Review: Stacy Hardy’s ’52 Niggers’ and the Undoing of Julius Eastman – Sasha Archibald
Stacy Hardy’s 52 Niggers and the Undoing of Julius Eastman
On 8 January 1989, a 33-year old white pregnant doctor was brutally raped and killed on duty at New York City’s Bellevue Hospital. New York’s homicide rate was at an all-time peak, but the particulars brought this murder front and centre: the case was assigned fifty detectives and a $30,000 reward. The day after the incident, a Newsday reporter looking for new angles found his story, unexpectedly, in Julius Eastman, a 48-year old black man standing on a chilly street corner, warming his hands over a burning oil drum. Eastman lived at the Bellevue Men’s Shelter directly across the street from the hospital, and played piano in the lobby. He chatted with the reporter for some time and his commentary made a deep impression. Eastman’s shrewd analysis – of why this murder mattered and other murders don’t – makes up half the length of the resultant article.
The reporter was curious to know how such an obviously well educated man ended up homeless, but Eastman refused to say. He did promise he’d ‘get it back together’ soon.1 In fact, he wouldn’t; Eastman died almost exactly a year later, of cardiac arrest. (He may have had AIDS.) The Newsday article represents the last public trace of Eastman, a musician who had seemed destined for the limelight: winning a coveted post as a Creative Associate at SUNY Buffalo’s Center for the Creative and Performing Arts; performing at Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center, the Kitchen, and touring internationally; and curating programs for the Brooklyn Philharmonic. Classically trained at the prestigious Curtis Institute, a reviewer said of Eastman’s 26-year old debut piano recital: ‘eloquent, sparse, and poetic…a young man who obviously feels deeply about music and has a highly personal way of communicating it.’2 Four years later, his vocal performance in Peter Maxwell Davies’ Eight Songs for a Mad King, described in the New York Times as ‘genius’, won Eastman a Grammy nomination. Eastman’s musicality brought a cast of collaborators to his doorstep – Molissa Fenley, Lukas Foss, Peter Gordon, Petr Kotik, Cristyne Lawson, Joseph Kubera, Meredith Monk, Pauline Oliveros, Arthur Russell, and others – all important players in the New York avant-garde, and all at this point better known than Eastman himself.
However, despite his centrality to the downtown scene in the late 1970s and early 80s, Eastman’s peers failed to notice he was dead for nearly a year, and posthumous recognition was long in coming. Having never attained a teaching post, never had a recording released, and generally expressing disdain for the institutionalised channels of music, Eastman’s legacy was left to chance. His crack addiction in the 1980s likely led to his eviction, and his folio was among the belongings the New York City police department dumped on the street. Two decades later, when composer Mary Jane Leach had the thought of compiling Eastman’s recordings, she met dead ends at every turn: ‘It was not only frustrating, but shocking, to see how quickly the work of such a vital member of the artistic community could fall through the cracks. And sobering, as well.’3 Eventually, Leach released the album Unjust Malaise, spurring a small-scale revival of Eastman’s work, and inspiring the South African writer Stacy Hardy to put pen to paper.4 Captivated by the music, but also by the story – the lost black genius of experimental music’s heyday – Hardy wrote an essay about Eastman that was published in the Capetown-based Chimurenga Magazine in 2007. When Chimurenga subsequently launched a series of small stand-alone books they included among them one which reprinted Hardy’s ‘52 Niggers’ alongside three of Eastman’s scores and several photographs. The diminutive staple-bound book eventually landed at the Printed Matter bookshop at 195 10th Avenue, not far from where Eastman had lived.5
52 Niggers extends much-needed attention to Eastman, who truly teetered on the edge of historical oblivion. Hardy’s aim, however, is something other than bibliographic resuscitation. Seeing, in the facts of Eastman’s life, a pattern consistent with the fate of many black musicians in South Africa, Hardy’s response is pained and impassioned. Racism is an error of perception, and Hardy suggests as much by honing in on the visual texture of Eastman’s persona: his dreadlocks, leather attire, dangling keys and chains – he was known around town as Mr. Mineshaft, in reference to his patronage of the eponymous gay sex club – as well as Hardy’s imagining of his swagger, manic concentration, sweaty hands, and the way his head lolled when he got high. Building her understanding of Eastman’s demise through such details, Hardy’s success is to make any consideration of the composer that brackets his race and sexuality seem egregiously tone deaf.
As a hybrid of facts and fiction, 52 Niggers is not always accurate, nor fair-minded, and yet Hardy’s empathetic intuition lands not far from the truth. In the eight years since the essay was written, additional Eastman recordings and more biographical material have surfaced. Remarkably, none of it contradicts Hardy’s speculative account. Judging from hindsight, 52 Niggers reads less like poetic license and more like poetic sagacity. ‘Like Eastman,’ Hardy writes, ‘I took liberties in my search for liberty.’6 Her conjectures prove far more enlightening than the thin set of facts that comprised her starting point.
