Within the canon of classical-music misfits, a formidable lineage including scruffy luminaries like Harry Partch, John Cage, and Lou Harrison, it’s possible no one has ever not belonged as fiercely, as pointedly—or, at this point, as famously—as Julius Eastman. A Black gay man with an astonishing array of musical gifts as a composer, singer, dancer, and pianist, Eastman gained admission to the prestigious Curtis Institute in 1959, five years before the passage of the Civil Rights Act and only nine years after Nina Simone herself had been rejected due to her race. Eastman spent the rest of his short, eventful life surfing turbulent sociopolitical cross-currents, earning a Grammy nomination in 1974 for his stunning vocal work on Peter Maxwell Davies’ Eight Songs for a Mad King while also performing his music at gay pride festivals, playing in jazz combos, and fighting against perpetual economic precarity. It was the kind of tortured duality out of which grand allegories are fashioned and dynamite biopics are made, but which mostly felt, for Eastman, like constant struggle: As anyone who knows Eastman’s name by now knows, he died homeless and alone at age 49 in a New York hospital.
Over the last decade or so, there has been a slow-dawning recognition of the singularity of Eastman’s voice, catalyzed by the restoration work done by composer Mary Jane Leach, without whom it’s conceivable Eastman’s music would still be forever lost, as well as committed patrons like Jace Clayton, aka DJ /rupture. In 2013, Clayton released a tribute album that concluded with a piece, called “Callback From the American Society of Eastman Supporters,” daring to imagine a world in which Eastman’s acolytes had grown so numerous they had to be turned away via a polite outgoing message (voiced, as it happens, by Arooj Aftab). It is both a testament to the efforts of people like Clayton and a bittersweet irony that, nearly a decade later, the world envisioned by “Callback” has been slowly taking shape, in the form of multi-part public radio tributes, studies, countless articles, and, most importantly, a fervent new crop of musicians, performers, and artists who found themselves enraptured by the spirit of Eastman’s music.
One such performer is Loraine James, a London-based experimental electronic musician and relative newcomer to Eastman’s music, a fact she writes about in a poignant Guardian editorial: “When the label Phantom Limb got in touch about me creating music inspired by the late New York avant garde composer and pianist Julius Eastman, I had barely heard of him,” she admits, noting that even with a modern-day syllabus that touched on his peers, “it felt like there was effort made to leave him out.”