"When They Question You, Speak Boldly":
Revisiting the Music of Julius Eastman
Josh Langhoff

Editor’s Note: This article pays tribute to the work of Julius Eastman, a queer/gay, African-American composer and self-identified racial provocateur. This article contains language that is considered racially offensive, but which accurately reflects the titles of three musical works. We ask the reader to consider the context in which this language is being used within this article: as a way to honor Eastman’s political and social statements, and to honor his contributions to the discipline of music composition.


Gay Guerrilla was a provocative name for a piano piece, but it was the least controversial title Julius Eastman performed at Northwestern University on January 16, 1980. The composer, a queer black minimalist from New York, was on campus to rehearse and perform three of his compositions written “for any combination of instruments,” but usually performed by four pianists. Eastman might have been unaware he was stepping onto a campus rocked by ongoing racial unrest. For Members Only (FMO), the black student alliance, had been staging non-violent protests and running newspaper ads to push for better representation. Shortly before the concert, the group’s coordinators took public issue with the “racist” titles Crazy Nigger and Evil Nigger, the other two works on the concert. Eastman and the music department compromised with FMO: they would strike the titles from the concert advertising and programs, and instead Eastman would explain them during his opening remarks.

Eastman tried to reclaim the offending word. He said he used it to connote “that person or thing that obtains to a basicness, a fundamentalness, and eschews that thing which is superficial or… elegant.” It’s anyone’s guess whether Eastman’s reclamation attempt satisfied FMO, but he surely succeeded at banishing superficial elegance from his music. Each of the three pieces was over twenty minutes long, the longest lasting fifty-five minutes; each was built from combinations of quickly repeated notes that grew into thick stacks of pitches, dissonant and enveloping, a process the composer called “organic music.” One of the pianists, then-doctoral student Frank Ferko (a 1972 graduate of Valparaiso University), would later write in an email interview, “I think I (erroneously) considered the Julius concert ‘just another concert’ in a long line of music events at Northwestern” (Hanson-Dvoracek, 2011). Indeed, the controversy over the titles quickly dissipated. But only ten years later, Eastman would die in obscurity, most of his scores lost or destroyed. Northwestern’s concert tape would prove crucial to reviving his reputation and his remarkable body of work.

On February 25, 2018, Gay Guerrilla re-appeared before a standing-room-only crowd at the Chicago Cultural Center, closing out a program that also included Eastman’s 1981 work for ten cellos, The Holy Presence of Joan d’Arc, and its twelve-minute prelude for solo voice, which Eastman had originally improvised and recorded in his apartment. Presented as part of Chicago’s Frequency Festival, the concert fit into a recent series of Eastman-related events. There have been high-profile concerts in London, New York, and Los Angeles; an essay collection, also called Gay Guerrilla; and numerous articles and interviews with musicians who have carried Eastman’s torch. In addition, music publisher G. Schirmer recently signed a deal to reconstruct and publish Eastman’s works. This current wave of appreciation has been building since 2005, when New World Records released Unjust Malaise, a three-CD set of his works that included the entire Northwestern concert. To paraphrase the old saw about the Velvet Underground’s first album, Unjust Malaise didn’t sell many copies, but everyone who bought one started a research project into Eastman’s life.

What they found was a musical career that see-sawed between moments of great promise, even triumphs, and professional disappointments. Eastman often struggled with poverty, substance abuse, and what his mentor Lukas Foss called “personality problems.” These problems weren’t helped by being one of the few black musicians in his field. When he attended Philadelphia’s exclusive Curtis Institute in the early sixties, Eastman was one of five students of color in his class of 100. While most of his classmates roomed with host families, Eastman lived at the YMCA and had few friends. After graduating, he fell in with New York’s new music scenes, first at SUNY Buffalo and then in New York City. During the seventies he performed on two important albums, singing Peter Maxwell-Davies’s virtuosic avant-garde monodrama Eight Songs for a Mad King, and playing piano on one of the earliest commercial recordings of Morton Feldman’s music, Columbia Odyssey’s pressing of For Frank O’Hara. Along the way he infamously infuriated John Cage during a performance of the legendary composer’s free-form theater piece Song Books. Cage’s instruction for Eastman’s “Solo for Voice” read in part, “perform a disciplined action.” Eastman’s interpretation involved giving a lecture on “a new system of love” and undressing his young male volunteer. The audience loved it, but Cage thought the performance was a mockery of his work and angrily denounced it.

Eastman associated with fine musicians and performed his own work across America and Europe, but he had trouble translating that work into a steady paycheck. He could alienate his peers. During the Northwestern rehearsals, Ferko recalled, he would “explode with rage” whenever someone made a mistake; his manner “was very off-putting, and I was uncomfortable whenever I had to be around him” (Hanson-Dvoracek 2011). New music composers often settle into college teaching positions (like Feldman) or regular touring ensembles (like Philip Glass and Steve Reich); Eastman maintained neither. “Instead, he flew free,” writes the musicologist Paul Griffiths, who argues the composer’s precarious existence had one aesthetic advantage: it allowed him to experiment with wildly different forms and ensembles.

