This essential collection celebrates the life and work of a composer and performer whose unique presence was nearly eroded to nothing but for the work of composer (and co-editor of this volume) Mary Jane Leach who spearheaded an effort to rescue as many scores and recordings as possible after Eastman’s death in 1990 at the age of 49. The first evidence of this modern archaeological effort came with the release of Unjust Malaise (2005), three CDs which featured some of the recordings that were gathered in that early effort. In addition it should be noted that Leach continues to maintain a resource page with the most up to date information on Eastman scholarship efforts.
Now, along with Renée Levine Packer (whose wonderful history of the Buffalo New Music Days, “This Life of Sounds” (2010) is not to be missed) we have a lovingly edited collection of essays which comprise a sort of biography as well as an appreciation of this very important American composer.
One look at the acknowledgements reveals the wide scope of individuals with whom Eastman came into contact and whose contributions became so essential to this volume. The wonderful introductory essay is so very appropriately written by George E. Lewis whose figure itself continues to loom knowledgeably over late twentieth and early twenty first century music. He takes a characteristically unflinching look at the cultural, historical and socioeconomic factors that contextualize Eastman’s work as well as his untimely demise. Eastman’s frequent use of politically incorrect titles that challenge a smooth vocal delivery in the most seasoned of broadcasters is here made to seem quite understandable (if not comfortably palatable) within the complex forces that defined Eastman’s milieu. Lewis embraces Eastman’s talents and makes the prospect of further study of his work tantalizing. He provides a truly authoritative context which can serve all future work in this area.
There are nine chapters, a chronology and a select bibliography along with photographs and score examples. The essays that comprise each chapter focus from the macro-view of Packer’s biographical sketch and Leach’s timeline to micro-analyses of some of Eastman’s works and some additional personal perspectives. One of the most endearing qualities of this volume is the fact that many of the contributors knew and/or worked with Eastman at one time or another. It is clear that all the contributors were deeply affected by their encounters with Eastman himself and/or with his music and all are rather uniquely suited to be in this volume.
One suspects that Packer’s biographical sketch which opens this volume will henceforth serve as a basic model for all future biographical research. Whether one finds agreements or not the material is presented in as complete and organized a fashion as can be imagined. It paints the picture of a prodigy who, for whatever reason, fell into disarray. Whether there was drug use or symptoms of mental illness will be the debate which will, of course, never be satisfactorily resolved. What shines through though are tantalizing moments and a plethora of relationships, however brief sometimes, that contribute to all we will ever really know of the enigma of the life of this precious artist.
Some of what follows has the quality of memoir and some leans more toward academic analysis. All of these essays, timelines, bibliographies, etc. tie this book together as the first most comprehensive effort at trying to understand the man, his music, his milieu, his unusual personality.
These accounts will always be crucial in any future analysis of the enigmatic talent of Julius Eastman. Though many will attempt to affix labels to his personality variously attributing his quirks to mental or physical illness no one will ever know him the way the people in this book did, as a precious artist whose work was rescued (as much as it could be) from obscurity by his family (both biological and artistic). He was and is loved in perhaps the only way that he would allow, through his work and his deeds.
This book is a fascinating read which serves to put the artist back into his proper place as the genius he was. Much remains to be written, performed, analyzed and recorded but this book will always serve as the reference point for what is to come.