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Interpreting the music of Julius Eastman, Wild Up honors the composer's vastness

What Wild Up unearths on <em>Julius Eastman, Vol. 2: Joy Boy</em><em> </em>is more than just music, it's a set of relations and modes of comporting in the world that risk trading fleeting, worldly praise to regain the eternal soul.
Ron Hammond
What Wild Up unearths on Julius Eastman, Vol. 2: Joy Boy is more than just music, it's a set of relations and modes of comporting in the world that risk trading fleeting, worldly praise to regain the eternal soul.

Between the hostile diminutives of Southern U.S. racism that give the term "boy" its fraught legacy, and the reclamation of Black innocence and enjoyment by Black people who demand the language back on its own terms, lives Julius Eastman's Joy Boy — a composition that objectifies the ecstatic self in order to reclaim it in a world that projects suffering onto the Black psyche before it even has a chance to assert jubilance. Echoes of vocals that mimic displaced giggling give the composition a haunted atmosphere, as if the sound's potential for conjuring joy is smeared with dread for its very own delights — or the dread of the backlash that Black delight might inspire. Is Black joy an indulgent form of self-deception, this music asks. Can its subject, a self-actualized Black man, override its stigma without succumbing to rage or self-sabotage?

There can be no answer but to play and replay it, to meet doubt with the resolve to go again, and fear with an allegiance to pleasure. The improvisational, Los Angeles-based music collective Wild Up chose Joy Boy as the title track of its second album-length exploration of Eastman's music, a choice that suggests an intent to revel in his compositions while being bound to impossible laws within them. Sometimes, they are even forced into exile from the music while deciphering it. The laws in the title song are the laws of an endless adolescent rebellion, given sovereignty over itself at the very moment it grows out of the need for it, looking for structure and rules to abide at the precise moment freedom comes.

It's a little unnerving that Eastman is considered a minimalist, when in feeling it's maximalism he inhabits. It takes Wild Up's 30 musicians pursuing a quivering, ephemeral unison to attempt to recreate what he called "organic music," by which he meant music that changes when it acquires new information without evading past information. Music that spirals and weaves through changes like a child growing up and learning his personality and its maddening fluctuations from lucid to solemn to obscene to exuberant.

The feat Wild Up achieves in interpreting Eastman is the refusal to attempt impersonation. Playing his found compositions, the musicians make him their muse without fetishizing him. Perhaps Eastman anticipated the frenzy to rediscover him and rigged it with pre-emptive retribution for how many times he would later be referred to as gay, Black and homeless, before any mention of the music he created or his formal training. The second in what will be a seven volume series, Wild Up's latest recording feels ordered in a way that allows aspects of Eastman's personality to be sifted from the hyperbolic emphasis on his identity.

Buddha (Field), the album's second track, is reverent as it edges toward cathartic detachment. Its tone of pseudo ego-death in the name of self-preservation is a fitting commentary on the West's appropriation and remix of Eastern philosophies and religions, that self-congratulating syncretism whose best accomplishments are new music. The score is a bundle of concentric circles with implied grooves in them, interpreted as pulses and pitches. On the page it could be associated with the belly of the prophet, or an abstracted nerve center — the guts and inner workings and the mind that lives there before it reaches verbal thinking. A drone of strings leads the listener to the center, surrounded by a muffled hysteria of broken Zen, suspended there while the music lodges screams in a fount of trembling whispers. This is the music of sustained and painful meditation. That it follows an ode to joy only exhibits Eastman's range and Wild Up's commitment to inhabiting it, even when the compositions themselves seem to prefer drift and solitude — to bask in the myth of themselves without intervention.

Touch Him When (Light) and Touch Him When (Heavy) follow and address notions of violation and longing, exile and retaliation. It's rumored that Eastman's erotics were sometimes wrapped up in his sound and style as a musician. The artist Tiona Nekkia McClodden, who curated the 2018 Eastman retrospective "That Which Is Fundamental" in New York, learned through her extensive research that he would make some performers kiss his boots before taking to the stage to play his music. This does not suggest that he had a subjugation kink, but rather that the poetics of relation between him and the white avant garde had to be troubled before he could hear himself think. He had to feign fetishization of that which fetishized him.