Eastman might have been lauded as the black darling of conceptual music, but he refused this status, just as he scorned his brother’s plea that he settle for a jazz gig. Different people explain his demise differently. There are friends and colleagues who describe Eastman as having ‘personality problems,’ and a tendency toward self-sabotage: Asking the Paris Conservatory for an outrageous salary and losing the job offer; negligent of critical paperwork at SUNY and summarily dismissed; alienating the conservative funding base of the arts in Buffalo with his outré sexuality, and the black students and faculty at Northwestern with his use of the word ‘nigger.’7 There is also Eastman’s brother, Gerry, a guitarist formerly with Count Basie Orchestra, who maintains that Julius was ‘just another in the line of geniuses who get squashed in this particular hemisphere.’8 Perhaps Eastman was professionally incompetent, though it is more likely he was ambivalent about success – desirous and derisive in the same stroke, as interlopers of class and race often are. In 2006, writer Hilton Als produced a sound score by mashing Eastman’s recordings with the Crystals’ 1962 ‘He Hit Me (and it Felt Like a Kiss)’, as if to acknowledge the emotional tangle of fidelity and alienation in which Eastman was professionally entrapped. These two versions of Eastman – victim of prejudice or agent of his own demise – play out in a single powerful event, an incident that is often cited as a detail of the Eastman story, but may itself comprise the entire Eastman story: a toolbox of divination in a single performance.
The year is 1975 and the place is the nucleus of the experimental music scene in America – the Center of the Creative and Performing Arts at SUNY Buffalo in upstate New York. With Petr Kotik, Jan Williams, and others, the 35-year-old Eastman was an early member of the S.E.M. Ensemble, a fearless experimental music group. (The S.E.M. Ensemble’s first performance began with an audience of 100 and ended with an audience of 17; they continue to perform with Kotik at the helm to audiences much, much larger.) One of the first pieces the S.E.M. Ensemble included in their repertoire was John Cage’s recently complete Song Books, a heterogeneous series of directives. This was the piece the S.E.M. Ensemble selected to perform at the inaugural June in Buffalo music festival in 1975, each member taking a different directive. Eastman chose ‘Solo for Voice No. 8’ in which Cage instructs the performer to complete a ‘disciplined action’ that fulfils ‘an obligation to others’, gives no attention to the situation, and permits any and all interruptions.9
Eastman took the stage and began by asking a man and woman from the audience to join him. The man was young, ‘quite possibly underage’, sniffed the Buffalo News, though some accounts suggest it was Eastman’s boyfriend, Chucky.10 The performance began as a lecture on anatomy in mock scientific parlance, and by way of illustration, Eastman began to undress his volunteer. Once the man was fully nude, Eastman turned to the woman, who, having a premonition of what would follow, took a step backward and covered her chest. Eastman, unfazed, turned his attention back to the man and ignored the woman for the rest of the performance. The lecture on anatomy then became a lecture on the mechanics of gay intercourse, or, in Eastman’s phrasing, ‘a new system of love’ which eventually segued into Eastman vocalizing the sounds of sex. Eastman was better known for his vocal acrobatics than his composition, and his performance of sex acoustics brought down the house. For better or for worse, those present – university faculty, festival organisers, donors, students who would later become prominent musicians and critics, and most crucially, John Cage himself – remembered Eastman’s Cage-inspired burlesque for the rest of their lives.
Cage confronted Eastman that night and strong-armed a promise that Eastman would never perform the piece again. He didn’t stop there. The following day, to a crowd of 150 colleagues and students (quite possibly comprising Eastman’s entire professional circle), Cage condemned the performance at length. Kyle Gann, longtime music critic for the Village Voice, remembers the mild-mannered, cerebral Cage most uncharacteristically pounding a piano with his fist as he shouted: ‘Freedom. In. My. Music. Does. Not. Mean. The. Freedom. To. Be. Irresponsible!’.11 A writer who was then a student described the outburst as one of the most dramatic things he’d witnessed in his 25-year career.12 For decades, there were only anecdotal accounts of this tirade, but recently, Cage’s outburst has surfaced in the form of a transcript. It proves an illuminating and ugly document.13 As it turns out, memory did not exaggerate Cage’s ire; his actual words are worse than the eyewitness testimony would suggest.
As does someone whose anger has blunted his critical faculties, Cage pulled out all the stops to make his case against Eastman, bundling arguments that were sensible with arguments that were not. He held director Petr Kotik responsible, even though Kotik knew nothing of Eastman’s plans because Cage vehemently forbade rehearsal. Cage claimed the work was technically flawed because the score indicates a solo and Eastman’s interpretation required a trio. He said there was no license for the piece to include ‘a sexual component’ because Song Books represents a connection between Erik Satie and Henry Thoreau, and ‘neither Satie nor Thoreau is known to have had any sexual connection with anyone or anything.’14 He mounted a homophobic psychoanalysis of Eastman, accusing the younger composer of being fixated on his own sexuality and thus incapable of true creativity.15 But perhaps most damning, Cage compared his position vis-à-vis Eastman to that of a friend, a committed anarchist, Cage explained, who, later in life, had adopted two black children. In raising these children he’d found himself forced to play a role counter to his earlier convictions. Namely, he’d had to make rules, starting with, ‘No jumping up and down on the bed’. Naughty ‘Negro children’, it seems, compel even the most reluctant authoritarian to take control.16
At the heart of this before-its-time collision of gay subjectivity and conceptual art is Cage’s errant assumption that Eastman acted out of ignorance or stupidity, rather than calculated provocation. Cage might have interpreted the performance as a barbed tribute, or a painful bit of mockery that was nonetheless to be tolerated. He might have seen it as the confrontational sensibility of a younger generation: upsetting, uncomfortable, but not worth forsaking values he otherwise championed. And although he would have considered the suggestion heretical, Cage might have bitten his tongue simply because Eastman was black, black in a field almost entirely white. What Cage undoubtedly regarded as an issue of conceptual integrity and artistic quality was in fact suffused by his impression of Eastman’s race and flagrant sexuality. The brilliant Cage, like many arbiters of taste before and since, overestimated his powers of impartiality. The gist of the matter, surmised Hardy (even without benefit of the transcript), is that Eastman ‘scared the shit out of Cage.’
