Julius Eastman is one of those individuals who I’ve been meaning to check out for years, but never quite got to it. In some ways, his legacy can overshadow his music. He was a polymath – composer, performer, dancer, vocalist, experimentalist, and agitator. He was controversial not just because he was gay and Black at a time that those characteristics were even less accepted than they are now, but also due to his inability to fit into academic or “serious composer” circles despite having tremendous talent. His life ended in tragedy, dying at age 49 after a spell of homelessness. His musical output has, until recently, been hard to come by in recorded form.
Femenine is a singular piece and an example of what Eastman called “organic music”. This was his own version of minimalism and is presented by the Los Angeles new music group Wild Up. With 20 performers on piano, bells, vibes, strings, saxes, synths, voices, and flutes, Wild Up provides a 70-minute reading.
Not unlike Terry Riley’s In C, in Femenine Eastman defined a basic set of patterns that can overlap and be adapted to form variations of virtually any length. Indeed, a first listen to this recording of Femenine harkens to Riley once the bell-heavy intro slowly gives way to a repetitive staccato vibe pattern that involves only two notes. Eastman layers these brief, deceptively simple themes to build structures of arbitrary complexity. And then he moves beyond Riley, if you will, by encouraging more open-ended improvisation. Here, that takes the form of wordless vocals, sax solos, and compelling piano motifs. The two-note pattern makes trancelike reprises throughout, picked up by other groups of instruments.
In this fashion, Femenine wends its way between said minimalism, as well as classical, jazz, and experimental music. Wild Up builds from a slow burn to dense, controlled crescendos. The bells provide a continuous background, not unlike cicadas on a summer afternoon. Throughout, Eastman as interpreted by this troupe provides a sense of playfulness and joy that is sometimes missing from serious music. As a result, Femenine works on multiple levels and holds up to multiple listenings. To that point, after my first pass through this hour-plus epic, I immediately started it again for a second listen.
Femenine comes out on June 18 from New Amsterdam Records. Do not hesitate.