To Be a Composer is Not Enough

The life and music of Julius Eastman

by Julian Fox

Illustration by Pablo Herraiz García de Guadiana

published October 19, 2018

The last known recording of composer Julius Eastman is his performance in 1981 of an original song cycle entitled “Taking Refuge In The Two Principles.” His rich baritone emerges from the warped tape as he begins to softly shape the contours of the melody. Though there is no reference to a specific faith, the piece has the quality of a sacred hymn. Its religiosity instead extends from an intensity of tortured expression that is as beautiful as it is harrowing. At what seems to be Eastman at his most vulnerable, he sings:


I take refuge under the umbrella of two principles

Universality and Impartiality

I place my friends around me

I place them on my left side

I place them on my right side


Eastman, both African-American and gay, virtually without precedent in the nearly exclusively white and heterosexual field of classical music, achieved critical renown both for his compositional style and technical virtuosity throughout the 1960s and 70s. However, soon after this performance, his rapid ascent into the highest echelons of avant-garde classical music buckled under the weight of financial difficulties and a mental illness which he was unable to treat. He stopped composing entirely, and, after self-exile from the classical scene, found himself in homeless shelters and psychiatric hospitals for his remaining years. His hard-won reputation waned as he vanished from view. After his death at the age of 49, nearly a year passed before an obituary of Eastman appeared. Julius Eastman’s music was all but lost to history by the century’s end.

In recent years, due to the scrupulous research by former friends and colleagues, the life and music of Julius Eastman has been gradually, albeit incompletely, recovered. Eastman has proved as elusive in death as he was in life: he lived as a self-described “wandering monk,” kept neither scores nor recordings of his performances, and, as the result of his strange insistence of always keeping his door unlocked, had few possessions to his name. The few scores that have been salvaged are written in Eastman’s highly idiosyncratic form of musical notation; most copies consist of seismographic-like lines, prose-poetry, and unusual diagrams meant only to be interpreted by Eastman himself. Though much still remains to be discovered, Eastman’s life and music, brimming with a vibrant intensity, have been recalled to life.

Among the biographic revelations uncovered was the breadth of the obstacles Eastman encountered within the avant-garde classical world of the 1960s and 1970s. Much was denied to Eastman that was afforded to his white and hetereosexual contemporaries. His passion overflowed and uttered a demand of recognition within a social world antithetical to his identity and musical expression. Daring to integrate a brazen compositional style with defiant expressions of his identity as an African-American and gay man, Eastman fought against the exclusionary world of classical music.




All students who apply to the infamously selective Curtis Institute of Music are asked on the application form:


“What is your ultimate goal in studying music?”


Eastman wrote in response:

“To obtain wisdom.”


This intensity of expression, both in music and speech, borne on dual axes of spirituality and musicianship, would define the life of Julius Eastman.

Born in 1940 in Harlem Hospital to Frances and Julius Eastman Sr., Eastman spent his adolescence in the college town of Ithaca, New York. His mother recognized an early uncompromising attitude in Eastman; she recalls, “Even at two years old… If I told him to behave and sit down, he would stand rigidly erect with fists clenched and you would have to kill him and break his bones to make him sit down.” Eastman, beginning piano lessons at the age of seven, gained early recognition for his precocious talent by local composers and academics in Ithaca. After piano study with George Driscoll of Ithaca College and encouragement by Thomas Sokol of Cornell University, he applied and was admitted to the Curtis Institute of Music at the age of 19.

At Curtis, Eastman thrived in classes with Dr. A. Constant Vauclain, with whom he studied counterpoint and harmony. Vauclain’s method of composing harmonic systems, what he termed “syntonality,” would exert significant influence upon Eastman’s later compositions. His gregariousness and natural musicianship allowed him to form close friends and musical collaborators. However, at Curtis he exhibited the first signs of anxiety, with which he would increasingly struggle with later in life. His academic record was filled with absences, and in the middle of his second year his health file indicated that he was severely underweight. Writing to a close friend, Eastman penned a complaint of his social anxiety and poor living conditions: “If I have to live [here] one more year I shall die a morbid death of claustrophobia. But even worse… is the fear and dread of having to call and knock at the door of strange people looking for a room.” Eastman seemed to have recovered in his final years, and again flourished in piano and compositional study with Mieczyslaw Horowski. His graduation performance consisted entirely of his own original compositions, for which he was awarded a diploma in composition in May 1963.

After college graduation, Eastman split his time between New York City, Ithaca, and Buffalo, performing as a vocalist or pianist in regional concerts and arranging new compositions. He received rave reviews and was described in local newspapers as “a young man to watch” and “one of the most intense—and rewarding—musicians we have seen.” His work attracted the attention of composers at the University of Buffalo, and Eastman was appointed as a fellow at the Creative Associates, an influential creative colony inside the university funded by the Rockefeller foundation. Eastman, now with steady income, spent much of his residency experimenting with minimalism, an avant-garde movement to reduce music to its bare essentials by focusing on pulsating and droning rhythms.

