The Zürich Concert
On a cold winter day in 1989, Julius Eastman huddled in a group of homeless men outside Bellevue Hospital in Manhattan, warming his hands by an oil-drum fire, when a reporter from Newsday approached him. The day before, a young female doctor, five months pregnant, had been raped and murdered inside the hospital. Eastman, who said he played piano at the men’s shelter across the street, surprised the reporter by speaking about the case “with greater intelligence than anyone in a Giorgio Armani suit.” The reporter wondered “how such an articulate fellow wound up warming his piano player’s fingers over a street fire, waiting for the shelter to open.” “That’s too long of a story,” Eastman replied. “I’m 48. I’ll get it back together.”
He never did. A year later, Eastman died of heart failure in a hospital in Buffalo, where he’d first made a name for himself as a composer. Kyle Gann published a moving obituary eight months later in The Village Voice, but his passing was otherwise unremarked. A prominent figure on the experimental music scene throughout the 1970s, he ended his life an invisible man, his name all but erased from musical history, as if his short, dazzling career and his fiercely original art had been a collective hallucination.
Eastman’s disappearance was no small achievement, for it was hard to imagine a more visible figure: his aim was not merely to make himself heard but to make himself seen. A pianist, singer, and composer, Eastman was both black and gay, and proclaimed his identities in brazenly titled compositions such as Crazy Nigger, Gay Guerrilla, and Nigger Faggot. “What I am trying to achieve,” he said, “is to be what I am to the fullest: Black to the fullest, a musician to the fullest, a homosexual to the fullest.”
Wiry and graceful, with some of the only dreadlocks to be found in the very white world of new music, he commanded attention by his presence alone, but he was also a musician of extraordinary gifts to whom success came early. In 1966, he gave his first solo piano recital at Town Hall and sang in Der Rosenkavalier with the Philadelphia Orchestra. By 1970 he was an underground hero, thanks to his electrifying performance as King George III in Peter Maxwell Davies’s music theater piece Eight Songs for a Mad King. Imposing in his royal brocaded gown and furred cap, he created an astonishing impression of delirium, using his five-octave range to produce a clamor of squawks, cackles, roars, and cries. Eastman toured the piece throughout Europe and was nominated for a Grammy for the recording.
As a composer, Eastman gravitated to the movement known as minimalism, but while his music shared some of the features typical of minimalism (a steady pulse, repetitive structures), it bristled with dissonances…
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