EASTMAN Julius, Buddha

Until very recently, the brilliant and tragic life of Julius Eastman and his seminally iconoclastic music, had been almost entirely forgotten after his death in New York at the age of 49. But a surge in performances of his music is now taking place, along with a re-evaluation of the considerable importance of his work.

Eastman was an exceptional pianist who studied with the legendary Mieczysław Horszowski, but his interest in experimental music led to him becoming a central figure in the more radical styles of music during the 1960s and 70s. Eastman was also blessed with a fine baritone voice, and in America he became the go-to performer of Peter Maxwell Davies’ Eight Songs for a Mad King, even performing the work when it was conducted by Pierre Boulez at the Lincoln Centre.

By the 1980s, Eastman had cut ties with many academic institutions and was unable to secure regular employment. His music was considered far too extreme for performances in any mainstream venues, and he gradually became isolated and despondent to a point where drug addiction took control of his life. For a period he was homeless, and after a heart attack, he died alone in a New York hospital – it took eight months after his death for any type of modest obituary to appear in print.

Eastman’s deliberately provocative works tackled political and social issues, centred around the prejudice he experienced being black and gay. Often obsessively repetitive, he combined a minimalist style with a certain flavour of pop and jazz, but the score for Buddha, composed in 1984, is simply a single page of manuscript paper in which notes and motifs are hinted at within an oval boundary. And so the piece is open to a considerable amount of free choice, improvisation and duration.

©Tom McKinney 2022


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