The Telegraph – 30 December 2016
In Search of Julius Eastman
“The steely self-possession of the words, the remorseless repetitions of both text and music, and the spell-binding intensity of the performers, above all reciter Elaine Mitchener, made for something both enthralling and moving.”
Nothing attracts an audience like a tragic story of talent ignored and cut short, and few stories are more tragic than Julius Eastman’s. In his short life – he died young in 1990 having been down-and-out for years – this hugely talented, flamboyantly gay African-American dancer, singer and composer became one of the co-founders of minimalism. But writing works with titles like Gay Guerrilla did not endear him to the purist and very white minimalist scene. During the 1980s he became a drifter, and when he died in 1990 it took months for the musical world to even notice.
This year’s London Contemporary Music Festival is putting Eastman centre-stage. It hasn’t been an easy task, given that much of Eastman’s music ended up on skips. They’ve called on the patient work of Eastman scholars, who’ve patiently reconstructed missing scores from recordings. One of these reconstructed works, Femenine, was the centre-piece of the Festival’s opening concert.
It began with the silvery sound of sleigh-bells, played continually across two loudspeakers. Seated between them were a handful of players of Apartment House; a pianist, two string players, flutes, an electronic keyboardist. The lynchpin of the group was percussionist Simon Limbrick who over the next seventy minutes played the same little dancing rhythmic two-note phrase repeatedly without missing a beat, a heroic feat in itself. Meanwhile the other players spun semi-improvised patterns around that never-changing motif, some long and drifting, some short and pithy. Very slowly the harmonic centre moved underneath and around the motif, like stars wheeling around a fixed point. Just occasionally the piece seemed to lose its way, but then a new surge of energy would come over the assembled company. The whole thing breathed a sweetly innocent air, punctuated by moments of ecstatic energy.
Before Femenine came a piece from another co-creator of minimalism who is only now receiving his due, Frederic Rzewski. Like Eastman’s, Rzewski’s music is charged with the political passions of the 1970s, but as this performance of Coming Together proved, the musical results could hardly be more different. It’s based on a hugely impressive letter, written by an inmate of Attica prison in New York state who only months later was killed in a prison uprising. The steely self-possession of the words, the remorseless repetitions of both text and music, and the spell-binding intensity of the performers, above all reciter Elaine Mitchener, made for something both enthralling and moving.