Eastman wasn’t spared the consequences. Two years after the Cage debacle, Eastman composed ‘If You’re So Smart Why Aren’t You Rich?’ for piano, brass, strings, and percussion – the title a blunt version of the question posed two decades later to the articulate homeless man on a street corner.17 Hardy interprets the piece as Eastman’s ‘Fuck you’ reply to Cage, but in title at least, it is hardly so confrontational as others in the Eastman oeuvre – ‘Gay Guerrilla’, ‘Evil Nigger’, and ‘Dirty Nigger’ among them – and even a touch forlorn. Perhaps Eastman had calculated the cost of his audacity, and perhaps he allowed himself a moment of grief. In any case, he answered his own question with his next composition, the 1979 ‘Nigger Faggot (NF)’ for piano.
1. Denis Hamill, ‘The Chill Spreads’, Newsday, 9 January 1989, p.3.
2. Theodore Strongin,‘Piano Recital Given By Julius Eastman’, New York Times, 9 December 1966, p.58.
3. Mary Jane Leach, ‘In Search of Julius Eastman’, New Music Box, 8 November 2005. See http://www.newmusicbox.org/articles/In-Search-of-Julius-Eastman/
4. See, for instance, Jace Clayton’s album, The Julius Eastman Memory Depot (New York: New Amsterdam Records, 2013). Eastman’s reputation will presumably continue to grow with the publication of two forthcoming books, Gay Guerrilla: Julius Eastman and his Music, a collection of essays co-edited by Renée Levine Packer and Mary Jane Leach (University of Rochester Press, 2015), and Ryan Dohoney’s upcoming scholarly study, An End to Downtown: Julius Eastman in New York’s Musical Cultures, 1975-1990.
5. Hardy takes her title from a 1980 address Eastman gave at Northwestern University about his use of the word ‘nigger’. See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E2XtFZMpwm0
6. Email from Stacy Hardy, 9 February 2015.
7. Cited in Kyle Gann, ‘“Damned Outrageous”: The Music of Julius Eastman’, Unjust Malaise, New York: New World Records, 2005, liner notes.
9. William Fetterman, John Cage’s Theatre Pieces, New York: Routledge, 1996, p. 90.
10. Jeff Simon, ‘A Closet of its Own Devising’, Buffalo News, 14 January 1994, p. G17.
11. Kyle Gann writes that Cage ‘pounded his fist on the piano to punctuate his words: ‘the freedom in my music does not mean the freedom to be irresponsible!’ K. Gann, ‘“Damned Outrageous”: The Music of Julius Eastman’, op. cit.
12. Jeff Simon, ‘Jan Williams: A Man for All Seasons and All Reasons in Buffalo’s Musical Life’, Buffalo News, Tuesday 15 July 2014. Available at http://buffalo.com/2014/07/15/news/music/jan-williams-a-man-for-all-seasons-and-all-reasons-in-buffalos-musical-life/
13. The transcript was originally included as the appendix to Steve Schlegel’s 2008 MA thesis at SUNY Buffalo, and is extensively quoted in Ryan Dohoney’s ‘John Cage, Julius Eastman, and the Homosexual Ego’ in Tomorrow is the Question: New Directions in Experimental Music Studies, Benjamin Piekut (ed.), Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2014, pp. 39-62. In an interview with Dohoney, Petr Kotik suggests that Cage misinterpreted Eastman’s performance as a personal mockery of Cage’s own homosexuality (p. 45).
14. Cited in Dohoney, ibid., p. 51. Interestingly, on a separate occasion, Cage described Song Books as less like a work of art and more like a ‘brothel’. See James Pritchett, The Music of John Cage, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996, p. 173.
15. ‘I don’t approve [of the performance] because the ego of Julius Eastman is closed in on the subject of homosexuality. And we know this because he has no other idea to express.’ Cited in Dohoney, p. 62. Cage’s own gay identity obviously took a very different expression than Eastman’s.
16. John Cage, A Year from Monday: New Lectures and Writings, Middletown: CTL Wesleyan University Press, 1969, p. 59.
17. According to Mary Jane Leach the title was taken from something Eastman’s mother used to say to him – email to the editors, Monday 20 April 2015.