This composer-singer-pianist-dancer's work - fascinating, singular, provoker too, between repetitive contemporary music and nascent disco - is being rediscovered only since the past decade, notably thanks to composer Mary Jane Leach.
Until 1981, Julius Eastman was in the heart of Buffalo University and later Manhattan's abounding artistic scene, bringing him to perform with Meredith Monk or to travel in Europe for a solo tour (voice/piano). He was then part of a generation of musicians who gradually opened up the musical genres while keeping in direct touch with what was new, from Earth Wind and Fire to La Monte Young.
During Winter of 1981-82, he got deported from his apartment by the police, who destroyed most of what he owned - including scores and recordings. He didn't do much to regain those document. He considered this event as another sign of a sort of asceticism towards which he was getting closer everyday, making him slowly give up New York's musical life. He became homeless and lived for a while in East Village's Tompkins Square. He died 9 years later, in 1990, aged 49, alone, in Buffalo's hospital, without anybody noticing for almost a year.
"The end sounds like the angels opening up heaven... Should we say euphoria?"
This is Julius Eastman himself, speaking about Femenine, a piece that remains as a big and slow breathing, with something informal driving the listener to a near-hypnosis state. Four elements make its unchanging foundation: a precise timing, a tank of notes (the six first notes of the e-flat major scale), a short vibraphone pattern repeated over and over, and mechanically activated jingles - recalling György Ligeti's 100 metronomes - creating a constant process of phase shift between them and the vibraphone. The rest is only skeletons of melodic and rhythmic figures, that can vary feely, never to get stuck into a written score.
The last known version of Femenine performed during Eastman's lifetime happened in June 1975 at Buffalo Albright-Knox Art Gallery. This performance was played simultaneously with another one titled Masculine (now disappeared) in another part of the gallery.
Julius Eastman didn't impose anything, he used to propose, to try a lot. He insisted on the idea that composers should perform their own music. To revive a piece like Femenine, in which oral transmission will remain much more important than any score, can be seen as a sort of violation of the spirit of his music. But the only alternative would have been silence and oblivion.