UNJUST MALAISE: ALBUM REVIEW
Unjust Malaise is a compilation best listened to in parts. The eight-song, over three-hour compilation of Julius Eastman’s most revered works is filled with a tension that can be hard to appreciate in a single sitting. Julius Eastman was a minimalist composer born in Ithaca, New York. He became a force in the avant-garde, classical music community, touring the country and composing throughout his tenure at a SUNY college. He later left the college due to controversy over his material and settled in New York City. Eastman worked for many years composing in New York City, and in his work, you can hear the influence the city had on his compositions. On Unjust Malaise, the influence of New York’s jazz, experimental, and pop music scenes is clear. Along with borrowing sounds from the city, Eastman was not afraid to address its politics. His works tend to address “controversial” topics like race and sexuality, which resulted in him being pushed away from the mainstream of minimalism.
Eastman died in 1990 after a battle with addiction, but his work lived on and continues to grow in influence to this day. Unjust Malaise, released in 2005, rebirthed a dialogue about his music which never should have died. Although Eastman had a working relationship with John Cage and many other minimalist composers, his work never saw the same acclaim. So, while several composers and curators worked hard to push his work to the forefront and recognize his genius, he went many years being largely overlooked. Eastman’s blackness, gayness, and political views alienated him from the broader classical music community and branded him as a radical. He added a blackness and queerness to a genre dominated by white, straight, men, that made audiences and other composers uncomfortable.
The songs "Evil Ni****," "Gay Guerilla" and "Crazy Nig****" are all good starting places for Eastman's music. All three pieces are written for four pianos and use the instrument in ways that I have never heard before. "Evil Ni****" is the standout from these three tracks. It starts with a pulsating stream of notes which is only punctuated by Eastman’s yelled vocals as he counts down in a style reminiscent of jazz, “ONE… TWO… THREE… FOUR.” After he counts down the cascade grows and morphs to a gentle conclusion that leaves you exhausted and at the same time wanting more.
“Stay On It” is another classic Eastman work. It starts much in the style of an ECM-era, John Cage track, taking a simple minimalistic form with strings and a repeated melody until about halfway through it devolves into atonal notes played on a variety of instruments which lull you into Julius Eastman’s surreal world. The main motif of the song is addictive and once it disappears, Eastman masterfully includes allusions to it throughout the rest of the track.
Eastman shows his more experimental side on the tracks “Prelude to the Holy Presence of Joan of Arc” and “If you’re so Smart Why Aren’t you Rich?” “Prelude” is a 12-minute, operatic vocal cut, while “If You're So Smart” consists of a few brass instruments and bells running through scales for 24 minutes. Neither song is a particularly good starting point to get into his work, but after listening to his other works it becomes clearer where they fit in with his style. Both pieces also show off the versatility of his sound and how much space he could create with little instrumentation.
There is just so much to glean from Unjust Malaise. Each piece presents a totally different side of what made Julius Eastman a visionary. Hopefully, we are now in a moment where blackness and queerness can be seen as assets to a composer's music rather than “radical” and Julius Eastman can become an essential part of the minimalist canon.