Compact Disc (CD)
As Julius Eastman’s work from the 1970s and 1980s has been rediscovered in recent years and his place in the canon of minimalist music reappraised, the narrative has focused on his tragedies. He was a Black and gay composer, ignored by the institutions of his day, and died homeless in relative obscurity. It’s an absolute shame that Eastman’s radical art, which unapologetically centered his identity in ways rarely seen in the avant-garde classical world, languished for decades before the scribes of history finally deemed it foundational—but his career contained multitudes that have still not been fully explored. With Wild Up’s third volume of their anthology series showcasing the work of Julius Eastman, the Los Angeles ensemble strikes a tone of celebration rather than lament as they shine their spotlight in new corners of the composer’s vast repertoire.
For their first volume, Wild Up focused on Eastman’s signature piece Femenine, casting off a strong opening salvo by jamming their version with more kinetic energy than any other ensemble’s attempt. Next, they turned their attention to underrepresented items in the catalog, addressing the uncertainty of scores that don’t have canonical readings by providing multiple versions. Now, in Vol. 3, one of Eastman’s extant works appears for the first time in recorded form—The Moon’s Silent Modulation (1970), a vocal work composed to accompany a ballet. Modulation is a multimedia epic, capturing the full extent of Eastman’s fascinations in a single sweep; it’s an opera, a dance, and an improvisational sound collage. Though the visual aspects of the work can’t be expressed in the recording, the drama is no less present. Musicians stomp and clap like thespians on a stage. A chorus of voices rise, haunting chants phase in and out, and foreboding strings billow underneath.
Wild Up tackles more familiar pieces, too, infusing new life into the work with their own arrangements. If You’re So Smart, Why Aren’t You Rich? (1977) ups the unrelenting energy of Eastman’s own recording from the Unjust Malaise compilation, combining stabs of brass with piercing shrieks and extended vocal techniques not present in the original score. Even more impressive is a stunning new rendition of Evil N—r (1979), led by Devonté Hynes (aka Blood Orange) and Adam Tendler on dueling pianos. Evil is percussive and propulsive, demanding high physical stamina to play for a full 20 minutes. Here, the stress is doubled as the usual four lead instruments are cut down to two. However, the biggest curveball is the addition of a full chamber orchestra, instructed to improvise in response to the pianists. The normally rote, hypnotic piece is transformed into an evolving organism.
Eastman’s sudden departure left us with a scattered body of work, few recordings, and no directives for what to do with it all. As historians, musicians, and listeners alike pick through what’s left, it’s up to each individual to take a principled stance on what his legacy means. On Julius Eastman Vol. 3, Wild Up chose to fill those gaps in the record with their own joyful noise.