Julius Eastman’s Soft Power

Holland Park tube was closing early, and for fear of being stranded I left early, just as Apartment House were beginning to crank up Eastman’s joyous, riff-infused Stay on it. (I read on Twitter that this was a cracker.) So my last piece of live music for the year is his comparatively modest Hail Mary. Only recent surfaced from a letter to Eastman’s fellow composer Rocco di Pietro, it was receiving its premiere tonight from Elaine Mitchener and Philip Thomas.

If I’ve learnt anything about Eastman in the two concerts I’ve heard this weekend, it is that he exploited minimalism – with its language of loops and repeats – to wholly different expressive ends than his better-known peers. Hail Mary turns to faith, and specifically the Catholic Rosary: Europe’s great ancient loop. Mitchener reprises the half-spoken, half-sung function of Thursday’s Coming Together, but this time in a voice seemingly on the edge of breath. Thomas’s piano part outlines sparse arpeggios, a musical setting that simultaneously envelopes, gently colours and fully respects the vocal line it sits behind. Written six years before Eastman’s death, it nevertheless carries a chill of biography. A fitting end to 2016.

The middle third of the concert was dominated by excerpts from Arthur Russell’s Tower of Meaning, originally written for a Robert Wilson production of Euripedes’ Medea. Russell’s score, I understand, consists of little more than two chords, which had been arranged into something more promising by Apartment House keyboardist Kerry Yong. Yong’s arrangements, which played subtly with the tone palette available to him (keyboard, piano, vibes, cello, flute, violin), were charming enough, but over time Russell’s restricted materials accumulated some serious longeurs, especially for those of us watching in standing room only.

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Nothing like that could be said about Gay Guerrilla. Scored for an unspecified number of pianos, it was given here in a version for two pianos, eight hands, by Zubin Kanga, Rolf Hind, Eliza McCarthy and Siwan Rhys. Over the course of 30 minutes it builds from single pulsing notes to great overlapping sweeps of sound that crash across the keyboard, before ending where it began, no longer an anonymous pulse, but a piercing beam of tone. More than Coming Together on Thursday, this floored me. To voice a comparison that occurred to me while listening, it contained all the emotional beats of the best Reich – the chord changes, the textures – but without the uncomfortable feeling that affects the worst: that you’re being had. Everything about this felt felt. It had a real grain to it. ‘Like Tony Conrad’ someone suggested afterwards, and yes, but while Conrad found roughness in his sound, in cheap violins and overdriven amps, Eastman’s is one of of form, of imagination, a kind of caprice. Gay Guerrilla speaks of a soft kind of power, of touches and songs and dancing feet, but also of determination, a proof that if you stick with something you will reach somewhere unexpected and special. One of my best musical experiences of the year.

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