Memory in music is a fickle thing. The whims of popular demand, critical adoration, and monetary gain will often marginalize even those whom music history would later go on to recognize as essentials to the medium. It’s truly impossible to know all the people who have fallen through the cracks, forever unable to let their notes emanate in the ears of listeners worldwide. Fortunately, with artists like Jace Clayton (aka DJ/rupture) willing to resurrect the works of composers like the late Julius Eastman (1940-1990), forgetfulness may just become a thing of the past. The Julius Eastman Memory Depot, Clayton’s first work for the always excellent New Amsterdam label, presents an unconventional way to examine an equally unconventional person.
It’s not surprising that Eastman isn’t mentioned with the likes of Philip Glass and John Adams in the canon of contemporary art music. Being both gay and African-American in the time that he was active (late ‘60’s-‘80’s) undoubtedly meant he was cast aside by the genre’s elites, a fact not helped by his provocative and interrogative style of composition. Though in many ways similar to the likes of minimalists like Glass, a distinctive of Eastman’s work is his ability to bring the beauty out of discordant tonalities and atypical song structures, as well as his emphasis on the political nature of music in the lives of everyday people. Such is particularly the case with “Evil Nigger” and “Gay Guerilla,” the two solo piano pieces Clayton re-interprets. The two-piano format of The Julius Eastman Memory Depot—helmed by pianists David Friend and Emily Manzo—is backed by the use of Clayton’s self-designed Sufi Plugins software, which makes this album as much an electronic project as it is a classical one. The meshing of Friend and Manzo’s incredible, nuanced playing with Clayton’s subtly inflected electronics is equal parts daring and dazzling. The effect is much like hearing Eastman’s music in a dream; the notes fall into place on the musical staff while also drifting in their own world, in the process reflecting the very nature of composition itself. Rarely do musicians come out with the melodies exactly the way they intended them. Cadences and crescendos come to the composer often when she least expects it. The oscillating quality in the fourth movement of “Gay Guerilla” captures this well: sounds often come in waves. Clayton’s decision to filter the two pianos through electronics gives these pieces a rebirth that’s utterly ingenious, proof that classical and electronic have the ability to inform each other.
The two pieces that comprise the body of The Julius Eastman Memory Depot are simultaneously contrasting and unique. “Evil Nigger,” dominated by sharp trills and staccato notes, is powerful, even its relative sparseness in melodic lines; the first movement of this track is especially striking, with wide-spanning octaves abound. Meanwhile, “Gay Guerilla,” the more inventive of the two, flows between movements of beauty (the third movement) and majesty (the fifth movement). The conclusion to this LP—an excerpt from the live version of this record—features some haunting spoken word passages that document the search for a Julius Eastman impersonator. It’s a reminder of just how spectral Eastman is in the musical world. As compelling a document as The Julius Eastman Memory Depot is, it’s still only one step in what will hopefully be a more in-depth examination of Eastman and other composers like him.
For now, however, little else could suffice more than what Clayton has done here. Orchestras across the globe continue to revive the works of Bach and Beethoven, as any good orchestra ought to, but given the tools provided to modern musicians with the advent of new genres, these revivals need not be rote copy-and-paste. When in his press releases Clayton says, “Reverence can be a form of forgetting,” he gets right at what’s necessary for invigorating re-envisionings in the postmodern landscape. It is not enough to merely be reverent and respectful to those in the past; one must also take their music and challenge it with the principles of the initial composer himself. Nothing probably would have bored Julius Eastman more than a stuffy classical enthusiast playing his pieces in a tuxedo in front of an audience paying a hundred bucks a pop to see him. Something completely different—and indeed irreverent—is in order to really achieve the unconventional stylings Eastman so excelled at. The Julius Eastman Memory Depot is nothing less than one of contemporary art music’s most innovative and vital re-interpretations. It’s not a stretch to imagine that Eastman himself would have been proud.