Julius Eastman Two Extended Pieces For Four Pianos

Label
Sub Rosa
Released
28th July 2022

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Format Info

2LP - Red Vinyl LP

One of the beneficiaries of the culture’s permanent search for “forgotten” geniuses in the past few years has undoubtedly been New York composer Julius Eastman. We say “forgotten” because of course there’s always questions like “forgotten by whom?” which perhaps this isn’t the space to go into. Suffice to say that by the time of his untimely death in 1990 he was reportedly destitute and largely unacknowledged by the contemporary avant garde scene he had been invovled in since emerging as a prodigy in his youth. Regardless of the biographical context, he was undoubtedly a creative genius.

Eastman’s music was informed by but not limited to Minimalism. Through out his career he embraced many different disciplines and techniques but on these pieces, performed by four concert pianists in 1980 and 1979, his personal, emotive take on Minimalism is at the forefront. Crazy N*** and Evil N*** represent a highpoint of his composition, studies in tonality that have a strict sonic palette that they continually, forensically explore with grace and virtuosity. This is music that in form might have a lot in common with Steve Reich but in practice the feel of Eastman’s work is way more passionate, less hung up on strict form and emmanently more expressive. Crazy N*** sweeps and swoons in cadence all the while keeping a finger-grinding pulse on the ivories through out, a one or two note motif that leaps up and down the scale while keeping the hypnosis going. Like many of his other celebrated works (Stay On It comes to mind), there’s a sense of drama and dynamic tension, with introductions of notes and frequencies forcing a linear narrative to the music. In its use of repetition it’s constantly changing, with the smallest additions adding whole new colours to the emotional rainbow that bursts forth from the score and from these players, locked in synergy and soul behind their Steinways. Spine chilling moments abound as the music shifts into recognisable movements, the drop that hits around 18 and half minutes before it bursts out with energy is almost cinematic in its efficacy.
The other piece, the slightly shorter Evil N*** clocks in at just under 21 minutes and has a different motif, slightly more dissonant that feels initially like hammered dulcimer before the lower registers kick in. If Crazy N*** was fuelled by energy and brightness, here the music is sombre while still maintaining a strong propulsion. In all honesty there are genuinely scary moments in the movement, precipitated by the lead pianists’ shouts of “1,2,3,4” like a punk band about to explode. From a piano perspective, some of the grand slabs of sound remind the listener, or this listener anyway, of Chopin – Eastman paints big canvases with his pianos with a limited note palette. There aren’t many moments of light on Evil N***, it’s veers between harrowing to tense, to explosion to sorrow, but it’s a masterwork all the same. Both pieces recorded here are supreme records of one of the greatest composers of the 20th Century and his incomparable music.
A quick note… we’ve chosen to asterisk out the song titles here but acknowledge the radicalism of Eastman’s titles and the context in which they were first unvieled.