The Julius Eastman Memorial Dinner

'Romantic, muscular, propulsive': Jace Clayton discusses his tribute to the American minimalist, ahead of its London performance this weekend

A little miracle took place during Jace Clayton’s performance at this year’s Rewire Festival. The artist formerly known as DJ/rupture had brought his Julius Eastman Memorial Dinner (2013-), a tribute to the American minimalist who died in 1990, to The Hague for its European premiere. For over an hour, Clayton, standing magisterial behind his laptop, processed live the playing of two pianists, hammering through Eastman’s controversially-named late works Gay Guerilla (1980) and Evil Nigger (1979). The venue was the city’s 15th century Grote Kerk, whose 93-metre-tall, six-sided tower looms over the central Oude Stad.

Roughly 40 minutes into the set, as Clayton’s digital manipulations brought the piano playing of David Friend and Saskia Lankhoorn to a tremulous exaltation, the dry ice behind the performers suddenly cleared, the lights changed colour, and for a brief moment the church’s marble altarpiece was bathed in a preternatural yellow glow, as though smiled upon by unearthly forces. It was a stunning – and quite unintentional – coup de théâtre, oddly appropriate for a concert dedicated to a composer in whom the ecstatic and the aleatoric often mingled in one of the most dramatic biographies in 20th century music.

Julius Eastman. Courtesy: Julius Eastman Estate; Photograph: Donald W Burkhardt

Julius Eastman. Courtesy: Julius Eastman Estate; Photograph: Donald W Burkhardt

Julius Eastman. Courtesy: Julius Eastman Estate; Photograph: Donald W Burkhardt

Born in Harlem Hospital, Manhattan, in October 1940, Eastman’s family moved upstate during his early childhood, first to Syracuse, later Ithaca. He started singing opera professionally while still in elementary school (in a production of Humperdinck’s 1893 work Hansel and Gretel) and by his 30th birthday was receiving national recognition (and shortly after, a Grammy nomination) for his performance in Peter Maxwell Davies’s vocal tour-de-force Eight Songs for a Mad King (1969). But his part in a performance of John Cage’s Song Books (1970) at the June in Buffalo festival of 1975, culminating in Eastman stripping a man naked onstage and – according to some reports – caressing him sexually, brought the ire of its composer, who publicly accused Eastman of ‘trampling’ on his work and behaving ‘irresponsibly.’

Meanwhile, Eastman’s own music was growing in reputation, performed at the Kitchen in New York and on tour throughout Europe, commissioned by Lukas Foss for the Brooklyn Philharmonia, by the Albany Composers’ Forum, and by the dancer Karl Singletary. But if the name was unfamiliar to Jace Clayton when first introduced to Eastman’s music just six years ago, we shouldn’t be surprised. By the early 1980s, the composer was becoming notorious for his irascible and unpredictable nature, was often seen drinking in the early hours of the day, and was rumoured to be using drugs.

eastman-rehearsing-peter-maxwell-davies-eight-songs-for-a-mad-king-_november-1970-_credit-jim-tuttle.jpg

Julius Eastman rehearsing Peter Maxwell Davies’s Eight Songs for a Mad King (1969), November 1970. Courtesy: Julius Eastman Foundation; photograph Jim Tuttle

Julius Eastman rehearsing Peter Maxwell Davies’s Eight Songs for a Mad King (1969), November 1970. Courtesy: Julius Eastman Foundation; photograph Jim Tuttle

For several years he lived without fixed address, his possessions – including scores and recordings of his own music – confiscated when he failed to pay the rent, and he would often find himself sleeping in homeless shelters or amongst the drifters and drug dealers in a squatters’ encampment in Tompkins Square Park in Manhattan’s East Village. When Eastman died in 1990, of a cardiac arrest presumed to be brought on by some combination of exhaustion and malnutrition, no public notice was made of his passing for close to a year, so far had he fallen from the grace of America’s new music scene. His legacy was presumed lost, thought to have perished with its creator.

Fast-forward to 2011: Jace Clayton, already famous for genre-spanning DJ mixes in which Luciano Berio rubs up against Greensleeves reggae riddims, is invited to produce a work for an evening of live radio plays for New York’s Performa Biennial. ‘What’s the space like?’ Clayton asked. ‘They described it to me, and there was a piano in the corner,’ he recalls. ‘That sparked all these thoughts. This was the perfect opportunity to really explore the sounds of the piano.’

