Julius Eastman: A wandering monk in the city

Authors: Alexander Liebman*, Rutgers University
Topics: Cultural Geography, Ethnicity and Race, Social Theory
Keywords: musical geographies, paraontology, Blackness, minimalism, heterotopia
Session Type: Virtual Paper
Day: 4/10/2021
Start / End Time: 3:05 PM / 4:20 PM
Room: Virtual 32
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


I trace the musical performances and life of Black, queer composer Julius Eastman, considering Eastman’s oeuvre as a heterotopia defined by both revolutionary freedom and tragic capture. Eastman lived on the margins of 1970s and 80s avant-garde minimalist music scenes unable and unwilling to comport to white norms of aesthetic innovation and cultural acceptability. Eastman’s infusion of camp performativity with minimalist music and his own Black, queer identity challenged (and ultimately nullified) the avant-garde aesthetic claims made by white composers. Whereas the white avant-garde insisted upon a tabula rasa, a separation from history to create (supposedly) new sonic forms, Eastman’s melding of genres, provocative song titles, playful disposition to the world, and his very presence in concert halls and university auditoriums challenged the racialized norms embedded within minimalist music. Eastman ruptured assumed codes of composition and performance yet was punished for these transgressions, barred from work and ultimately dying alone and homeless at the age of 50. Pursuing a creative life encased by erasure exemplifies the ways in which Blackness is parantological, constantly escaping from the fixity of racial ontologies that erase Blackness in the name of white supremacy. Examining Eastman’s artistic work and conflict with minimalist music prefigures the contemporary moment in which efforts to prioritize materiality, affective reality, and being over culture, signification, and discourse often belie white racialized standpoints. Intertwined with these theoretical concerns, I sketch how Eastman disrupts overwrought notions of scale, direction, rigidity, and intent through what Camilla Hawthorne calls “everyday practices of Black space-making”.

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