Music, Sex, and Friendship Downtown:
Julius Eastman’s Queer Collaborations
[Author note: This essay was written for
Electric Renaissance II, an exhibition of work by
Stefano Castronovo and Donato Del Giudice at
SomoS Arts in Berlin in 2014. The show paid
homage to an earlier joint exhibition between
Castronovo and musician Julius Eastman
(1940–1990) and I use that collaboration as
starting point for reflections on Eastman’s artistic
relationships in New York City.]
Electric Renaissance, the art-event held at Club 57 [a legendary, sleazy late-’70s/early-’80s East Village hangout in the basement of a church; Ann Magnuson was its manager, Ed.], is exemplary of a mode of collaboration and creativity pervasive in downtown New York City’s cultural life from the 1960s through the 1980s. Stefano Castronuovo’s artistic partnership with Julius Eastman (1940–1990) marked but another moment in Eastman’s varied and idiosyncratic career that began within disciplinary conservatory training of the Curtis Institute of Music in the 1960s, moved into the transnational experimental avant-garde, and transitioned into the genre-blurring creativity of the downtown scene. Any label on Eastman’s life can’t capture the breadth of his musical and artistic interests. Labels such as “minimalist” composer ignore his more brash collage-based works as well as his varied improvisational practice in both experimental and jazz traditions. Emphasis solely on his identity as a composer ignores his extensive collaboration on myriad projects. Through it all though, his creative practice was, in the words of Michel Foucault, a “care of the self.” As Eastman said, “What I am trying to achieve is to be what I am to the fullest—Black to the fullest, a musician to the fullest, a homosexual to the fullest. . . . It is through art that I can search for the self and keep in touch with my resource and the real me.”
Eastman’s first musical success came as a member of the Creative Associates at the University of Buffalo. There he was a member of one of the earliest academic centers for experimental music and performed as a vocalist, pianist, and dancer in his own works as well as those by John Cage, Pauline Oliveros, Morton Feldman, and Hanz Werner Henze, to name but a few. [For details on Eastman’s performance of John Cage’s Songbooks as well as his work with the Creative Associates, see the author’s essay “John Cage, Julius Eastman, and the Homosexual Ego” in Tomorrow is the Question: New Directions in Experimental Music Studies.]
After leaving Buffalo in 1976, Eastman settled in New York City and integrated himself into an experimental network that extended from his time in Buffalo. He quickly became a featured composer-performer at the Kitchen in downtown Manhattan and an important collaborator across disciplines. We’re fortunate that when we start looking, traces of performances are recoverable and the voice of Eastman emerges as a cantus firmus through Downtown’s history: He provided the rafter-shaking basso profundo on Meredith Monk’s Dolmen Music, and played organ in Turtle Dreams. He later appeared on the soundtrack to Peter Gordon, Kathy Acker, and Richard Foreman’s opera The Birth of the Poet performed at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Perhaps unexpectedly, he recorded disco tracks with Arthur Russell, lending his particular vocal extravagance to Dinosaur L’s classic album 24 —> 24 Music. His network expanded to include nightlife collaborations like Electric Renaissance with Castronuovo at Club 57 and a show at the Mudd Club with Jeff Lohn of the no-wave band the Theoretical Girls.
Tracing Eastman’s network to Arthur Russell, Castronuovo, Lohn, and beyond finds artists and musicians opening up important points of contact between experimental music and experimental forms of gay life being developed in the discos, sex clubs, and collectives that shared downtown with artists and musicians. As with Eastman, these worlds often overlapped and an accounting for them is necessary for any narrative we want to tell about practices of queer life in the U.S post-Stonewall. This is, of course, a political imperative in our time as the struggle for queer rights and queer lives continues. The importance of recovering Eastman’s life lies with the examples set by his startlingly original modes of community. His experimental assemblages also address a contemporary need, in the words of Lauren Berlant and Michael Warner, [in their essay“Sex in Public,” from Publics and Counterpublics, Zone, 2002.] to “promote radical aspirations of queer culture building . . . the changed possibilities of identity, intelligibility, publics, culture, and sex.”
Eastman’s collaboration with Russell demonstrates this potential. The Kitchen was the initial setting for Russell and Eastman’s work together. Initially, Russell enlisted Eastman as a conductor for his orchestral music. With his close ties to composer-conductor Lukas Foss and the Brooklyn Philharmonic, Eastman served until 1979 as conductor of a subset of that orchestra funded by the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act, a governmental program that provided work for underemployed musicians in the city [ah, the good old days]. Eastman enlisted members of this so-called CETA orchestra for a performance of Russell’s mammoth Instrumentals in February of 1978. Both Eastman and Russell also became involved with the choreographers and performance artists among the Kitchen’s group of artists. Eastman provided music for Andy de Groat, who had choreographed work with theater director Robert Wilson, including Einstein on the Beach. Eastman’s music for de Groat was titled The Holy Presence of Joan of Arc and was based in part on a quotation from Patti Smith’s song "Rock n’Roll Nigger." Russell had a tumultuous and ultimately unsuccessful collaboration with Wilson on the performance piece Medea. Eastman would later conduct the music Russell had written for Wilson, which was subsequently retitled Tower of Meaning and recorded in 1983. Besides their orchestral collaborations, Russell invited Eastman to participate in his disco collective. An early incarnation of the group that would become Dinosaur L appeared at the Kitchen in 1979. The recording sessions for 24—>24 Music that followed the Kitchen performance are exemplary of the sort of experimental assemblages Russell, Eastman, Peter Gordon, Peter Zummo, Castronuovo, Lohn, and others created. As Tim Lawrence has suggested in his writing on Russell, these collectives were often queer spaces, less sharply delineated by sexuality than many other downtown communities. Russell’s inclusion and advocacy of difference allowed for radically individualistic musicians like Eastman to bring their particular sounds to performance and create an aesthetic of plurality among musicians. Eastman in particular brought his amazing voice to Dinosaur L. From the unhinged utterance of “No Thank You”
to his diva turn on “In the Corn Belt,”
Eastman emerges as a performer of erotic exuberance. Situated in Dinosaur L, Eastman maintains his experimental vocal identity as well as the jazz modernism of his organ playing on the record. Through this collaboration, Eastman’s queer experimentalism was translated from the largely white avant-garde into the gay multi-racial dance music world of the Paradise Garage that moved to the sound of Dinosaur L’s “Go Bang.”
Through his collaborations, Eastman created an ars erotica figured as an ars musica—a practice that afforded and sustained spaces for musical and sexual difference and sounded in the queer spaces of downtown and beyond.
Ryan Dohoney is author of Saving Abstraction: Morton Feldman, the de Menils, and the Rothko Chapel (Oxford University Press, 2019). His next book, Morton Feldman: Friendship and Mourning in the New York Avant-garde, is forthcoming from Bloomsbury in 2022. He is writing a book about Julius Eastman and serves as associate professor of musicology in the Bienen School of Music at Northwestern University.