative character. The second part introduces a dramatic change in the music, however, with the pianos at first sounding like they've been submerged in water and transformed into liquid form and their trills fluctuating between crystal clarity and a muddy blur. That blurry quality intensifies in part three as the piano runs merge into blocks of rolling thunder, sometimes to such a degree that the pianos vanish altogether within the dense mass. Alternate tunings and micro-tonalities surface via Clayton's manipulations in the ten-minute fourth part, a move that in certain moments renders the pianists' playing even more fluid and in others accentuates the razor-sharp attack of which the instrument is capable.
Less intense by comparison is “Gay Guerrilla,” which opens with a series of minimalism-styled chords sequenced into a meditative flow (more John Adams, in fact, than Reich or Glass) whose pianisms, as before, Clayton is content to leave largely unaltered in the first part. If “Evil Nigger” oozes defiance, “Gay Guerrilla” at times exudes a sadness and resignation in opposition to its militant title. Briefly nudging aside the pianos, orchestral and fuzz guitar elements enter the frame in part two, before the pianos again assume control and even reintroduce a brooding theme that draws the listener back to “Evil Nigger.” Treatments are at their most bold during parts three and four, as Clayton liberally turns the material on and off like flow from a water tap, before a series of ascending patterns brings the piece to a stirring close.
The project ends with “Callback from the American Society of Eastman Supporters,” Clayton's compositional attempt to bridge the gap between the recording and the live presentation. It begins with a spoken, corporate-styled narrative voiced by Sufi vocalist Arooj Aftab, whose words “The Julius Eastman Memorial Dinner is an equal-opportunity employer” provide an ironic comment, given the challenges Eastman faced as a black and gay composer in the second half of the twentieth century. It's a gesture dramatically contrasted by the delicately sung episode that follows and that sees Aftab singing, “Regardless of age, regardless of race, regardless of color, regardless of creed and disability, sexual orientation, political affiliation…,” the larger meaning of the words obvious. The piece makes for a provocative end to a captivating project that constitutes a powerful homage by one bold figure to another.