Saturday, April 27, 2013

Jace Clayton's 'Julius Eastman Memorial Dinner': Concert review

Jace Clayton by Rocio Rodriguez Salceda
Four pianos, played hard and fast, rise to thunder. Eight hands suddenly lift from the keys – but the sound continues. A roar, a rush of sonic wind, a storm of harmonics pulses and fades.

I almost fall out of my chair.

Until Friday I knew next to nothing about Julius Eastman. Today I’m a white lady in love with music by a gay black composer/pianist of minimalist works with titles like “Evil N-----,” “Crazy N-----,” “Gay Guerilla,” and “If You’re So Smart, Why Aren’t You Rich?”

On Friday night at the SPCO Center, interdisciplinary artist Clayton, aka DJ/rupture, performed selections from his new CD, “The Julius Eastman Memorial Depot,” in a concert called “Julius Eastman Memorial Dinner.” The event was part of the Liquid Music series presented by the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra.

Educated at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, Eastman (1940-1990) was a member of New York’s music scene in the 1960s and ’70s, alongside such now-famous names as Philip Glass, Steve Reich, John Cage, Morton Feldman, and Patti Smith, yet hardly anyone knows about him. He died alone and unremarked in 1990 at age 49, after years of homelessness and addiction.

Clayton came to Eastman’s music through a friend, writer Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts. She was part of Friday’s performance, with pianists Emily Manzo, David Friend, Devon Gray (dVRG), and Bryan Nichols, and Sufi singer AroojAftab. Manzo, Friend, and Aftab are on the “Memorial Depot” CD and were out on tour with Eastman; Gray and Nichols live and work in the Twin Cities.

At the SPCO Center, the rehearsal space for the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, the four pianists are lined up in a row, facing the wall before them, their backs to us. (The pianos are a Boesendorfer and a Steinway grand and two uprights. All are miked.) Between the second and third pianos is a space for Clayton, seated at a table with laptop, facing out.

Everything the pianists play is composed. The only improviser on stage is Clayton, who runs the sounds of the miked pianos through his laptop and its “boxes” of digital effects, deciding on the fly how to process and alter them. The result is multiple layers of sound: four pianos and a new layer created in real time by Clayton. Plus all of the harmonics and overtones created by four pianos in an acoustically live space. 

We hear “Evil N-----“ and “Gay Guerilla,” separated by a spoken interlude in which Rhodes-Pitts conducts an imaginary phone interview with Clayton about a position with the fictional “American Society of Eastman Supporters.” A wry twist, it imagines a world where Eastman is celebrated, not almost forgotten. It also serves as a break for the pianists during the physically demanding live performance.

The music is dense and repetitive, like much minimalism, and some of it is played very quickly. “Evil N-----“ is filled with tension. A single note, played over and over, gives way to an anxious, questioning phrase on the higher notes, also reiterated. Darkly, on the lower notes, is a phrase that seems borrowed from “Pachelbel’s Canon,” but warped. Then everything comes together, with variations. It’s hypnotic, melancholic, and majestic.

While the pianists are busy with Eastman's music, Clayton is at his laptop, manipulating, transforming, and re-creating. Notes bend and shift, echo and interleave. They are sharpened and dampened, softened and stretched, hardened to brittleness, passed back and forth between the speakers. There are touches of static, buzzes and booms. Some parts seem all acoustic, some are pure electronic ambience. At times, the sound is tremendous, a physical force. If notes became visible, the air would be thick with them.

Throughout, Clayton’s laptop treatments are subtle, deft, and painterly. Sometimes assertive, never intrusive. He never takes the music away from the pianists, or from Eastman, the original composer. Instead of thinking, “Oh, this must be one of those electronic detours,” you realize you’ve simply gone somewhere else and returned.

In “Gay Guerilla,” serenity overlays anxiety. It’s quieter on the surface, ominous below. The volume builds and subsides. Chords crash and diminish. There’s a questing, seeking tone to this piece, a feeling of being lost and abandoned. The Canon-like phrase returns, and suddenly a Colossus, “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.” A total surprise, it fits right in.

The final vocal interlude is a call to Clayton from the American Society of Eastman Supporters. He didn’t get the job. There were so many applicants. Her voice soothing and cool, Aftab sings, “The Julius Eastman Memorial Dinner is an equal-opportunity employer. All candidates will be considered regardless of age, regardless of race, regardless of color, regardless of creed and disability, sexual orientation, political affiliation…” As if these things had nothing to do with Eastman's life and personal struggles. Manzo plucks the strings of her Steinway. Soft notes and chords float through the room. The performance ends abruptly with the word “Regardless.”

“Julius Eastman Memorial Dinner” is a workout for the pianists (normally there are two; we were lucky to have four) and a revelation for the audience. It’s beautiful, powerful, and smart. The more I reflect on it, the more moved I am, and grateful to have heard it.

Random thought on the way home: Philip Glass, call Jace Clayton.


• “Jace Clayton: The Julius Eastman Memory Depot” (New Amsterdam, 2013).
• “Julius Eastman: Unjust Malaise (New World Records, 2005). A compilation of performances of Eastman’s music from the 1970s and 1980s.

Both “Memory Depot” and “Unjust Malaise” can be found on Spotify.

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