Jayce Clayton, Julius Eastman Memorial Dinner, 2013-, performance view at MoMA PS1, 2013. Photograph: Charles Roussel; Courtesy: MoMA

Jayce Clayton, Julius Eastman Memorial Dinner, 2013-, performance view at MoMA PS1, 2013. Photograph: Charles Roussel; Courtesy: MoMA

Jace Clayton, Julius Eastman Memorial Dinner, 2013-, performance view at MoMA PS1, 2013. Photograph: Charles Roussel; Courtesy: MoMA

When Clayton found himself on the lookout for piano repertoire, it was his friend, Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts, who supplied the answer. Her book on the neighbourhood of Eastman’s birth, Harlem is Nowhere: A Journey to the Mecca of Black America (2011), had been recently published and it was to Eastman that she suggested he look. ‘And then I was completely blown away,’ Clayton recalls. In the two piano pieces that would ultimately make up the bulk of his performance, Clayton found something ‘romantic, muscular, propulsive, with this great organic shape.’

But The Julius Eastman Memorial Dinner, as the project became known, was always more than just a recital with a little digital fiddling. Performa were curating an evening of radio plays. Clayton’s contribution would be no exception. At the Grote Kerk in The Hague, the two Eastman pieces were punctuated by the appearance from the wings of vocalist Anat Spiegel. We hear a telephone ring. From the ensuing conversation we learn that Clayton has tendered his application for a job: Julius Eastman impersonator to the Julius Eastman Memorial Dinner.

Jayce Clayton, Julius Eastman Memorial Dinner, 2013-, performance view at Rewire Festival, The Hague, 2017. Courtesy: Jayce Clayton and Rewire Festival

Jace Clayton, Julius Eastman Memorial Dinner, 2013-, performance view at Rewire Festival, The Hague, 2017. Courtesy: Jace Clayton and Rewire Festival

Jace Clayton, Julius Eastman Memorial Dinner, 2013-, performance view at Rewire Festival, The Hague, 2017. Courtesy: Jace Clayton and Rewire Festival

‘When I decided that I’m going to turn this into an evening-long performance piece,’ Clayton explains, ‘I started thinking, clearly I don’t just want to re-present his music. But I am excited by the possibility of engaging with this idea of how artists enter into the historical record.’ Clayton started to imagine a ‘near future’ scenario in which Eastman’s music has already been ‘thoroughly commodified’ and now exists as ‘a sort of schmaltzy dinner theatre’ to which the contemporary artist ‘Jace Clayton’ (in this scenario, he’s playing a kind of fictionalised version of himself) is forced to offer his services. ‘So much of Eastman’s biography is really dramatic: Addiction! Decline! All this. But it’s also incredibly common. Most musicians fail at some level. So then I was like, what does the contemporary precarity of the artist look like? It’s less about drugs and Tompkins Square Park and more about branding offers and having to work in a temp agency.’

Since Clayton first presented his Julius Eastman Memorial Dinner some four years ago, a little hint of his vision of the future has started to come true. In 2014, the Polish label, Bôrt, released a CD of pianists Bartek Wąsik and Emilia Sitarz playing Gay Guerilla and Evil Nigger. In the same year, New World Records put out Eastman’s Piano 2 (1986) (alongside works by Michael Byron, Stuart Saunders Smith, and ‘Blue’ Gene Tyranny), and in 2016, Frozen Reeds unearthed an archive recording of Eastman’s S.E.M. Ensemble playing his Femenine (1974). Mary Jane Leach and Renée Levine Packer published their collection of Eastman essays, Gay Guerilla, in 2015 and since then there have been programmes dedicated to his music in Philadelphia, Los Angeles, and London. All of a sudden, this once-marginalized composer is everywhere – and Clayton is finding that his piece, which effectively satirised these developments in advance – is getting eager bookings the world over. Outside New York, the Julius Eastman Memorial Dinner couldn’t get arrested in 2013. Now, Clayton is following its premiere at Rewire with shows at Austria’s Donau Festival, a European tour in the Autumn, and a major performance at London’s LSO St Luke’s this weekend.

Julius Eastman, 1973. Courtesy: Julius Eastman Estate; Photograph: Edward Kirstein

Julius Eastman, 1973. Courtesy: Julius Eastman Estate; Photograph: Edward Kirstein

Julius Eastman, 1973. Courtesy: Julius Eastman Estate; Photograph: Edward Kirstein

‘The funny thing there is,’ Clayton laughs, ‘even from the beginning, I knew it was important to preserve the restlessness of this work. To ask, how can you honour the abrasiveness of someone who had a very interestingly conflicted relationship with his own historical record? I think the important thing is to keep looking further towards the edges. If you’re programming Eastman because the biography is so exciting, then name another black gay composer who’s alive that you enjoy. I think a lot of those programmers would have difficulty even doing that.’

Main image: Jace Clayton, Julius Eastman Memorial Dinner, 2013-, performance view at Rewire Festival, The Hague, 2017. Courtesy: Jace Clayton and Rewire Festival

The Julius Eastman Memorial Dinner, with DJ/Rupture, David Friend and Emily Manzo, and Arooj Aftab has its UK debut at LSO St Luke’s, 9 September 2017,  20:00

Robert Barry is a freelance writer and composer from Brighton, England. His book The Music of the Future is published by Repeater.

