Source: The Nation.
Julius Eastman was good at turning insults into titles for his work. Example: In 1977, Eastman was 36 and, though respected in avant-garde circles for the boldly experimental music he’d been making for more than a decade, was struggling to sustain himself in New York City. “If you’re so smart, why aren’t you rich?” his mother asked him, and Eastman used the question as the name for his latest piece, composed at the request of conductor Lukas Foss for the Brooklyn Philharmonia (later upgraded to the Brooklyn Philharmonic). If his mother’s taunt was only teasing—a loving maternal prod—Eastman used it for a fiercer purpose. Over the entirety of its 20-minute-plus duration, the composition states and restates the chromatic scale in blunt scoring—hammering and hammering, relentlessly. It feels less like an inquiry, teasing or otherwise, than a nearly physical assault. The title, a question founded on imposed expectations, imposes expectations of its own, setting up the listener for a piece of musical rumination or commentary. Yet the music provides something altogether different: a form of aural violence that batters the brain into numb submission.