Last night: Julius Eastman at LCMF

Off to Holland Park for the first night of LCMF’s four-day Julius Eastman retrospective. There’s a biting cold in the air tonight, and the top deck of the bus is all steamed up. My chest is tight.

I’m nervously excited about this gig. I’ve admired Eastman’s work from afar, but this will be my first real engagement with it. And it has such a formidable reputation – anything might happen. Femenine’s 70+ minutes are underpinned by a non-stop pulse of mechanised sleigh bells. What will the 40th, 50th, 70th minutes be like? Will I get it? What if I don’t? There’s a real aura of FOMO around Eastman’s music, performances of it are so rare, his reputation so esteemed.

No such fears with Coming Together, one of my all-time favourite pieces. If I ever become a boxer (could happen!) this will be my walk-out music. This I am really looking forward to.

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Warehouse. Ex-industrial space. Featured in Antonioni’s Blow-up. The usual LCMF benches. (Do they own these now, or just hire them every time?) The streets around contain picturesque mews, architect-designed houses, the Turkmen embassy. Inside is peeling brickwork and an array of industrial heaters to make things habitable. Of two types, they fill the space with a bloody orange glow and a roar like small jet engines. The crowd is mostly but not exclusively young, male, hip. ‘I didn’t expect so many whiteys’, I overhear one lady in the interval.

(I was never hip, and I may no longer qualify as young. White and male, though, in I guess what must be a banner year for my kind.)

Fuck. Coming Together was absolutely electric. Elaine Mitchener gives it everything, yet still has enough for a sublime (and unadvertised) performance of Attica to follow. [UpdateI’ve since been told that although it’s common now to hear Coming Together on its own, the two pieces were originally composed as two parts of a whole.] It’s a classic pairing, and I don’t want to sound ungrateful here, but actually I’d have liked a couple of minutes to get my breath back after CT. Something about those words sends shivers down my spine: ‘I can act with clarity and meaning’. I listened with heart bursting, eyes moist, hands clenched into tight fists. Rzewski is here; I hope he enjoyed it just as much.

And so to Femenine. On the wall at the back of the stage is something that looks like a mechanised sleigh-bell contraption. But the interval bell itself is a taped loop instead.

In fact that’s the bells for the piece too. Apparently the mechanised system worked well but was too noisy to be practical, so a 13-bar loop of chinking bells was used instead (two sets, it sounded like, phasing back and forth against each other).

The bells are a curious component. At first they sound like an In C-ish pulse marker. Except that their sound is much fizzier than Riley’s chiming keyboard. It’s as much tinnitus hum as it is pulse.

And then there’s the fact that they’re deliberately running at a slightly faster tempo to the players themselves. So if they are a pulse, they’re locked to a completely different grid. This is very disconcerting to listen to and must a huge challenge to play against. In the end, the bells become a kind of noise backdrop, related to the rest of the music by association more than syntax. I found myself tuning in and out, going for minutes at a stretch without hearing them.

And the rest? Honestly, it didn’t grip me as tightly as some of my first encounters with other so-called minimalist so-called masterpieces. Compared to Rzewski’s precision rage it felt unfocussed – half-finished, even, although this was probably a consequence of the score’s incomplete existence. But it itched and troubled in very good ways more than anything I’ve ever heard by the supposed masters of this game. Its looseness produced some of its best moments, when Eastman and the players injected elements of jazz and blues that lie outside the familiar minimalist gamut but are in fact embedded deep within its DNA. It had a forthrightness and honesty in that way – and offered a profound challenge too, which the following day I am still working my way through. In some ways, Femenine is exactly what you would expect, in its steady accumulation of added-note tonal harmonies and motifs, sweet and beguiling. In other, more lasting ways, however, it is strange and slippery, and calls you urgently back for more.

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LCMF returns for more Eastman this Saturday and Sunday. Tickets here. If that’s not enough Eastman for you for one weekend, coincidentally and simultaneously, Mr Mineshaft, a play about Eastman’s life, is playing until Sunday evening at Theatre Utopia, Matthews Yard, Croydon. Tickets for that may be bought here.

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