I Love to Love, Oh Pleasant Love. The Marvel of Julius Eastman

von Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung

Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung (PhD) ist der künstlerische Leiter und Gründer von SAVVY Contemporary, Projektinitiator und Chefredakteur von SAVVY|art.contemporary.africa, künstlerischer Leiter und Kurator der Galerie Wedding und war Curator-at-Large im Kuratorenteam der documenta 14.
In der Gruppenausstellung A Mechanism Capable of Changing Itself präsentiert Forum Expanded die Videoinstallation The Third Part of the Third Measure von The Otolith Group, die eine Begegnung mit dem militanten Minimalismus des Avantgardekomponisten, Pianisten und Vokalisten Julius Eastman ermöglicht.


Dieser Text liegt nur auf Englisch vor.


“I have been fighting with the lord for a long long long time. And Such that at this point, i really take music as secondary. I like love better myself. Oh pleasant love. than music. And at times is difficult to love the lord bcos sometimes he is putting you this way and putting you that way.” [1]

“Among the wonders of African creativity, is the ability of certain individuals to spin large tracks of musical thoughts from a minimum of resources, 2 or 3 pitches, a pair of contrasting timbres, or nuggets of distinctly shaped rhythms. This minimalist impulse is widespread through out Africa (…) anyone familiar with traditional African music will readily call to mind styles and idioms animated by extensive or even obsessive repetition. In so far as the minimalist manner is constituted by repetition (…) thinking through these familiar repertoires once again as intentional actions motivated by a minimalist aesthetic. In other words, I want to make explicit through denomination the minimalism that has been implicit all along in African musical studies” [2]

In one of the rare and now famous interview Julius Eastman did with David Garland in 1984, Eastman reveals an extremely sensible side of his person, his music, his relation to spirituality and religion, his understanding of music and minimal music in particular, as well as his dislike for the commodification of music. In this interview one hears the genius of Eastman. A man evidently in another space that the norm. Extremely other-worldly and almost ethereal. One listens to Eastman sing about his fervent wish for the lord to let him rest in peace, and one listens to how he stresses on the importance of love. “I love to love, Oh Pleasant Love” he reiterates.
While we have observed a resurgence of interests in the work of Eastman, it is rather unfortunate that very rarely have people with an interest in Eastman’s work looked at the complexity and intersectionality of his practice.
In the following, we will try to ‘see’ Eastman’s practice through various prisms.
Taking from the aforementioned epigraph from Kofi Agawu’s seminal lecture on “The Minimalist Impulse in African Musical Creativity”, if one were to take the proposed minimalist tendencies and impulses seriously, and if one were to believe in the migration of the sonic, as well as the impact of sonority on spaces and subjectivities, as enablers of most of the sounds that have defined the 20th and 21st centuries, then one could look at or listen to Julius Eastman’s work within this genealogy. This is to say that if Africans in the new world brought with them the sounds that were to become the Negro Spirituals, the Blues, Jazz, Funk, R&B, Hip Hop etc, then there is no reason to think that they had left their minimal tendencies behind.
The ‘extensive or even obsessive repetition’, as Agawu puts it, that characterises African minimal music since time immemorial, is also a characteristic feature in Western minimal art and music of the mid 20th century. While it is justifiable and fair to think about Julius Eastman’s work within the trajectory of Eva Hesse, Dan Flavin and co, as ellie m. hisama does in her reading of Briony Fer’s discourse of “strategies of remaking art through repetition,” and how “seriality and subjectivity are inextricably bound,” [4] Eastman’s work is also calling for a complicated interconnection, challenging obvious references and situatedness within broader histories and geographies.
There is need to look at Eastman’s work beyond the framework of what is understood as Minimalist music with a capital M, within a larger, always gross and ever-growing understanding of minimalist music – i.e. conceptually and geo-contextually. Besides the minimal tendencies, there is also need to search for indices for the complexities of his music in his scores, choice of instruments (in “The moon’s silent Modulation” -vibraphone, bamboo sticks, piano, tambourine, finger cymbals), usage of voice, but also interviews by and writings on Eastman.
While the technique of repetition, this most important element of reduction in Minimal art and music, can be perceived as a mere technique or tool, as seen in Philip Glass’s varying repetitive patterns and static harmonies or Steve Reich’s continually unaltered repetitions, [5] or Eastman’s serial organic repetitiveness, [6] Fer and hisama interpret a personalisation and politicisation in this mode and approach of serial repetition:

