Julius Eastman
b. October 27, 1940
d. May 28, 1990
49 years old

In 2015, I saw a photograph of a Black, handsome man hunched over a paper writing music with the caption: “Black gay avant-garde minimalist composer.” I thought, who the fuck is this and why don’t I know him?!? I Googled the name—Julius Eastman—and tracked down his composition for four pianos “Evil Nigger,” (1979). Within seconds, I felt like my skin was going to peel off my body. I had never—and still have never—heard something so beautiful: the fluttering intensity of the hammered keys right from the top, the regular counting—“1, 2, 3, 4!”—as a directive to the pianists to dig deeper in the next part. I was locked in.

My compulsion was to find and piece together all the fragments that he had left behind. Who was this man? How did he live his life, beyond the music? I learned that Eastman was a composer, pianist, conductor, writer, actor, performer, painter, dancer, choreographer, screenwriter, filmmaker—a genius, prodigy, polymath. He played classical music, jazz, and everything in between alongside his brother Gerry, a bassist who is well known in his own regard. Julius created rigorous compositions for multiple pianos, voice, and ensembles. He did not limit the final form of his compositions to those who could just read music, as his graphic scores for voice revealed.

Gerry allowed me to do my work by agreeing to assist with archive requests and general public support. I gave Gerry a picture of Eastman that he’d never seen before; years later I played him a recording of his brother’s voice, of the last time anyone heard his brother’s voice. I listened with him. I got in touch with friends and peers who had memories of Eastman: Karl Singletary, who was the last man to see Eastman alive and received the call with news of his death; Tania Leon, who cofounded a collective of Black composers with Eastman; Renee Levine Packer, who worked with Eastman during his years at Buffalo and coedited the essay collection Gay Guerrilla: Julius Eastman and His Music (2015), was a huge support in my efforts in shaping the exhibition portion of the retrospective project.

As I learned more about Julius through his archive and reflections from others, his body of work began to take a severely complex form. Eastman was angry, and he pissed off a lot of folks. As I made my way through his collaborators and peers, I was often on the receiving end of their anger. I’ve never encountered someone who was so prolific, who had such a remarkable body of work, and yet was so obscured by his peers (and by his own actions). When I started on the Eastman work in 2015, none of Eastman’s scores had been formally published. Performances of his works were often inaccurate or out of order, frustrating my co-curator, who handled the music program. Many scores had been picked up from the floors of stages by fans and peers after performances. There were hardly any recordings of Eastman’s compositions besides reels in archives that hadn’t been digitized and bootlegs by audience members, which made rendering annotations extremely hard.

A cutout of a newspaper clipping which features a triptych of close-up photographs of composer Julius Eastman.

Eastman continues to madden those who knew him. He frustrates me, too, and creates tension in those around me. Perhaps this is because of the proximity of his work to whiteness and, more specifically, white people. Unlike me, Eastman was surrounded by white people. They are fighting over his music. White people saying “nigger.” Blank stares. Say the title or not? This terrorizes me. Eastman allowed them to say “nigger” and I do not. His body of work hinges on the word “nigger” as a concept. The Black American nigger. As math. As body. As labor. His spoken introduction to “Crazy Nigger,” made in response to protests against the title of the work, takes the wind out of me. At that point I realize that there is no need to imagine what Eastman was thinking about this work. He has made himself clear!

Julius Eastman, “Julius Eastman’s Introduction to the Northwestern University Concert,” recorded January 6, 1980.

I was interested in how Eastman gave rage a structure, made it illegible yet strikingly beautiful in its form. How to edit, extend, and refine such rage? Eastman taught me how to use anger as a form, as a means of creating beauty. In order to tend to Eastman’s work, I became a curator, which I understood as a gesture of immense and specified caretaking. I wanted to tend to his fractured archive and to his anger. I became fixated on bringing his madness to light. I related to how obsessive and demanding Eastman was, which frightened me; I often felt that my work required such extreme attention that other aspects of my life also suffered.

My Baba told me that, to combat the anxiety of Eastman’s presence, to abate the madness, I should take a spiritual bath every week.

After years of research, I curated a two-part exhibition, “A Recollection + Predicated,” which was shown in 2017 at Slought Foundation in Philadelphia and then in 2018 at the Kitchen in New York. In the first part, I presented audio, artifacts, and documents collected by those who knew Eastman in order to see his work through those relationships and discover new connections between the pieces of ephemera. In the second part, I put Eastman’s work in conversation with videos, sculptures, and photographs by fourteen contemporary artists who exactingly distill works filled with madness, grief, control, rigor, sadness, and ultimately exceptional form.

When I initiated this work, I dedicated myself to becoming a good ancestor, to living a life of Iwa Pele, which would allow for me to care for others and be cared for in death. When someone is an elder or when someone has passed, you do things for them that they might not want you to do but that you know will allow their legacy to survive or move on. In Julius’s case, I’m not sure if he wanted anyone to do what I’ve done, but I know that he wanted to live longer. He wanted his work to live on. I do know that.

Julius Eastman, Crazy Nigger Schematic, date unknown.