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Home » From a Composer’s Resurgence, a Masterpiece Rises

From a Composer’s Resurgence, a Masterpiece Rises

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LOS ANGELES — It was hot on a recent Tuesday evening, and even warmer inside a warehouse full of rental percussion instruments on a quiet street in the Frogtown neighborhood.

California had dropped nearly all its pandemic restrictions earlier in the day, and Wild Up, the contemporary-music collective that was rehearsing in the space that night, was a mixture of the masked and unmasked. Beers bobbed in a bucket of ice water and stood, perspiring, next to players’ chairs for swigs during pauses.

The heat gave a delirious, sweaty sheen to already delirious music: Julius Eastman’s meditative, kaleidoscopic, eventually ecstatic “Femenine,” which Wild Up plays on a revealing new recording and was preparing to perform outdoors a few days later in Orange County.

At the rehearsal, the band dipped into big chunks of the 70-minute piece. Conversation at one point turned to musical energy — how it stays up and how it falls, intentionally and not. One of the horn players raised his hand and asked about an effect he wanted to try.

“Just do it,” said Christopher Rountree, Wild Up’s founder and director, who was helping conduct some of the complicated cues. “If it’s wrong, it’s great.”

That advice gives a sense of Eastman’s risk-taking and, for better and worse, loosely defined music. His body of work includes surreal conceptual exercises; raging, pounding pieces with incendiary titles; and slowly evolving drones — as well as “Femenine,” from 1974, in which an ensemble keeps blossoming and receding, organically growing and decaying, with jeweled sweetness over the snowy white noise of ceaselessly shaking sleigh bells.

Black and gay when few experimental composers were either, Eastman was an impish, provocative fixture on the New York scene into the 1980s, but drifted into mental illness and homelessness, and died in 1990 in obscurity, just 49. What little was left of his work then was a shambles, and his music went almost entirely unplayed and unheard for years.

It was only through the efforts of some musicians and scholars — especially the composer Mary Jane Leach, who had collaborated with Eastman — that scores and audio began to come to light. In 2005, a three-disc set on New World Records finally made available a handful of powerful archival recordings, and pieces began to receive modern performance premieres.

Then, in 2016, came the quirkily spelled “Femenine” — or, rather, recorded evidence of it. While Leach had long possessed an audio capture of a Nov. 6, 1974, performance in Albany, she believed a situation with the rights made it unreleasable.

But the energetic Ian Fenton, a Scotsman who lives in Helsinki and runs the label Frozen Reeds there, solved that matter and put it out, to widespread attention and acclaim. Fast on the heels of the publication of a book of biographical material and essays edited by Leach and Renée Levine Packer, the album turned a trickle of interest in Eastman into a flood. Wild Up’s is the third recording of “Femenine” released in the past two years, not counting several live performance videos uploaded to YouTube.

“People started flowing to ‘Femenine,’” Leach said by phone recently. “And it’s just been building up. I gave up trying to keep track of it.”

Eastmania has hardly been restricted to one piece. In 2017 and 2018, festivals organized with Gerry Eastman — a jazz musician, Julius’s brother and the overseer of his estate — brought huge helpings of the music to Philadelphia and New York. In 2018, the publishing giant G. Schirmer took over the estate, promising to regularize transactions that had been well-meaning but chaotic.

The 2017 release of “The Zurich Concert,” a capture of a 1980 solo-piano performance by Eastman, offered new insights into the prominent role of improvisation in his work, even in predominately notated ensemble pieces like “Femenine.” The influential composer and conductor John Adams programmed one of the bluntly titled, saturnine yet cathartic works of the late ’70s on a Los Angeles Philharmonic program in 2018.

Also in 2018, Eastman’s “Symphony No. II — The Faithful Friend: The Lover Friend’s Love for the Beloved,” never heard in his lifetime, was restored and premiered. In an extraordinary signal of his resurgence, to a position far more prominent than he ever experienced, the New York Philharmonic will play it this winter.

And new recordings have been steadily coming. Last month, So Percussion released a moving version of “Stay on It” (1973) with a team of collaborators, in which bright, shiny order — a riff as pearly-precise as the vibraphone one that gives “Femenine” its spine — melts into woozy mayhem before returning in gentler form. Vocalists’ cute chirps of the title become screams and moans of it; a passing evocation of a police siren suggests ongoing struggles.

