The broadcast on Radio 3 of a live recording from the first day of LCMF’s Eastman weekend, available on iPlayer until 3rd March, offers the opportunity to reconsider Eastman’s Femenine, as given by Apartment House that December evening.
When I wrote about that concert, immediately afterwards on the tube home, I was ambivalent about the work’s success. ‘Unfocussed – half-finished, even’ was part of my description. I’m now wondering if my expectations weren’t just all out of whack. I was going in to hear Eastman, relatively unfamiliar to me, against a backdrop of much more familiar 1970s New Yorkery – not just minimalism, but also disco, No Wave, the beginnings of hip-hop and more. God knows why I wanted to load so much onto one composer, but there you are.
Relistening, as I am now, it seems much clearer to me that Eastman’s contribution was not to exemplify a perfect coming together (ha) of all that, the missing link between Rhys Chatham and Afrika Bambaataa, perhaps, but the way in which his art cuts (often very determinedly so) across those collected expectations, as though anticipating the stereotypes coming down the track as they were being born. Black, gay, experimental New Yorker: listening 40 years on, we expect (I confess, I expected) something muscular, Afro-futuristic, flamboyantly defiant. Femenine, though, is not that, at least not in any direct way.
What it is, however, is the most tender, most erotically charged work of minimalism in the canon. From the fuzzy/fizzing pulse of those sleigh bells, the shiver of the opening riff, the way both rub against each other instead of lock into machine synchronism. From the start this is the sound of minimalism unbuttoning at the seams. Still more excitingly, on hearing the piece for the second time and understanding it better, is the way in which it defers climax, refusing to build in the same way as In C, even though all the parts are there. Indeed, climax is bathetically undercut in the final section when the piano, which to this point has been the locus of much of the music’s most arresting curls and quivers, slams in with repeated chords jarringly, comically out of whack with the prevailing harmony. When you first hear them you assume something must have gone wrong, but they keep returning so they must be intentional – even though they appear not to make sense. Coming back to the piece, and having such a long run-up to them once more, they make a whole lot more sense: an hour in, Eastman has to give us something, but he’s damned if he’s going to capitulate to our comfortable sensibilities. Here’s your climax, the music says. How d’you like that?
Given the title’s incorporation of ‘men’ within the frame of ‘feminine’ there’s probably a lot to say on the gender politics that might surround all this. I’ll just say this, from my own perspective as a listener. I went into Femenine with a particular image of masculinity in mind, one informed by and modelled by the mainstream minimalism of Riley, Reich and Glass (and Rzewski): propulsive, organised, determined. I even had the image of a boxing match in mind when I introduced Rzewski’s Coming Together. (And that is a piece about manhood on one level, although of a complicated sort.) Eastman models a completely different experience, something softer, more complex, less predictable and, in its complete refusal to bow to a system on any level, more disciplined and provocative. Resistance is fertile, reads the placard.