A dash of minimalism, then add equal parts, jazz, and pop, followed by provocative political intent and controversy, shake and mix well and there you have the recipe of ingredients that make up the genius of Julius Eastman. Eastman is one of the most progressive composers of the 1970s and ’80s. Influenced by organic harmonic changes, his works often involve slowly evolving sections and memorable riffs.
Unfortunately, he died three decades ago homeless, in obscurity. His works were nearly gone forever. Eastman lost most of his possessions when he was evicted from his apartment. At that time, no recordings of his pieces existed. It became nearly impossible for musicians to play his work or for audiences to enjoy them once more. Friends and fans would describe him as a strong, vocal African-American queer artist who’d left a memorable impression on New York and that this renewed interest in his work would become a pillar in the development of contemporary music.
Femenine, presented at Harlem Stage on Saturday, October 9, will feature ten musicians from the Harlem Chamber Players and Talea Ensemble. To pay tribute to Julius Eastman’s work is an important statement to the community, and commitment solidifies Eastman’s place in the canon. The New York Times described Femenine as “meditative, kaleidoscopic, and eventually ecstatic.” PrideIndex had an email conversation with Patricia Cruz, Artistic Director & CEO of Harlem Stage, along with Alex Lipowski, Executive Director, Talea Ensemble; and Christopher McIntyre, Musical Director of Talea Ensemble. Here’s what they shared about this much-anticipated event.
PrideIndex (PI): Why was it so important to present Julius Eastman’s work at Harlem Stage?
Patricia Cruz (PC): Presenting Julius Eastman’s Femenine exemplifies our mission and commitment to reveal the often-overlooked contributions of artists of color.
PI: Describe the process to bring Julius Eastman’s Femenine to life at Harlem Stage.
Alex Lipowski (AL): The Talea Ensemble approached Harlem Stage with the proposal to collaborate on the project because of the Harlem Stage’s adventurous reputation of presenting such a wide breadth of performances. Harlem Stage then enlisted the Harlem Chamber Players.
This led to talks about merging Talea and the Harlem Chamber Players’ performers for this production. Because the piece has such an open structure and invites dialog amongst the performers, it seemed like a great opportunity to bring our groups together. Christopher McIntyre’s involvement as music director in the production is also completely essential because of his long-term research on Eastman’s work and the fact that he created the score for the piece. Without him, not only our performance but countless others would simply not be realizable. His score guides performers in what was otherwise literally “uncharted” musical territory. With Chris as our leader and with Talea and the Harlem Chamber Players together on stage, we’re really excited to offer a unique interpretation of Femenine.
PI: What were some challenges faced to produce the piece, and how were they overcome?
Christopher McIntyre (CM): Producing the piece was a little less complicated for me than for folks arriving at Eastman’s work now.
I began realizing scores of his work in 2006, still very much the “Wild West” phase of Eastmania (as George E. Lewis has jocularly yet quite accurately labeled the situation.) There were essentially no limits to attempting revivals of the music then, and the publicly extant material (not much at that time) was made readily available in the hope that people like myself would get to work. That shifted after the Gay Guerrilla book came out in 2015 as Julius’ brother Gerry eventually created the Eastman Estate. The Philadelphia-based presenter Bowerbird organized the first big retrospective festival in 2017, and I was commissioned to create an engraved realization of the Femenine score (sanctioned by the state), Femenine being one of a handful of pieces that we have “complete” scores from Julius (thanks to the diligent archival impulse of NYC composer and multi-instrumentalist Elliott Sharp in this case and others.) I made some revisions for The Kitchen’s expanded version of Bowerbird’s Julius Eastman: That Which Is Fundamental Festival in New York in January 2018. G. Schirmer, Inc. acquired the publishing rights shortly thereafter. Anyone playing this piece now must enter into a performance rights agreement. It’s an important but under-the-radar aspect of the Julius Eastman story.
PI: If you could sum up this live performance in three words, what would those words be? Why?
PC: Haunting, mesmerizing, captivating, because Eastman’s Femenine is a nearly lost masterpiece.
PI: What would you say to millennials and younger generations that have never heard Julius Eastman’s works before, but who might be intrigued to learn about his legacy and contribution to music as a pioneering figure in minimalism?
CM: First, I tend to avoid labeling Eastman’s music in genre terms. His music certainly has elements of what is termed “minimalism,” but rather than situating himself within this lineage, Julius picked and chose language from the various compositional directions that interested and surrounded him and then used it all to his own very idiosyncratic ends. That said, my advice to younger people is to take uninterrupted time and just intently listen. Julius’ work has a palpably visceral impact on its listeners. This is true with the recordings but sharing real space with his music is ideal: seeing the rigorousness required to play it, and feeling the waves of sound that it generates, are crucial aspects of his compositional concept that pulls audiences in.
PI: Many theaters, concert venues, etc., have been closed for a year due to the Covid-19 Pandemic. What precautions has Harlem Stage taken to ensure the safety of all patrons in attendance for the reopening of your fall season?
PC: We’re so grateful to be back, welcoming our community to see live performances again. We take health and safety protocols very seriously and want nothing more than to keep our audiences, artists, production teams, and staff safe when inside our venue. Harlem Stage requires proof of full vaccination, masks and we have socially distanced our seating at a reduced capacity.
PI: Are there plans to add this show to a permanent viewing archive at Harlem Stage?
PC: We have made the commitment to record all live performances for digital presentation in order to make them easily accessible for audiences everywhere.
Femenine will be part of our future digital programming; your readers can sign up for our emails and follow us on social media for the latest streaming updates. Our archives of past performances are available to view online here.
PI: If all goes according to plan, is there a possibility of a repeat staging or revival of Femenine?
PC: We have a wonderfully diverse offering of musical artists to celebrate our venue reopening and our current fall season; while we aren’t planning an additional Eastman work in 2022, we’d definitely love to present more of it. Audiences continue to appreciate and discover the treasure that is Julius Eastman.
There are so many incredible compositions of his from the 70s when he really made his mark in New York City — notably, some were written for both chamber players and dancers in one work, and some are solo piano pieces – all could play beautifully in our iconic venue.
PI: How can I learn more about upcoming live events and programming at Harlem Stage?
PC: I invite your readers to visit our website at HarlemStage.org and follow us on social media, where we have regular updates of all our events and season updates.
For more information about this exciting event page click here.