The two Joan d’Arc pieces are perfect examples. Performed in Chicago by tenor Julian Terrell Otis, the Prelude begins with a slow descending melody, a repeated incantation of the three saints—Michael, Margaret, and Catherine—who appeared to Joan in a 1425 vision and urged her into battle. In Eastman’s conception, the three saints appear again before Joan’s subsequent trial, commanding in a higher vocal register, “When they question you, speak boldly.” The piece requires its singer to switch between high and low passages and deftly bend his pitches during long notes. Otis’s performance was even more assured than Eastman’s original, a masterpiece of slow-motion technical control. Wearing a hoodie espousing black activism, he transformed the Cultural Center into a sacred space with his charisma and skill. This otherworldly music seemed to usher the three saints and Eastman himself into the room, and the audience sat riveted.

Powered by ten cellos, the raucous Holy Presence conjured a different musical world. At the end of the seventies, Eastman was living in the Bowery area of New York City, amid a new wave scene centered around clubs like CBGB. In 1978, the singer-poet Patti Smith recorded a self-aggrandizing punk-rock song called “Rock ‘n’ Roll Nigger,” positing herself as a “black sheep” and an outsider—trying to reclaim the term like Eastman was doing. The difference was that Smith was white, and the mostly white punk scene suffered from a flippant racism that sometimes turned vicious toward its African-American minority. In his Village Voice essay “The White Noise Supremacists,” critic Lester Bangs recounted the experience of his black friend Richard Pinkston. “When I go to CBGB’s I feel like I’m in East Berlin,” said Pinkston. “[I]t’s like down there they’re striving to be offensive however they can, so it’s more vocal and they’re freer. It’s semi-mob thinking.”

We don’t know what Pinkston thought of Smith’s song, but Eastman heard it at a party and loved it. He took the rhythm of one of her lines—where she repeated the offending word seven times in quick eighth notes, one-and-two-and-three-and-four-and-five-and-six-and-sev-ennnn—and transformed it into the riff that runs through Holy Presence. All ten cellos begin playing the riff in unison, then break into different lines, some of which reinforce the riff while others create gorgeous legato counterpoint and slide through far-flung tonal areas. Eastman was doing something new here, grafting minimalist repetition onto harmonies that nodded to the expressionism of Wagner and Schoenberg. It’s easy to imagine this music playing over the wrenching close-up shots in Carl Dreyer’s silent film The Passion of Joan of Arc, highlighting the inner turmoil of a faithful soldier at the mercy of a mob.

That theme becomes even more explicit in Gay Guerrilla. At the Cultural Center, concert organizer Seth Parker Woods introduced the piece by inviting the audience to imagine we were strolling across an Italian piazza surrounded by churches, hearing the overlapping toll of bells and the occasional hymn wafting through the air. This notion makes some sense—the pianos start softly, repeat an insistent galloping figure (think Rossini’s William Tell overture), and build until they finally start pealing out “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.” But the image is too pastoral for a piece Eastman introduced at Northwestern as a queer call to arms. “[A]t this point I don’t feel that gay guerrillas can really match with Afghani guerrillas or PLO guerrillas,” said the composer in 1980, “but let us hope in the future that they might” (Hanson-Dvoracek 2011). By using Martin Luther’s hymn, Gay Guerrilla again invokes heavenly aid for earthly warfare. Luther, like Joan’s saints, becomes a talisman of boldness in the service of a cause. Of course, Luther would have denounced this particular cause, but that just makes Eastman’s appropriation of his hymn more deliciously powerful.

Eastman’s music resonates now even more than it did during his lifetime. Before minimalism entered the mainstream, he saw beyond it, making the style’s repetitive patterns a home for other musical and programmatic ideas. And what ideas! The suggestion that God would give strength to queer activists is no longer far-fetched; alarmingly, the struggle to make black bodies matter as much as white ones continues. To a generation of young musicians, Eastman is becoming what Joan of Arc was to Eastman, a symbol of liberation and “inspired passion.” “Dear Joan,” he wrote for the 1981 premiere of Holy Presence, “When meditating on your name I am given strength and dedication…I shall emancipate myself from the materialistic dreams of my parents; I shall emancipate myself from the bind of the past and the present; I shall emancipate myself from myself.” Sure, he might not have been very personable, but a cursory reading of The Lives of the Great Composers reveals he was far from alone. If there’s room in the Church’s canon for a cross-dressing convicted heretic like Saint Joan, Julius Eastman’s place in the Western musical canon looks just as likely.


Josh Langhoff is a church musician living in the Chicago area. He is also the founder of NorteñoBlog, a mostly English-language website devoted to regional Mexican music.


Works Cited

 Bangs, Lester. “The White Noise Supremacists,” 1979. In Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung, edited by Greil Marcus, 272-282. New York: Vintage Books, 1988.

Eastman, Julius. “The Holy Presence of Joan d’Arc.” Program notes for The Holy Presence of Joan d’Arc. New York: The Kitchen, April 1981. Retrieved from http://soundamerican.org/sa_archive/sa9/sa9-julius-eastman.html

Griffiths, Paul. “The Holy Presence of Joan d’Arc.” Program notes for The Holy Presence of Joan d’Arc. Chicago Cultural Center, Feb. 25, 2018.

Hanson-Dvoracek, Andrew (2011). Julius Eastman’s 1980 Residency at Northwestern University (Master’s thesis). Retrieved from https://ir.uiowa.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=2610&context=etd

Copyright © 2019 | Valparaiso University | Privacy Policy