Eastman, however, was continually dissatisfied by the orthodoxies within avant-garde classical music. In an essay titled “The Composer as Weakling,” he wrote of the “puny state of the contemporary composer in the classical music world.” For Eastman, the composer had vanished from their performed work, “into the role of the unattended queen bee, constantly birthing music in his lonely room.” Instead, he argued the composer’s physical presence should actively affect the music performed: the composer must actively create, via improvisation, a unique version each time the piece was played. Eastman made it his mission to become what he termed a “total musician” for whom the distinctions between composition and improvisation collapsed into one in the form of non-reproducible performance art.

During his affiliation at University of Buffalo, Eastman wrote “Stay on It,” “Feminine,” and “Joy Boy,” all of which applied this principle.  The conceptual basis of these works is undoubtedly minimalism, but Eastman extends the vocabulary by integrating jazz improvisation, pop harmonies, and looping melodic phrases. Stay on It pivots around around a syncopated, repeated vocal riff of the words “Stay on it.” The repetitions of the cadence are not merely for the purpose of a gradual process, but instead act as a kind of framing device. The vocal cry of “Stay on it” becomes a measuring block for the harmonic and rhythmic changes which rise and fall throughout the piece. By the end, the riff is a improvisation device for Eastman as he warps and modulates the phrase until its end. Similarly, “Feminine” and “Joy Boy” use fiery rhythms and arpeggios with which Eastman melds into his improvisation.

While a member of the Creative Associates, Eastman’s overt references to his sexual identity caused controversy in a performance the Creative Associates staged of composer John Cage’s experimental works. In Cage’s Songbooks, the performers are given dadaist instructions to act out upon the stage. Eastman was given the instruction “perform a disciplined action, with any interruptions.” He proceeded to give a lecture on the erotic, eventually bringing a man on stage. Cage himself dismissed the performance, angrily shouting in a lecture the next day: “I don’t approve because the ego of Julius Eastman is closed in on the subject of homosexuality. And we know this because he has no other idea to express… he doesn’t know the first step to take.”

While “Stay On It,” “Feminine,” and “Joy Boy” proved to be moderate success among audiences and critics alike, during this time he was increasing criticized by members of the music faculty at Buffalo. Eventually, the faculty board voted to not renew his contract. Eastman suspected ulterior motives for his sudden firing. His brother, Gerry Eastman, believed it to be an example of “Julius’ lifelong battle with white people in power.”

In 1976, Eastman relocated to New York City. The downtown avant-garde was brimming with experimentation and he soon found himself among like-minded musicians integrating traditional composition with new innovations in electronically-influenced drone music. Eastman found himself in new environment in the wake of both the Civil Rights Movement and the Stonewall Riot, and it is here where his compositions start taking a fiercely political edge. In the preface to a vocal composition entitled “The Holy Presence of Joan d'Arc,” Eastman dedicates the piece “to those who think that they can destroy liberators by acts of treachery, malice, and murder… Even now in my own country, my own people, my own time, gross oppression and murder still continue.” These years constituted Eastman’s creative peak, as, in addition to the political underpinnings of his work, he began to stretch the conventions of minimalism to an unstable contradiction. He largely disposed of minimalism’s rigid devotion to reduction in favor of arabesques of sound and surges of atonal anarchy.




Eastman’s New York years resulted in a three magnum opuses, a trilogy consisting of pieces entitled “Crazy N***r,” “Evil N***r,” and “Gay Guerrilla.” Eastman elaborated on his politics of composition titles in a pre-concert talk at Northwestern University in 1980. “What I mean by ‘n***r’ is that thing which is fundamental,” Eastman remarked, “that kind of thing which attains himself or herself to the ground of anything.” While avoiding any discussion on the racist history of the term, he alludes to ‘n***r’  in reference to the system of slavery which permitted what he calls “the basis of the American economic system.” To Eastman, ‘n***r’ refers to fundamental oppression embedded within American and European civilizations. ‘Guerrilla,’ likewise had a different meaning for Eastman, defining it as “someone who is… sacrificing his life for a point of view.”

Throughout his life, Eastman viewed himself as unwittingly drafted in a war whose purpose was to invalidate his musical expression. “There is always somebody who is trying to crush you,” said Eastman in an interview with Buffalo Evening News, “I refuse to be afraid of my own comrades, of being castigated, thrown out or thought of badly.” He conceived composition as the highest form of rebellion against that which would deny him freedom. R. Nemo Hill, a poet who lived with Eastman in New York City, remarked that Eastman’s usage of racist and homophobic epithets “put him in the position of transgressing some sort of bourgeois status… He took aspects of his identity and foisted them on people in this provocative way.”

