Julius Eastman - The N****r Series 2xLP


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Label: Blume

Limited edition purple vinyl comes in wooden box. Edition of 300.

During his tragically brief life, Julius Eastman burned like a wildfire. A brilliant composer, pianist, and vocalist who, with contemporaries like Arthur Russell, Arnold Dreyblatt, Ellen Fullman, Rhys Chatham, Glenn Branca, and numerous others, pioneered the development of post-minimal music, he was among only a handful African American artists at the centre of New York's experimental music scene during the 1970s and '80s. Contentious, confrontational, and brash, he was also among the first artists to draw the subjects of ethnicity and queer identity into the conceptual sphere of that scene; interventions that rarely went down well within a context that was dominantly middle-class, heteronormative, and white. Sadly, this led to attacks upon him by prominent composers like John Cage, a factor that contributed to the long lasting degradation of his legacy that has only just begun to be repaired.

Among the most explicit of the works attending to these subjects – race and sexuality – were those falling under the heading of the N****r Series, premiered by Eastman in January of 1980 at Northwestern University, just outside of Chicago. Three of these – Evil N****r, Gay Guerilla, and Crazy N****r – make up the totality of Blume Edition's The N****r Series, originally released in 2018 and now repressed in a beautiful new boxed edition after remaining out of print for almost the entirety of the time.

While none of the works within the N****r Series explicitly state they must be executed on piano – being composed by Eastman "for any number of similar instruments" – since their debut by the composer on piano in 1980, they have almost always featured the same instrumentation. The recordings featured within are the earliest known – dating from around 1980 – and are the only to have been realised during the composer's lifetime. The first of these, Crazy N****r, extending to roughly an hour in length, takes up the entirety of the first LP in the collection, and is a sprawling sonic study of startling density and minimalist restraint that traverses a wonderful harmonic and rhythmic range, with its final section using the same process as James Tenney's Spectral Canon for Conlan Nancarrow, but notated in a more intuitive way. The second piece, Evil N****r, launches forward with franticly paced tonality, moving effortlessly through passages of multi-tonality, before reaching a conclusion of beautiful restraint and sparsely placed notes. The third work in the collection is Gay Guerrilla, easily the most dramatic of the three, which rises, in the words of the composer Mary Jane Leach, as "a queer call to arms, both sacred and secular."

Collectively, these three works – unquestionably among the most politically and creatively radical in Eastman's entire body of work – generate sprawling soundscapes through adamantly restated patterns and interlocking canons, not fragmenting, but preaching urgent truths.

To quote brilliant Mary Jane Leach liner notes, "He wrote what can be categorized as minimal music, but also wrote 'post-minimal' music before minimal music was fully established. His pieces straddle the two main styles of minimal music – rhythmic/pulse driven music (Steve Reich and Philip Glass) and spectral drone music (La Monte Young and Phill Niblock). While using process and rhythmic patterns, there is a flexibility that lends a breathing, organic feel to his music, a muscularity missing in a lot of other music from that time. With the re-emergence of his powerful music, a missing gap in the history of contemporary music has been filled."

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