Composer Julius Eastman Crashes the Minimalist Canon

Contemporary music has hardly been without significant black and queer artists. But the story of Minimalism, in particular, has been dominated by straight white men — LaMonte Young, Terry Riley, Steve Reich, Philip Glass — and Eastman is a vital addition to their company, even if his take on the style was idiosyncratic and perhaps ahead of its time.

A composer of visionary power, a singer with a cavernous bass voice, a collaborator with the diverse likes of Meredith Monk and Pierre Boulez, Eastman had long been a fixture of the New York music scene. His sprawling, propulsive works had titles that ranged from the bluntly provocative (“Crazy Nigger”) to the winking (“If You’re So Smart, Why Aren’t You Rich?”). 

An archival recording of one of his finest pieces, the peculiarly spelled “Femenine,” from 1974, was released last month on the Frozen Reeds label, and it shows what all the fuss was about. Ecstatically bustling, it’s perhaps the most plainly beautiful thing Eastman wrote in a career spent challenging his audiences.

“What I am trying to achieve is to be what I am to the fullest,” he said in a 1976 interview. “Black to the fullest, a musician to the fullest, a homosexual to the fullest.”


Julius Eastman's "Crazy Nigger". Live 2011 (Swaan Produkties - Amsterdam)