The composer, vocalist, and pianist Julius Eastman (1940-1990) is now widely recognized as a major figure in American music of the late twentieth century. Largely forgotten after his death in 1990, Eastman and his work have been rediscovered over the past two decades, as witnessed by the 2005 album Unjust Malaise, the 2015 book Gay Guerrilla: Julius Eastman and His Music, and the 2017 festival That Which Is Fundamental, presented in Philadelphia by Bowerbird, to take just three examples.
As a composer, Eastman drew from the European classical tradition, post-WWII experimentalism, jazz, rock and pop, and African-American religious music to weave a vibrant musical fabric that integrates and transcends these varied influences. Not content to write notes on the page, he also championed a new model of composer-performer, working closely with musicians and in many cases allowing his compositions to evolve through the operations of collective musical intelligence. Finally, Eastman was a singer whose distinctive vocal performances, of his own works and those of other composers, constitute a vital part of his musical legacy.
As a gay Black man, Eastman stood out in the largely white and hetero world of “new music.” He was also known for being outspoken in his desire to be, in his words, “Black to the fullest, a musician to the fullest, a homosexual to the fullest.” And of course, he was doubly exposed to the prejudices and oppressive structures of American life, which played a role in his struggles and untimely death. Accordingly, in this course we must be ready to address a range of topics pertaining to Eastman’s identity, including African-American history, the civil rights and gay rights movements, and the racial and sexual politics of classical music.
Finally, Julius Eastman was a graduate of the Curtis Institute, where he studied piano and composition from 1959 to 1963. In spite of the rediscovery of his work over the past 20 years, however, Eastman remains largely unrecognized by his alma mater. Thus, as a collective final project for this course, we will devise ways to honor Eastman’s music and his legacy at Curtis, for example through performances of his music (much of which has not yet been published or recorded) and/or the establishment of a permanent on-campus memorial.