“Her (Fer’s) discussion of Hesse’s approach to serial repetition as an art that was ‘personal’ resonates with my understanding of Eastman’s compositional use of repetition, a process that permits a gradual unfolding of the deliberately politicised sonic field. This politicisation is suggested by the titles of some of his untexted compositions, which can redirect one’s hearing in specific ways. For example, the title of his haunting “Gay Guerrilla” (1980) invites the listener to engage with a complex set of issues regarding sexuality and politics, a listening experience that is enhanced when we consider Eastman’s music in relation to his life as a gay African American who walked on the edges of the American new music scene of the 1960s and 1970s.” [7]

There is need to read Eastman’s work not only within its musical sensitivity, structure or texture – (ar)rhythmic, (dis)harmony, phonic – but also consider Eastman as a political being who saw his work as a medium to deliberate on the sociopolitical, economy, religion, as well as issues of gender, race and sexuality. While race and sexuality were very important and played a primal role in Eastman’s compositions, they were not the only topics Eastman dealt with, which is the impression one gets when one peruses articles and narrations about Eastman today. Especially with the rhetoric of the ‘rediscovery’ of Eastman within the music and visual art fields, which in itself sounds like giving light to darkness, Eastman is particularly portrayed – if not reduced – to his blackness and his gayness. Why reduced? Because in these contexts there seems to be an element of surprise about the culmination of black, gay, and composer as adjectives for one person. Often, there seems to be a fetishisation of this blackness and gayness, which is observed in the number of times Eastman’s Nigger series or “Gay Guerilla” have been played to a wide audience, without taking the pains to contextualise why Eastman composed these pieces, and what ‘nigger’ and ‘guerilla’ meant to him, although Eastman in a 1980 Northwestern University concert addresses the usage of these terms.
Looking at his compositions, it is evident that spirituality and religion played an important role in Eastman’s practice. In the scores for “Our Father” (1989), which might be his last composition (available), Eastman wrote what seems to be a prayer, a litany:

“O God my fa(ther)/ Holy spirit/ Great God Holy Ghost Spirit of Truth Great/ God All Knowing Good Be/Fore The Words Were There Was Only God/ God After The Worlds Came To Be There Is/ Only God Glory To/ God The One The Only The/ Lord Is Glorious In His Saints He Is/ Glorious In His Verse He Is/ Glorious Before Time He Is Glorious In/ Time Glory To/ God The Almighty God/ O Lord Forgive Me Thy/ Will Is Always Done O God/ My God have mercy/ Your servants are weak Our/ Father who art in hea/ven hallowed be thy name.”

Other works like “Praise God From Whom all Devils Grow” (1976), “The Holy Presence of Joan d’Arc” (1981), “Buddha” (1984), “One God” (1985-6) reveal an ‘Auseinandersetzung’ with the spiritual and the transcendental beyond fixed confessions.
Eastman touches on the economical especially in “If You’re So Smart, Why Ain’t You Rich?” (1977). But it is the intersection between economy and knowledge, the tension between the cognitive, intellectual and the economic that also makes this piece worth more scrutiny. In an earlier exhibition project also titled “If You’re So Smart, Why Ain’t You Rich?” (2014) in Marrakesh, we explored how sound becomes haptic, tactile and textural in arts, society, politics and economy, as well as cogitating on “Knowledge Societies”. Eastman’s famous introduction to the Northwestern University concert in 1980 about his usage of the word ‘nigger’ should also be analysed within the intersectionality of economic, race and class contexts. “I feel that, in any case, the first niggers were of course field niggers. And upon that is really the basis of what I call the American economic system. Without field niggers you wouldn’t really have such a great and grand economy that we have. So that is what I call the first and great nigger, field niggers” [8] said Eastman, making a fundamental point about the basis of the capitalist system, as we know it today. The point Eastman is driving through is that the privileges of a welfare state, economic and social development, politico-economic stability were built on the backs of that dehumanised being, derogatorily called the ‘nigger’.
In the complete statement one then deduces a sophisticated discourse on race in a few words:

“There’s a whole series of these pieces. . .and they’re called. . .they can be called a “Nigger Series.” Now the reason I use that particular word is because, for me, it has a. . .is what I call a basicness about it. That is to say, I feel that, in any case, the first niggers were of course field niggers. And upon that is really the basis of what I call the American economic system. Without field niggers you wouldn’t really have such a great and grand economy that we have. So that is what I call the first and great nigger, field niggers. And what I mean by niggers is that thing which is fundamental, that person or thing that attains to a basicness, a fundamentalness, and eschews that thing which is superficial or, or, what could we say – elegant. So a nigger for me is that kind of thing which is. . .attains himself or herself to the ground of anything, you see. And that’s what I mean by nigger. There are many niggers, many kinds of niggers.” [9]

The reference of the ‘nigger’ as person or thing refers to that dehumanisation process inherent in the construction of race, at that point when some human beings were just resources, goods, objects, labour forces. But Eastman’s usage of ‘nigger’ is an empowering one, or at least in his intentions. Hisama points out an interview with Jeff Bloch in which Eastman says

“I admire the name ‘nigger.’ It’s a strong name. I feel that it’s a name that has a historical importance and even protects blacks. [It is] the most real part of whatever you’re into. You can’t wear Gucci shoes and be a nigger.”

