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Now Celebrated, Julius Eastman’s Music Points to a New Canon

ByTeam BB

Apr 24, 2023

For stretches of that performance, I longed for a recording of this “Buddha,” and had a similar sensation during the Saturday afternoon set, when Richard Valitutto took on Eastman’s through-composed, fully notated “Piano 2.” He gave the proper sternness to Eastman’s thick systems of melody, strewn between the hands in syncopated passages. But he also had a theatrical sense of swagger when encountering jaunty lines that press forward with parallel thrust — a quality not as present on an otherwise excellent recording of the work by Joseph Kubera, a contemporary of Eastman’s.

And as the metaphorical curtain was coming down on Saturday, I started thinking about the kinds of Eastman concerts I have yet to hear. Up until now, the focus has reasonably been on simply presenting his music. That was the case at the 92nd Street Y, as it was in 2018 at the Kitchen for the festival “Julius Eastman: That Which Is Fundamental.” But now that bigger institutions have taken notice of Eastman, it is time to turn curatorial attention to the broader context in which he worked.

In his time, Eastman was a rare Black artist in the otherwise mostly white classical avant-garde. But as George E. Lewis noted in his forward to the scholarly essay collection “Gay Guerrilla,” edited by Mary Jane Leach and Renée Levine Packer, Eastman was not the only one. Benjamin Patterson was a part of Fluxus. Petr Kotik’s S.E.M. Ensemble, which played music by Eastman and counted him as a member in the 1970s, also worked with Muhal Richard Abrams, a founder of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, the collective that also nurtured composers like Roscoe Mitchell, Anthony Braxton, Henry Threadgill and Wadada Leo Smith. (Gallingly, Braxton’s 75th birthday passed in 2020 without an appropriate New York City retrospective, even after pandemic restrictions on performances were lifted.)

What would an Eastman festival sound like that also included the works of all those artists, many of whom are still alive? They have written fully notated works like “Piano 2” and improvisatory, conceptual pieces like “Buddha.”

The problem, as ever, is one of committed resources. Last season, the New York Philharmonic played Eastman’s recently reconstructed Symphony No. 2 during Black History Month. But there is no sign of a recording; for now, just a minute of that performance lives on YouTube. And what is stopping American orchestras from broadly taking up the music of Braxton and Mitchell while those artists are still around?

The 92nd Street Y has a role to play in this as well. And the broad success of its Eastman festival with Wild Up should encourage it to continue along a similar path. That way, in addition to the small matter of putting on exciting shows, it might also help classical music avoid the future problem of needing to belatedly celebrate other American composers who died with too little recognition.

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