Hidden Music Icons: Julius Eastman
Although Julius Eastman has long been considered a virtually unknown composer outside of the realm of academia, his legacy has caught quite a bit of attention in recent years. The multi-talented musician was far from forgettable, yet most of his catalogue has been destroyed beyond repair or completely lost. His tragic life story has only been documented by close friends and frequent collaborators- as most of his music is exclusively survived by live audio performances. No stranger to controversy, his provocative song titles challenged anti-blackness and queerphobia by reclaiming and redefining the profanities used to characterize both of his social identities.
His courage stretched further than his song titles, as he also challenged the rigidness of classical music. He composed numerous pieces with unusually paired instruments, erratic stage cues, and unpredictable choreography. His interpretations of his contemporaries’ pieces caused outrage both among his peers and the general public. However, one thing that stood out was his undisputed originality. Eastman commanded every room with his huge personality and his unwavering confidence in his own musical abilities. His music was a reflection of a man attempting to understand the chaotic world that surrounded him. While many of his peers gained notoriety in academia, his contributions to minimalism are virtually unknown to music students today.
Eastman’s brilliance was evident to the naked eye, but it also was the cause of great turmoil. His mother and teachers noticed his musical talents at a very young age. He was very aware of the social dynamics around him, but maintained his individuality throughout his entire life. He refused to conform to social and academic norms; he was often absent from his teaching jobs, or he would pop up at his friends’ houses as a permanent guest- whether he was invited or not. His passion would often manifest in curt criticisms of others, but his larger-than-life charisma soothed their bruised egos. Eastman’s eccentricities were equally captivating and confusing. He was the textbook definition of a renaissance man- a composer, singer, dancer, poet, educator, and director all wrapped up in a package that many could not stomach. Contrary to the adversity that defined his life, he made everything that he did seem effortless.
Eventually, a combination of unfortunate factors would lead to his decline. Truancy caused his career to come crashing down as his reputation for being unreliable quickly spread among academic circles in New York. His drug and alcohol abuse made him difficult to work with, and plain unbearable to his friends and family. One of the most devastating events for the musician was an eviction that forced him and his musical scores on the streets- where both him and his work would fall from the face of the Earth. Julius became more brash as his addictions worsened and many of his friends excommunicated him from their lives. While his loved ones last remember him living at a local park, his final days were spent in a hospital, where he would succumb to cardiac arrest. Tragically, no one knew of his death until about eight months later.
He is credited for inspiring textbook composers, yet his music is obscure. Years have been spent piecing together his complicated story, and performances of his works are becoming more common. Eastman is one of many black- and queer- composers that have not been properly credited for their influence on American music. Thankfully, more are learning about this elusive composer and how black musicians have contributed to American culture as a whole.
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