Eastman’s compositions “Dirty Nigger” (1978), a piece for 2 flutes, 2 saxophones, bassoon, 3 violins, 2 double basses; “Nigger Faggot” (also known as NF) (1978), a piece for bell, percussion, strings; “Crazy Nigger” (1978), unspecified instruments, usual version for 4 pianos and “Evil Nigger” (1979), unspecified instruments, usual version for 4 pianos are prove of the depth in which he went to explore the concept, history, and being of the ‘nigger’.
Maybe the “Nigger Faggot” piece serves as the transition between Eastman’s reflections on race and homosexuality by using two words that embodied the violence faced upon being black and gay.
Besides the well known “Gay Guerrilla” (1979) piece, it is not unlikely that other compositions were indirectly or directly thematised issues of homosexuality, like “Four Songs with String Quartet” (1969), pieces for voice and string quartet including “There Was a Man“, “Speed Me Life’s Fluid To Those Who Live Without the Liquid Love Baby, Baby, Baby; Touch Him When” (1970) and “Five Gay Songs” (1971).

“Now the reason I use Gay Guerrilla, G-U-E-R-R-I-L-L-A, that one, is because uh…these names…let me put a little subsystem here. These names, either I glorify them or they glorify me. And in the case of guerrilla, that glorifies gay. That is to say I don’t. . .there aren’t many gay guerrillas. I don’t feel that…Gaydom…does have that strength. So therefore I use that word in hopes that they will. You see… I feel I don’t… At this point I don’t feel that gay guerrillas can really match with Afghani guerrillas or PLO guerrillas. But let us hope that at some point in the future they might. You see, that’s why I use that word guerrilla. It means… A guerrilla is someone who in any case is sacrificing his life for a point of view. And you know if there is a cause, and if it is a great cause, those who belong to that cause, will sacrifice their blood because without blood there is no cause. So therefore that is the reason that I use “gay guerrilla,” in hopes that I might be one if called upon to be one.”

Said Eastman in his introduction to the Northwestern University concert. Here too, Eastman appropriates that term gay and breaths into it dignity. He uses the opportunity to call for a gay guerrilla of the future, and offers himself for that cause. The references to the PLO and Afghans make clear where Eastman situates the cause on a political scale.
The plea is for a more holistic perception of Julius Eastman’s practice that goes beyond just the fetishization of his blackness and gayness, which are both core elements of his being and music, but also just two of many elements Eastman engaged with, fought with, deliberated upon and expressed so radically in his music.

[1] https://spinningonair.org/episode-2-julius-eastman/
[2] Agawu, Kofi: The Minimalist Impulse in African Musical Creativity. Lecture at Centre for Music Studies at City University London, 2013.
[3] hisama, ellie m: Diving into the earth: the musical worlds of Julius Eastman. In Rethinking Difference in Music Scholarship’ Kallberg, Jeffrey, Lowe, Melanie Diane, Bloechl, Olivia Ashley 1975.  
[4] Briony Fer, The Infinite Line: Re-making Art after Modernism, New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2004. www.nook.at/minimal/en/repetition/
[5] www.nook.at/minimal/en/repetition/
[6] “These particular pieces. . .formally are an attempt to what I call make ‘organic’ music. That is to say, the third part of any part (of the third measure or the third section, the third part) has to contain all of the information of the first two parts and then go on from there. So therefore, unlike Romantic music or Classical music where you have actually different sections and you have these sections which for instance are in great contrast to the first section or to some other section in the piece. . .these pieces they’re not. . .they’re not exactly perfect yet. They’re not perfect. But there’s an attempt to make every section contain all of the information of the previous section, or else taking out information at a gradual and logical rate.” Eastman, introduction to the Northwestern University concert.
[7] ibid 5
[8] Julius Eastman, introduction to the Northwestern University concert, January 16, 1980, transcribed from Eastman, Unjust Malaise.
[9] ibid 9
[10] Jeff Bloch, “Black Musician’s Song Titles Censored by FMO Protest,” Daily Northwestern (January 17, 1980); cited in Hanson-Dvoracek, “Julius Eastman’s 1980 Residency,” 80. Elsewhere in his study, Hanson-Dvoracek attributes the quote to the Evanston Review (January 10, 1980): 32.