Day 36

Simone Keller: On the music of Julius Eastman and Julia Perry

Overview digital gestures

Simone Keller is a Swiss pianist and member of the Kukuruz Quartet for well-prepared pianos. In 2018 the Quartet released a highly acclaimed recording of Julius Eastman's Piano music, whose composition Gay Guerilla is a vital part of Boris Nikitin's 24 Bilder pro Sekunde. In her text Simone Keller is remembering the African American composer, whose music was soon forgotten and only started to reach a wider audience in recent years, long after his tragic death thirty years ago. Julia Perry is another sadly neglected composer, whose operas and orchestral works unjustly fell into oblivion.

The vulnerability of four pianos

On 28 May exactly 30 years ago, African-American composer Julius Eastman died at the age of 49 at a hospital in Buffalo, New York, of cardiac arrest brought on by severe drug abuse. Prior to his hospitalisation he had been forced to live in a camp for the homeless in Tompkins Square Park, New York. Long forgotten, by then, were his dazzling stage performances – as a solo vocalist, say, in the celebrated performance of Eight Songs for a Mad King by Peter Maxwell Davies conducted by Pierre Boulez. With the benefit of hindsight, Eastman’s daring compositions make him a pioneer of minimal music, but during his lifetime very few people, if any, showed much interest in them. In fact, we probably would never have heard of them, had it not been for his fellow student Mary Jane Leach, who took meticulous care of the manuscripts that were seized by the police when he was evicted from his apartment.

Julius Eastman was one of only a handful of composers to write original scores for four pianos – admittedly, an unusual line-up. As the Kukuruz Quartet, we are one of the few ensembles to play in precisely that line-up, and one of the few ensembles to have been performing Julius Eastman’s music on a regular basis for many years. Our aim is to bring it to life, to make it accessible to a wider audience, but also to use workshops to communicate it to secondary school pupils, juvenile offenders in prison and, currently, a group of unaccompanied under-age asylum seekers.

Julius Eastman’s music has enjoyed something of a revival in recent years, almost to the point where it is being hyped in insider circles. And yet, this many-layered and audacious music is still under-represented on the music scene, particularly in classical concert halls. At Documenta 14 in 2017, we had the opportunity, as the Kukuruz Quartet, to perform an Eastman recital on four wonderful Steinway grand pianos at the Megaron Concert Hall in Athens. Of course, it goes without saying that these instruments wonderfully showcase the towering tone repetitions of Eastman’s music; yet, as a quartet, we are always looking for a different sound and try to take the visceral ferocity and transgression induced by his drug excesses very seriously – and not reduce it to some ‘easy listening’. Eastman himself often spoke disparagingly about some of his colleagues’ minimal music compositions; to him they sounded like cheap meditation music. That’s why we like to perform these ‘art brut’ compositions by such an eclectic visionary on four old beat-up pianos that have already had to endure all sorts of repairs. With their maltreated sound boards, they put up sufficient resistance not to belittle the music’s reiterative rage and soaring concentrations of sound; instead, they showcase it in all its painful beauty.

Now, in June, we would have been bringing these four worn-out old pianos to Vienna for the Wiener Festwochen. Despite their sheer bulk and countless inadequacies, their broken keys, hammers and tuning pegs, their scratches and broken-off legs, we would have packed them into a lorry and driven the 750 km to Vienna to play Julius Eastman’s barnstorming piece Gay Guerilla with all the force and intensity it deserves, as part of Boris Nikitin’s stage production 24 Bilder pro Sekunde, itself all about vulnerability and impermanence. In recent years our four old pianos have been with us in bars, banks, breweries, thrift shops, hospitals, prisons, and cowsheds, and everywhere they’ve bravely submitted to the force and sheer physical violence that are essential components of Eastman’s music. The pianos may be battered and bruised, but they bear this great music with pride in their guts; with their unsound tones and brittle timbre they have stories to tell that a concert grand could never convey in this way. Nonetheless, for a studio recording two years ago, we opted for four beautiful Steinway Model D grand pianos in order not to risk spoiling the magic of the live experience under the scrutiny of a conservative recording. And it was in that context that we had the great honour to have the composer, trombonist and scholar George E. Lewis, who had known Julius Eastman personally, write the liner notes for our CD released with Intakt Records, in which he writes: ‘On this recording, the Kukuruz Quartet renders Eastman’s spirit of adventure audible and sensuous, exemplifying a new, creolized formation of contemporary classical music that is able to embrace a multicultural, multi-ethnic usable past and thinkable future that can affirm our common humanity in the pursuit of new music.’ George Lewis goes on to explain how it was possible that a composer of Julius Eastman’s calibre should be so little known to the world of music today and mentions another (female) composer who has likewise been forgotten: ‘Nonetheless, within a few years of his untimely passing, Eastman’s work simply disappeared. The situation is reminiscent of an African American composer of an earlier generation, Julia Perry (1924-1979), who passed away just as Eastman’s work was beginning to be more widely noticed. Perry attended the Juilliard School of Music, studied with Nadia Boulanger and Luigi Dallapiccola, received two Guggenheim Fellowships, and won prizes for her compositions in the US and Europe. Nonetheless, within a decade after her passing, nothing more was heard of her work for many years, a situation which remains the case.’

Julia Perry composed several operas and major orchestral pieces that hardly anyone knows today. She found herself in a ‘triple marginalised position’: she was African American, a woman, and physically impaired after suffering several strokes. I recorded a small prelude by Julia Perry on one of our four old pianos. I hope that, in doing so, it will make other people a little curious not just about this exceptional female composer, but beyond that, about all the many other unjustly forgotten artists we are not aware of, for all sorts of reasons; an awareness and appreciation of these artists is certainly well worth fighting for.

Simone Keller

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