Julius Eastman: Crazy Nigger

            Crazy Nigger – the provocative title of this composition by Julius Eastman (1940–1990) may surprise or even disconcert those who come across it. However, the disruption of, and non-compliance with conventions and means of society’s functioning (usually derived from the “ideal” of white heterosexual men) was an inseparable component of this artist’s life and work. Eastman never masked who he really was – to the contrary, his self-acceptance formed the very foundation for his artistic freedom: “What I am trying to achieve is to be what I am to the fullest – Black to the fullest, a musician to the fullest, a homosexual to the fullest.” It must be said though that the majority of American society in the 70s and 80s was not prepared to accept someone who so openly expressed his nonconformity. Even though he made his mark in the 70s as a performer of new and experimental music (he was, for example, one of the founding members of the S.E.M. Ensemble) and frequently appeared in concerts, his own work was rather overlooked. In the early 1980s, Eastman lost his stable source of income, and problems connected with alcohol and drug abuse started to manifest in his behavior. This talented artist eventually became homeless (which led to the loss of some of his recordings and scores) and we do not have much information about the end of his life. He died at the age of 49.

            Eastman’s musical language draws on the concept of minimalism, but he was also influenced by jazz and popular music. Of particular interest is his concept of “organic music,” in which individual musical phrases contain elements from previous sections, which are gradually expanded and modified, causing the natural growth of a musical structure. It is precisely this compositional strategy that he utilized in Crazy Nigger. Despite having been written for any number of similar instruments, for practical reasons it is most commonly performed on four pianos. The composition belongs to Eastman’s Nigger Series, which also contains the compositions Evil Nigger (1979) and Gay Guerrilla (1979). Already, the first tones of Crazy Nigger strike the listener with their unparalleled energy and vigor – it is a sonically intense work, which takes its “physicality” and extreme involvement in performance from minimalism. Eastman’s compositions are, to a certain extent, affected by the story of his life and the social environment in which he worked – maybe it is for this reason that they provide the listener with the possibility to experience such an unusual sense of freedom and resistance. 

Petr Zvěřina

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