“Stay on It” ends with a long solo chugga-chugga of tambourine. That could flow seamlessly into the wintry sleigh bells at the start of “Femenine,” which is the longest — and therefore perhaps the most hypnotically enveloping — of the Eastman pieces that have survived. (Its companion, “Masculine,” is among the ones believed to be completely lost.)

“Femenine” is notated, but sketchily so; the score consists of smallish cells of material that are repeated, and evolve. The timings of major transitions are set in the music, though there is also room for improvisation and flexibility, not least in the instrumentation, which has a core of winds, piano, bass and bells — and the vibraphone that provides the indelibly summoning central statement — but can expand in size and variety. While the basic contours are constant, the mood can be surprisingly different from version to version.

“Sometimes it pays not to be so hidebound,” Leach said. “I don’t think Julius was, for instance. Though sometimes you can take it too far. I was at a performance of ‘Stay on It’ once where there was no singer.” (For “Femenine,” Wild Up has added one.)

For all the evident casualness of the 1974 Albany performance — laughter is audible, and the beginning and ending are shaggily defined — the archival “Femenine” recording released in 2016 is poised, with Eastman on piano, crystalline vibraphone and a patient, inexorable build. The textures are sometimes murky, with even Eastman experts finding it difficult to parse the full instrumentation. But when things eventually clear out, the flutes are clear and bright, and there’s a feeling of blissful briskness.

A version by the ensemble Apartment House, released in 2019 on the British label Another Timbre, brings out the dreaminess in the piece, tying it to the psychedelia of its period, with trippy contrails of synthesizer. The string harmonies have a folk feel, with some intentional roughness. Toward the end, the performance drags fearlessly into darkness before emerging, in the last few minutes, with the peacefulness of the beginning, a sense of being finally able to rest.

The opening vibes riff is etched sharply against a dramatically yawning bass synthesizer in a recording released last year by the Belgian label Sub Rosa, featuring ensemble 0 and Aum Grand Ensemble. The synth bends and howls, conjuring the Ligeti of the “2001: A Space Odyssey” soundtrack. Around the half-hour mark, the sleigh bells start going faster, like the blur in a movie as a spaceship enters hyperspeed. About 10 minutes later, the mood loosens; it’s grooving, with airy vocals. But the synth pulses ominously, like a timpani, until near the end.

All these are stimulating, but there’s a uniquely complex freshness to the Wild Up recording, on New Amsterdam. It opens with more exuberant energy than the other versions. Beefy saxophones and horns add richness, and with denser percussion, the overall effect is of a jungle or aviary, a swirling bustle — but in a dewy, pastoral key. With more expansive opportunities for solos than usual, there are wailing-sax connections to the free-jazz tradition, and Eastman’s stirring late piano quotation of the hymn melody “Slane” evokes Ives. After solemn, almost medieval harmonies, the ending is a glittering ice storm of bells.

The popularity of “Femenine” may stem from its adaptable instrumentation, and from the fact that, unlike many Eastman masterpieces, it’s, well, happy — sheerly pretty rather than grimly beautiful. “It’s a really good piece,” Leach said, laughing at the simplicity of her explanation. “Once you hear the beginning hook, you can’t get it out of your head.”

At the Wild Up rehearsal, the bells were not going to be added until the following day. But as the piece winded to its ending and the musicians gradually dropped out, crickets outside the warehouse provided their own shimmering white noise for the final soundings of the vibes riff. A bit earlier, Rountree had asked if the players wanted to pick a specific place to stop a crescendo. After a brief discussion, they decided the moment was coming naturally; they’d just let it happen.

“He’s a facilitator,” the cellist Seth Parker Woods, a leader on the recording with Rountree and the pianist Richard Valitutto, said of Eastman while sitting with them after the rehearsal at a bar in Echo Park. “In this music, he’s giving you a canvas to explore, and there are so few composers that leave that much space to actually try something out. And there is not too much that can go wrong.”

“Femenine,” Rountree added, “is particularly immersive, in terms of how you can get lost in it.” The new release is the grand opening of Wild Up’s long-term project setting down Eastman’s music — an endeavor new enough that the group is still undecided about its eventual scope.

As for that peculiarly spelled title, it’s hard to know how much to read into it: Eastman liked to play and wink. But it may suggest the unification or blurring of things usually binarized — the encasing of the masculine in the feminine, or at least their entwining.

“His titles don’t always reflect what they’re going to sound like,” Leach said. “‘Femenine’ perhaps more than any of the other pieces. It seems softer — but with a backbone of steel.”


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