Jace Clayton (a.k.a. DJ /rupture) Reimagines a New York Original

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The big news, in indie-centric corners, will be that Jace Clayton – better known as DJ /rupture – is releasing a classical album. That’s both true and newsworthy, though the more important development is whose works Clayton has seen fit to record.

That would be the gay, African-American post-minimalist composer Julius Eastman. Until now, Eastman’s discography had only one title in it: an archival collection on New World Records, "Unjust Malaise." Eastman, who for a time in the 1980s was homeless in New York (and reportedly struggled with drug addiction), ultimately slipped through the fingers of the new-music world that might have recognized him earlier. (It took until 2005 for that New World compilation to surface.) When Kyle Gann wrote the first obituary for Eastman in the Village Voice, in 1991, Eastman had been dead for eight months.

Thankfully, Eastman’s trailblazing, confrontational spirit lives on in his compositions, right down to their titles – as can be seen in two pieces for multiple pianos, both of which appear on Clayton’s album. Evil N----- was originally a work for four pianists. Its most memorable characteristic is a seven-note motif (which goes D-A-B-flat-F-G-A-D); when it emerges, the riff sounds sincerely aggrieved. But Evil is also alive with passages of daydreaming beauty; in between those pounding unison moments, the pianists are allowed to linger over their repetitive parts in a manner that feels influenced by the composer's experiments with free improvisation.

Clayton’s version is different than the archival recording, even as it remains in the spirit of the original. Using only two pianists – David Friend and Emily Manzo – the third player is Clayton himself, who uses some of his own custom-built DJ tools to sample and process the other musicians’ playing in real time. (This re-processing of Evil was superbly recorded at Merkin Hall; the acoustic and electronic fields of sound are easily distinguished, but also feel joined.)

Broken into four parts, Clayton’s version of Evil toggles between sections in which the DJ’s presence is somewhat less obvious, and then sections in which his interjections become overt. Witness the gentle, glitchy veneer of manipulation that Clayton lends to the performance during "Part I," as opposed to his obviously tweaked introduction to "Part II." This is not a version of Evil that seeks to displace the original, but to build on its built-in freedom.

The other Eastman work for piano that Clayon and his collaborators investigate is Gay Guerrilla. It is, in some ways, a less catchy piece. But the climax of the work brings a wallop, where the hymn “A Might Fortress is Our God” emerges, conscripted for Eastman’s own activist concerns (made explicit in the title). The second “part” of the performance is sparer than usual – and Clayton’s digital reprocessing develops a hazy quality altogether removed from pianism.

Later, a chopped-and-screwed moment from Clayton in “Part III” clearly introduces the introduction of the hymn. But more than serving as a roadmap, Clayton’s interrupting gesture is repeated, mid-hymn, as if to suggest the staggered-step, tentative progress of gay rights in America.

The final, brief piece, “Callback from the American Society of Eastman Supporters” is a Clayton original. Imagining a world in which Eastman’s admirers are so numerous as to require robo-call responses from a centralized organization, it has a bit of Eastman’s humor to it, making for a satisfying end to the recording. You won’t need to have heard Eastman’s music before in order to enjoy this album – but if you do enjoy it, you ought to go directly to "Unjust Malaise." Meantime, here’s hoping that the passion and excellence exhibited by Clayton leads to additional releases of Eastman’s other, unheard pieces.

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