The raucousness of these compositions is a relief that makes space for more lightness. If there were no tantrum intervening on the whole motion of Eastman's sound, it might seem insincere. Even as it understands its entitlement to a pure uncomplicated joy, it also knows when to work in opposition to that mood in order to nurture it. Buddha (Path) follows, hurling itself like an ocean meridian. The strings here are triste and tormented, not afraid to bleed and open to softening, with a ballad for flute, oboe and trumpet that allows the strings to sigh away some tension. This Buddha is less alienated, animated toward the cinematic in a distinct triad of frenetic angst, divine sorrow and their mutual unraveling. The peace attained here is precarious and Wild Up is faithful to its depths.

Stay on It is an idyllic close to this suite of moods. The chanting of the title phrase grows so insistent it breaks apart — "on it" becomes shards of onyx or honest, code for stay honest, stay Black, that coaxes the self into a hallucination of a better self, one that stays precipitously on the axis of being and disintegrating. The mantra becomes sermon, and the church of Eastman closes its doors to faithless pillagers through this relentless call to remain on the path. Chanting gives way to muffled and distressed squeals just when you expect it to get predictable, and then halts like a train breaking to avoid hitting a stranded animal. Stay on It closes in a shimmy of bells, as if the self stayed course for so long it at last became liberated, all the karmas burnt off into spectral will.

Under the direction of Christopher Rountree and with the devotion of musicians who are also Eastman scholars and revere not just his music but the work he did to ensure that fetishistic engagement with his legacy would not override it, Wild Up creates a testament here to Julius Eastman's vastness. In a world where music is often tampered with and sampled into coherence as opposed to explored in its original form, Wild Up is attempting to recreate the compositions of a man who left us vague or deeply personal insinuations for scores — whose scores were tossed into the street and nearly lost forever. What the group unearths on Julius Eastman, Vol. 2: Joy Boy is more than just music, it's a set of relations and modes of comporting in the world that risk trading fleeting, worldly praise to regain the eternal soul.

Throughout Joy Boy it becomes clear that Eastman was making devotional music, that jazz was as much his muse as so-called minimalism, and that what he meant by organic music was that which encouraged collective listening and dissolved some of the narcissism that the music industry has inflicted on music making. Just when a composition could veer toward solipsism, Eastman yanks it back into relation with a larger mass — a non-self, even. This may be why he was able to vacillate between formal professionalized musicianship and the jongleurism of the true griot during his lifetime. It's why his celebrity is posthumous and in many ways instrumentalized by the worship of those who know that he might have lived as comfortably as John Cage and Terry Riley, were he not — as the congregation won't let us forget — gay, Black, unconventional. To play his music without exploiting this identity is the justice Eastman deserves and Wild Up seems committed to trying, making that effort collective in a world of soloists and small ensembles where a scale like the group's is seen as a liability.

I don't think Eastman himself pursued celebrity as much as he did community and creative freedom. At the Los Angeles music and arts venue 2200 Arts + Archives where I am a curator and archivist, Wild Up recently staged a 24-hour summer solstice performance to celebrate Julius Eastman, Vol. 2: Joy Boy. When I walked in, maybe 12 hours into the endeavor, it was as if walking into a non-denominational church. Audience members were napping or stretching on mats and tapestries. A Dionysian asceticism anchored the vibe and the musicians by then were cornered in a small nook in the room, left of center, offstage, and focused on building the body of Buddha.

Eastman could not be there in the flesh to make anyone kiss his boots before entering the music, but the somber perseverance of his dominance made the chamber an altar. While his music is best created in large collectives, for audiences, in order to escape some of the pomp and performance surrounding the composer's reputation, it's best engaged by listeners who can handle privacy and the dignity of open secrets at a concert, without a clique or agenda. When I tuned out the stylized attentiveness of the audience and let my own sacrum beam with the light in the sound, I could recognize its strident call again: stay on it, stay on it, stay on it — a minimal maximalist's version of by any means necessary.

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Harmony Holiday
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