Once praised to the skies as a performer by News Classical Music Critic John Dwyer, then rejected for his performance by one of the greatest figures of the American vanguard, John Cage, Julius Eastman's work has come back to the home of his greatest triumphs to make some local history.
In a sensational bit of Buffalo musical history, his work will be heard as it's never been before on Friday in the Burchfield Penney Art Center.
Beginning at 5:30 p.m. in the Burchfield Rotunda, Eastman's "Buddha" will begin the evening performed by the Sotto Voce Collective. At 6 p.m. the Buffalo Chamber Players will play "Stay On It." In the East Gallery at 7 p.m. the Buffalo Chamber Players and Buffluxus will perform "Gay Guerilla" followed by Renee Levine Packer's talk about her book on Eastman and then percussionist Amy Knoles performing her arrangement of Eastman's "Crazy (N-Word.)"
We don't use that word anymore. It's too ugly for ordinary, everyday journalism. In his prime, Eastman used the word a lot. He used it in the titles to his pieces. The word became commonplace in hip-hop and movies at the time, but not in the concert hall.
The outrageous and fearless provocateur also liked to use another despised word in the titles of his works -- the epithet for male homosexuals. He'd even used the words together. He was making all-out raids on any vestigial delicacy in the sensibility of the concert hall.
Eastman was the most controversial composer ever to live in Buffalo. He was also the most deliberately provocative, so much so that he even inspired angry fury in one of the most legendarily philosophical figures in America's esthetic history, John Cage.
In 1975, Eastman and his friends in Buffalo's S.E.M. Ensemble gave a performance of Cage's "Song Books" in which performers are instructed to do as they wish as long as it fits into the philosophy of Henry David Thoreau. Eastman's version was an overtly suggestive homoerotic stripping of a young man from the audience and a declaration of "a new kind of love." It was a kind of shock theater calling attention to sexual and racial prejudice.
In the most dramatic personal moment I ever covered, composer Cage -- the most pacifistic and non-combative of men -- hit the ceiling over it at a seminar the next day. He furiously confronted the fact that people felt entitled to do anything they pleased in his name.
At that moment, the marginalization of Eastman probably began. He had fully become a "gay guerilla" as one of his pieces called him (as well as the superb book about him by Packer and Mary Jane Leach). He left Buffalo for Manhattan in 1976 and his life and career foundered tragically.
He had become so obscure that when he died in 1990 of a heart attack at the age of 49 in Millard Fillmore Hospital, the first obituary didn't appear until months later in the Village Voice. And then, as posterity sometimes does, it offered Eastman a miracle: the full, unpredictable resurrection of his reputation as a composer, now far greater than it had ever been as a singer. Without his personal provocations, his music -- which was simultaneously uptown and downtown -- came to be heard for the remarkable thing it is.
On Friday, his scores will be exhibited, Packer will lecture and sign copies of the book about him she co-authored and, most importantly, Eastman's music will be heard with all its power, delight and occasional madness intact.