December 7, 2022

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For a long time I didn’t even know the existence of black composers: it’s not just absence, it’s erasure | experimental music

WWhen Phantom Limb contacted me about creating music inspired by the late New York composer and pianist Julius Eastman, I hardly heard of him. They had a connection to his surviving brother, Jerry, which meant they had access to parts of his archive. I was given an original spare zip drive by him. I soon realized that I knew many of his peers – people like Philip Glass and Steve Reich – whom I got to know when I was studying music. But I didn’t learn anything about Julius Eastman. It was a long part of that New York scene, but for a long time I didn’t even know black composers existed. It’s not just absence, it’s erasure – it’s as if an effort was made to banish it.

Like me, Eastman was a weird black composer, but while those aspects of his identity resonated with me, we’re also really different — we’re decades apart, and I’m from London. It’s been easier than him in some ways, even if my experiences haven’t been entirely positive, but I don’t really get into what he did, especially as a composer and musician. It’s a bittersweet, contradictory thing to think about.

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It is not known exactly what happened to him in his later years. When he died, no one really knew about his music, apparently he was addicted, destitute and lonely. It was only recently that he was brought back into the history books as the leading composer, and this is only due to the work of a few determined individuals such as his biographer, composer and performer Mary Jane Leach, about whom we know nothing about his music. And there are still a lot of question marks and blank spaces that we will never fill. We don’t even have all his music.

What we have is incredible – it’s full of energy. His playing on the piano is dense and powerful, and in his compositions he uses dense repetition of motifs. There is intensity in his music – it’s not always emotional, but it’s often deeply influential and hugely political – especially in the titles he uses, such as Gay Guerrilla. He was making a statement so I have kept his titles in parentheses after mine to respect this aspect of his work. I clearly remember listening to keep it One afternoon, which has since become one of my favorite pieces. I was completely lost in its repetitions and the power of this phrase “keep it up” – I cried so hard. You can completely change the meaning by saying something over and over, or in a different way. I used these repetitions at the beginning and end of Choose to Be Gay (Femenine), which I recorded in one take – I take in what I feel right away, because you can’t repeat the feeling of that first shot.

“There are still so many question marks and blank spaces that we will never fill them”… Julius Eastman. Photo: Ron Hammond/PR Bulletin

Today, what really exists are nothing but new recordings of his work – people meticulously playing with his manuscripts. I didn’t want to do that. I wanted this project to look different, because we’re two tunes on different sides of the world, working in different centuries, so I used the hardware for the first time. What made it interesting was incorporating some of his sounds that sound like from their time into my more modern electronic music. To put that into my software, to sync it and use my tools to play with it, I felt very future. I asked him what his music would look like today, with the addition of a set of computers.

I felt a great deal of responsibility dealing with someone’s legacy on this album – there was so much new emotion in it that I’ve never felt making other albums. I feel a little bit carried forward, as part of the next generation of gay black composers, but since there are so many different things about us, I thought of it as a reinvention and respect. It’s great that his stuff has been rediscovered but there’s just something sad about it when people only rediscover you after you’re dead. What does that do? Is there a difference? I don’t know if there is any redemption in it.

As told to Jennifer Lucy Alan

Build Something Beautiful for Me was released by Phantom Limb on October 7

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