His radical attempts in his compositions’ titles to redefine terms of racial condemnation mirrors his ambitious efforts to revolutionize minimalism within them. Eastman described these final works as his attempt to create “organic music” in which “every section contains all the information of the previous section or else takes out information at a gradual and logical rate.” This form of composition is based on an additive process, in which new parts are added and subtracted proportionally as others continue, culminating in increasingly layered harmonies. Once each process reaches its conclusion, it resets to a single repeated note resulting in a corrugated pattern of tonal complexity.

Each work is scored for instruments of the same family which act in sequence in carrying out the processes. Throughout, Eastman upends the minimalist orthodoxy of reduction. “Crazy N***r” begins with a throbbing, syncopated pulse. Soon, pentatonic phrases seeth into a gathering unrest until it erupts in white rings of tumult. Similarly, “Gay Guerilla” slowly increases in intensity until the melodies begin to wheeze and thrash wildly into an unstable climax. As noted by music critic Alex Ross, “Classic minimalist works tend to introduce change by way of horizontal shifts. Eastman’s music by contrast, is vertical.” Eastman vertically layers musical elements as rival rhythmic phrases usurp the very patterns upon which the piece is built. The result is a harmonic tide of sound whose internal contradictions rupture in ecstatic upheaval. In the closing minutes of “Crazy N***r,” whispers of rebellion grow into harmonic incantations. War is declared on the system.




Beginning in 1981, Eastman became increasingly distressed and diverted from his composing. In addition to a resurgence of his mental illness, Eastman began to accrue large debts. He had been cut off from traditional sources of revenue for composers: Despite his success, music publishers never pursued Eastman for record contracts, and he encountered difficulty in getting his compositions performed at concert halls. Gerry Eastman has attributed these struggles to racism: “My brother… was an accomplished and well-known composer and could not get his stuff played with his credentials... Racism within the classical world prevented him from doing the things he was doing… Julius is just another in the line of black geniuses who get squashed in this particular Hemisphere.”

After the death of his beloved grandmother, Eastman's behavior became increasingly unpredictable. Whether out of increasing strain, protest, or artistic interests is unclear. In a performance that year, he smeared dirt all over the ivory keys of a Steinberg piano, claiming it gave him better “traction.” Eastman began showing up late to rehearsals of his own compositions, and, in performances with his colleagues, he improvised his own parts. Battling an addiction, Eastman’s creative output waned and sputtered to a full stop. Eastman applied for faculty position in the Cornell Music Department in a last hope for financial stability. After funding for the position fell through, Eastman was bitterly disappointed and disappeared from the avant-garde classical music scene.

By 1984, Eastman was dividing his time between a midtown shelter and a homeless encampment in Tompkins Square Park. In a brief period of stability, Eastman lived on the Upper East Side while he worked in the classical music department at Tower Records on Fourth Street and Broadway. Then he disappeared once more.

In his unfinished “Symphony II,” Eastman inscribed the following, entitled ‘Parable’ on the title page: “On Tuesday, at Main and Chestnut, the Faithful Friend and his Beloved Friend decided to meet. On Monday the day before, Christ came, just as it was foretold. Some went up on the right, and some went down on the left. Trumpets did sound (a little sharp), and electric violins did play (a little flat). A most terrible sound. And in the twinkling of an eye the earth vanished and was no more.” Karl Singletary, an old friend of Eastman’s, provides the last known account of Eastman, bearing eerie echoes of Eastman’s ‘Parable.’ “There he was on Main and High Street. He was puny and not very healthy looking,” said Singletary. “I realized he must have been having financial problems. I didn’t have a lot of money either, but I know I gave him some—how much I can’t recall. He said he was staying in a shelter… we talked and we said goodbye there on Main Street.”




Julius Eastman died on May 28, 1990 at Millard Fillmore Hospital in Buffalo, New York. In recent years, due to the work of advocates who knew Eastman, a small commemoration of his music has turned into an outright revival. New World Records has released a three-disc set entitled Unjust Malaise and an additional set of recordings from Eastman’s concerts. The Kitchen, an art venue in New York City, presented a retrospective this year entitled “Julius Eastman: That Which is Fundamental” in a three-week festival of his music. Most recently, publisher G. Schirmer announced it will restore, distribute, and promote Eastman’s music.

Today, Eastman’s work is known for prefiguring post-minimalist music, whose elements of vertical compositional design and emotional dynamics strongly resemble Eastman’s early compositions; his legacy of resistance has resonated with a new generation of diverse composers. Eastman’s commitment to foregrounding his identity and musical innovation imbued his works with an anarchic vigor poised to upend the world of classical music. For Eastman, being a composer was not enough.


JULIAN FOX B’20 will start a rebellion as soon as he gets the chance.