Composer and author Jace Clayton is an artist in tireless pursuit of sonic inspiration. His artistic endeavors have included numerous compositions, collaborations, performances as DJ/ Rupture, and a book entitled Uproot: Travels in 21st Century Music and Digital Culture. Clayton will present “Julius Eastman Memorial Dinner”—an event including the live performance of his 2013 album The Julius Eastman Memory Depot—at the Big Ears Music Festival on March 26, 2017.
The Julius Eastman Memory Depot is a kind of remix, a reimagination of his epic compositions “Evil Nigger” and “Gay Guerilla.” Which qualities from the original works did you wish to retain? What characteristics required further exposition?
“The Julius Eastman Memorial Dinner” is the live performance version. It has four separate movements, and in two of them pianists David Friend and Emily Manzo performing the above Eastman works as I do real-time electronic processing on their piano sounds. The Julius Eastman Memory Depot is the name of [the] shorter album version, which includes our reworkings of the Eastman alongside new material.
With it, I didn’t want to simply re-present the music of Eastman. Other people can do that. I wanted to honor the restlessness I hear in his work, by using it to create a new piece—one in direct dialog with the source material. Reverence can be a form of forgetting. Right now all over Europe and America, curators and programmers are rushing to include Julius Eastman in their galleries, museums, and concert halls. It’s a great thing, but we also need to ask ourselves “Why now?” and “Why with such fervor?” I’m happy to have contributed to his newfound visibility, but in the spirit of Eastman, we need to be critical about the uses to which his memory is put, and who gains.
“Who is your favorite living gay black classical music composer?” Is a question I like to ask people who are programming Eastman now. It’s an opportunity to expand the conversation to think about access and contemporary creation, rather than just canonize one amazing person.
You can think of Eastman’s titles as conceptual artworks on their own.
Have those two Eastman works taken on new significance in light of current events?
By “current events” do you mean because there is a white supremacist in the White House? It’s important to say what is going on as clearly as possible, especially now, otherwise we run the risk that silence can be complicity.
Black and brown people have been despised in America since its inception; the country was quite literally built on it, from the Native Americans through slavery and on into our current climate of anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim hatemongering, which is fully compatible with all the old bigotries. It’s important not to succumb to the “emergency” discourse. The crisis has been unfolding for a very, very long time.
Ironically enough, the major “new significance” of my Eastman piece is how Eastman’s increasingly visibility in mainstream press has altered his legacy. When I began performing “The Julius Eastman Memorial Dinner,” I did it in part because I didn’t know anybody who knew about his work and life. So of course I was attracted to the music, but JEMD specifically sought to address issues surrounding historicization and forgetting, and Eastman’s active role in making his work difficult to easily consume.
Eastman’s conception of the word “nigger” had to do with that which is basic and without artifice or overwrought sophistication—very different from its more common, hateful connotation. As it relates to your musical interpretation of Eastman, how do you view the word?
The Eastman quote you’re referencing comes from a pre-concert talk that he was required to give because black students on campus were complaining about his titles. So that context adds complexity. I mean, Eastman was fully aware of how charged the word “nigger” is, and the implications of inserting it into a classical music situation. “Nigger” is a powerful word intimately linked to very specific histories of hatred, as well as intimate expressions of comradeship and love.
What his use of it did and still does is highlight and dramatize the contextual power of language. You can think of Eastman’s titles as conceptual artworks on their own. Sometimes they will be censored, sometimes the concert promotion materials will downplay them, and so forth.
What is paramount in Eastman’s legacy?
The paramount thing in Eastman’s legacy is the urgency to reject superlative categories like “paramount.” Really! He intentionally worked in a variety of different musical genres and artistic formats. He intentionally refused to mute or sidestep any of the sexual and class politics in his work—there is no “pinnacle” of Eastman and that’s what’s so great. He fought to stay plural, even if it meant constant friction with gatekeepers like John Cage. I understand Eastman as a trickster spirit, more interested in challenging the power dynamics behind such superlatives and who gets to speak them.