During her recent BBC Radio 4 programme on Julius Eastman, it was hard to disagree with vocalist Elaine Mitchener’s assessment of his rediscovery as ‘vital’. Eastman died homeless in 1990. In the 1970s he was a flamboyantly gay black voice in a New York new music scene still predominantly white. His re emergence accords with a classical world finally attending to more diverse voices. This would be meaningless, of course, were the music not as excellent as it is. In December 2016 Philip Clark named a vintage live recording of Eastman’s Femenine his Gramophone Critics’ Choice. Now comes Femenine’s first, long-overdue studio release.
Femenine unfolds from a motif on vibraphone featuring a series of fast repeated notes followed by a dancing upwards-leaping major second. Throughout the piece taped sleigh bells jingle, as per the maracas in Steve Reich’s Four Organs, a propulsive rhythmic foundation. Led by cellist Anton Lukoszevieze, Apartment House have been advocating for Eastman’s music, and their Femenine brims over with enthusiasm, brio and pathos. Shimmering violin and cello dialogue with lolloping flute and recorder. An airiness suffuses the music, like a summer breeze. Femenine’s score is a mixture of tight and loose; the basic material is indicated but much is left up to the performers, and Apartment House are sensitive to Eastman’s various reference points (as much jazz at times as classical). Despite Eastman’s urban, metropolitan attitude, when the flute takes over the theme for a while I can’t help but imagine pastoral hills and brooks.
Even if minimalism isn’t your thing, this disc is worth your while. There are a few minor quibbles. There is no booklet; liner notes would help listeners orientate themselves. The CD, too, only has one track. Even if the work is meant to be heard in one go, for a work this long it would be useful to give the listener a chance to skip to a section they might want to listen to more closely.