JULIUS EASTMAN (1940-1990): Vol. 1: Femenine - Prime, Unison, Create New Pattern, Hold and Return, All Changing, Increase, Eb, Be Thou My Vision/Mao Melodies, Can Melt, Pianist Will Interrupt Must Return.
Catalogue Number: 07X050
Label: New Amsterdam Records
Description: A very welcome recording of a major work by a composer who was easily one of the most extraordinary maverick geniuses of 20th century music. Eastman's creative output is inextricably linked to his identity as a flamboyantly gay and militantly black activist - which is amply on display in his provocative titles (see 07R058, essential listening for an enhanced appreciation of the composer). Knowing that this was an important motive force behind his creative ethos, though, is only partially helpful in appreciating his work, as it would guarantee nothing were the music not good - and it is, not just good but outstanding, and stunningly original. He was much in demand as a performer of avant-garde music, working with figures as diverse as Meredith Monk and Peter Maxwell Davies (he is the performer of the latter's Eight Songs for a Mad King in the famous Unicorn-Kanchana recording (06R081)). As composer, he experimented with various avant-garde idioms before settling on a kind of maximal minimalism, combining tightly controlled elements in complex textures with improvisation and a fierce propulsive energy; his writings and concert introductions that survive demonstrate a powerful intellect with a thorough theoretical basis for his unique musical and social persona. And yet, rather than achieving widespread recognition, his life disintegrated, he became homeless (in the course of which a large proportion of his prolific output was lost and almost certainly destroyed), and he died tragically early, at 49. Femenine (sic) is an hour-plus stream of coruscating propulsion, anchored by a perpetually present 13-beat motif played on the vibraphone with only two pitches; a stream of fast repeated notes and a codicil of dancing major seconds - the "prime melody". Throughout the entire piece, a jangling background of sleigh bells is present, like a chorus of cicadas. In sections determined by stopwatch, prescribed chords and additional melodic material - in one key throughout, Eb, apart from some jarring (in context; actually pretty consonant but as gloriously inappropriate as a drag queen in a cathedral, after marinating in Eb for 3/4 of an hour) bitonal clashes. What is, or isn’t, used of the notated material, and how, is to some extent left to the performers, and improvisation in some places is encouraged, so every performance will be different; for instance in the less than ideally recorded archival performance with Eastman at the piano that exists (thank goodness!), he is more abrasive in the section entitled "Pianist will interrupt" than the performer here. This excellent, vividly detailed performance and recording that allows the constantly evolving thematic and textural nuances of the score to be heard, ideally balanced, might be described as the "free jazz" version of the work, as the principals all have solos (including a wonderfully extended-demented vocal one in homage to Eastman's own vocal acrobatics); these dovetail perfectly into the teeming inventiveness of the piece’s exuberant excess, and this disc - apparently to be the beginning of a series - is an exhilarating document of an unique, misunderstood and "lost" composer, finally, due to the efforts of a small number of devoted experts (but their number is growing!) being afforded the recognition he deserves. Wild Up.