NYC in the 60s, 70s and 80s was a melting pot of different cultural genres and a meeting point for important figures in contemporary music. The scene was filled with many artists whose influential body of work has been written about and extensively taught in formal academic curricula across the world.
On the flip side, we can also find lesser known, yet equally influential composers who operated within the same framework and whose contributions have been brought to the light in recent decades. Be it the trend of the times (see Female Pioneers), or sheer tokenism (for some institutions), certain names might have remained obscure had History not been made more inclusive.
The list is deep and long. Among the artists who gained recognition from the NY scene was Arthur Russell, thanks to the long-awaited re-issues of his work from Light in the Attic. Russell, part of the queer community of Down-town NYC, was influenced by all the different musical flavours in the air, including the avant-garde, the disco and the pop, only to find it hard to belong to any of these scenes. Similarly, the work of Julius Eastman was recently unearthed and newly celebrated as that of the first minimalist Black American composer. But as with Russell, Eastman was quite un-committed to labels and categorisations. His pieces balanced minimalist, post-minimalist structures, pop-climaxes and riffs, and extended-sequences that deviated from the minimalist canon in which he was often labelled. Like Russell, Eastman could not abide by the White Anglo-Saxon Protestant template of the Serious Male Master simply because he was (in his words) a Nigger and a Gay. The titles to some of his pieces like “Evil Nigger,” “Crazy Nigger” and “Gay Guerrilla” are testimonies to his overtly political stance and take on “minimalism”.
Back to today’s London, a modern meeting point for art and culture, composer Loraine James bravely undertakes the difficult task of reinterpreting Eastman’s oeuvre by “employ[ing] samples, melodic motifs, themes and imagery, and inspiration from Eastman’s canon, slicing, editing, pulling apart and playing samples like instruments to craft a stunning album that venerates Eastman’s genius while adhering to her own.” Building Something Beautiful For Me brings James in direct conversation with Eastman as fellow Black, gay artists operating in different decades and cities but unified by a genuine interest in exploring, experimenting, subverting and queering their sounds.
On this record, James loads Eastman’s work through her electronic music filters. Opener “Maybe If (I Stay On It)” takes Eastman’s repetitive riff from “Stay On it” and freely metamorphoses it into a recited mantra. Metamorphosis is perhaps a key term in understanding Eastman’s own work, but also James’ process of redefining structural, tonal and melodic elements from the original stems into something new and personal. James’ recent exploration of more textural music can be found here in “Choose to be Gay (Femenine)”, which departs from Eastman’s “Femenine” by creating a vast ambience of textural repetitions surrounding James’ voice. Similarly, the closing “What Now? (Prelude To The Holy Presence Of Joan D’Arc)” only references Eastman’s 1981 track “The Holy Presence Of Joan D’Arc”. The new version explores tone and texture as forms of repetition and permutation, folding and unfolding sounds through a sampler in a seemingly improvised and free-form manner until the fade.
Building Something Beautiful For Me is not exactly a tribute record, nor is it a collection of reworks of Eastman’s pieces, but an open invitation to reflect in a very personal way. James rediscovers and redefines herself by experimenting with fragments of Eastman’s work, creating a collection of introspective electronic pieces that are at times reminiscent of early IDM and ambient but, like Eastman’s work, escape easy categorisation. (Maria Papadomanolaki)