Zoë Madonna is a writer, amateur accordionist, and yarn hoarder based in Boston. A 2015 graduate of Oberlin College, she was awarded the 2014 Rubin Prize for Music Criticism. Her work has appeared in the Boston Globe and on icareifyoulisten.com.
Julius Eastman's 'Femenine'
Monday, December 19, 2016
First, a caveat: I am incredibly late to the Julius Eastman party, and I have no one but myself to blame for this. I had read some of the stories surrounding the recent surge of interest in Julius Eastman’s work. I knew the landmarks of his life: study at Curtis, prodigious gifts in both piano and singing, work with Arthur Russell and Meredith Monk, struggles with an academic establishment that cared little for anti-establishment black queer people, unprintable piece titles (Bad N****r, Gay Guerilla), his scores thrown onto the sidewalk when he couldn’t pay rent, death alone in a Buffalo hospital at age 49.
So, I don’t know what I was expecting, picking up “Femenine.” Something more confrontational, maybe, or angrier. Contrary to these expectations I didn’t know I had, the first sound on Frozen Reeds’ release of “Femenine” is the jingle of mechanized sleigh bells, the second, laughter of the audience at the whimsical contraption.
“Femenine” is music for lovers, outwardly and inwardly joyous. Sustained by a perpetual sleigh-bell pulse and a glowing vibraphone motif, Eastman is wearing a dress (or an apron: accounts differ) and seated at the piano in this recording. He improvises jazz-inflected minimalist refrains, slowly perambulates over the keyboard’s range, leading his merry band of collaborators and University of Buffalo students. They steadily gather in motives and fragments and stacking them atop one another.
The musicians were given instructions for what to play at certain times, each having a digital clock in front of them, but the score only included four and a half pages, just bare-bones instructions for creation. “Eastman’s stated aim with Femenine was to please listeners, saying of the piece that ‘the end sounds like the angels opening up heaven…’” his friend Mary Jane Leach wrote.
This recording has gone unheard for decades, and is the work’s only known document. It is scrappy, sometimes scratchy and snowy. The exact instrumentation is hard to discern, and most of the performers are unknown. Listening to this “Femenine” is like opening a time capsule that has been slightly waterlogged, but is no less astonishing for it. Whether there will ever be another performance of “Femenine” remains to be seen, since so much information about it is missing, the chances probably have increased.
Reviving the works of Eastman – and people like Eastman who never fit the model of respectable academe-composer, those whom history have all but forgotten - feels especially important at this point in time. These messages from the past are a reminder that the world of concert music is never and has never been as homogeneous as it seems, but privileges certain types of voices over others in what is preserved and what is not.
Eastman was clear that the performance of Femenine on this recording was an informal event, and he insisted that the audience be served soup. I didn’t have any soup in the house, so I made scrambled eggs with chili garlic sauce, coffee and toast while listening, and the sizzle of the butter in the skillet substituted for the click of the audience’s spoons. Hopefully he would have approved.
Julius Eastman: Femenine
Frozen Reeds | Released Sept. 16
This audio is no longer available.