Most Read

A year marked by new visualizations, both controversial and celebrated, of the black body
The Courtauld Gallery, London, UK
Openings at the new ICA, The Bass and PAMM played out against a backdrop of geographic uncanniness and atmospheric...
With the recent razing of suburban slums, tightening censorship and the sad passing of Geng Jianyi, a year of...
Nicholas Mangan, Ancient Lights (detail), 2015, two-screen installation, solar panels, batteries, projectors powered by solar energy, dimensions variable. Courtesy: the artist, Sutton Gallery, Melbourne, Hopkinson Mossman, Auckland and Labor, Mexico
At once stagnant and dynamic, politically tense and blissfully buoyant, the French capital was a strange place to be...
From victims of Hurricane Harvey to the music of Roger Waters, 2017 has been full of renewed debate around support for...
In further news: MOCA Detroit suspends Jens Hoffmann after harassment allegations; Met refuses to remove ‘suggestive’...
‘Conflicts of interest’ may have cost Beatrix Ruf her Stedelijk job but the problem doesn’t just lie with individuals...
Her work animates the consequences of our colonial history and the construction of identity politics: in a divided...
France's President Emmanuel Macron meets Burkina Faso's President Roch Marc Christian Kabore at the Presidential Palace in Burkina Faso on November 28, 2017. Courtesy: LUDOVIC MARIN/AFP/Getty Images
The French President’s recent comments hint at a dubious politics: using art restitution as a stopgap to France’s...
More from today’s Briefing: protesting Raghubir Singh; documenta artists defend exhibition (again); Enrico Castellani (...
Tiffany and Co., Sterling Silver Paper Cup, 2017, from the ‘Everyday Objects’ collection. Courtesy: Tiffany and Co., New York
Tiffany & Co.’s new range of gift objects and the shifting meaning of the ‘everyday’
From Hannah Black to Not Surprised, the changes demanded by today’s letter writers are still a long way from being...
Johan Grimonprez, Shadow World, 2016, film still. Courtesy: the artist, Sean Kelly Gallery, New York, Galerie Kamel Mennour, Paris, Flatland Gallery, Amsterdam, Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, Simi Valley, Louverture Films, Dillywood and Shadow World inc., New York
Johan Grimonprez’s recent films explore the mechanisms of the arms trade
A pivot to glass by the sculptor shows an attempt to see hope through political disillusionment
In further news: initiative for museum staff diversity; Gwangju Biennale's 2018 curators; Jens Hoffmann clarifies Front...
Ahead of Manifesta’s opening in Palermo next summer, the importance of remembering an alternative Mediterranean...
Inverting the gaze: real life biography, game play fantasy and Frantz Fanon combine in the British artist’s films
Old Food, 2017, production still. Courtesy: the artist, Galerie Isabella Bortolozzi, Berlin, Cabinet Gallery, London, Gavin Brown’s Enterprise, New York and Rome, and dépendance, Brussels
Helen Marten responds to Ed Atkins’s new work, Old Food, currently showing at Martin-Gropius-Bau, Berlin
Elsewhere: activists protest AfD with Holocaust Memorial replica; censorship at Kuala Lumpur Biennale; Venice Biennale'...
Twenty years after the First Cyberfeminist International at Documenta X, what does Cyberfeminism look like in...
Thinking about propaganda, palimpsests, and a presentation of Tino Sehgal works in Moscow
As London's Architectural Association celebrates 100 years of female students, rediscovering the city designed by women
Lin May Saeed, Lobster, 2017. Metal, 11 x 24 x 14.5 cm. Courtesy: the artist, Nicolas Krupp, Basel, Jacky Strenz, Frankfurt am Main and Lulu, Mexico City
Lulu, Mexico City, Mexico
For the 6th Amsterdam Art Weekend, our picks of the best shows and events across the Dutch capital
Highlights of the shows included in the third iteration of Dublin Gallery Weekend
An interview with Casco – Office for Art, Design and Theory, on new ways for art institutions to work
With her current show at Studio_Leigh, London, the artist shares some important images
Recent instances of censorship show an emboldened far right attacking the arts, queer identity and more: artists,...
The staggering price reached by Salvator Mundi prompts the question: what are you really buying when you buy an artwork?
Wong Kar-wai, Happy Together, 1997, film still. Courtesy: the artist and Alamy 
From the new issue of frieze: Changes in urban cultures and queer aesthetics across the Sinosphere 
On the occasion of two UK solo exhibitions, the British artist reflects on the art and events that have shaped her...

Latest Magazines

frieze magazine

October 2017

frieze magazine

November - December 2017

frieze magazine

January - February 2018