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Jace Clayton honours a gay guerilla

Music Gallery’s X Avant festival puts composer Julius Eastman in the spotlight

DJ/rupture creates the Julius Eastman Memorial Dinner at the Music Gallery’s X Avant new music festival. 

Credit: Rocio Rodriguez Salceda

Evil Nigger and Gay Guerilla. With titles like that, you’d think the work of 20th-century minimalist composer Julius Eastman would be hard to ignore. But Jace Clayton says the effect might be the exact opposite, and intentionally so.

“They’re not merely confrontational titles; there’s also this wonderful sense of humour,” says Clayton, who will reimagine both pieces at the Music Gallery as part of the X Avant new music festival. “It’s a big fuck-you . . .  to the politeness of the minimalism scene. But it’s also serious. It meant that those pieces wouldn’t be performed or remembered historically.”

Which is why Clayton, also known as DJ/rupture, has created the Julius Eastman Memorial Dinner — to pull Eastman out of obscurity and to relocate him and his politics in the 21st century.

Eastman was an active figure in the New York minimalist scene of the 1970s. But as a black composer, an out gay man and an irreverent trickster-type, his legacy easily faded away.

“At a time when other people in the classical [music] world were often closeted, Eastman was this leather queer,” Clayton says. “That was important, to be in your face. But it had its repercussions.”

Now Clayton adds his own interpretation in a 60-minute live performance, where twin pianos play faithful renditions of Eastman’s pieces — contemplative, swelling, intimate works full of challenge and nuance. The pianos are simultaneously channelled into Clayton’s laptop and repurposed through layers of electronics tuned to a Sufi scale. Punctuating the performance are dramatic texts with the premise of Clayton being interviewed for a job as a Julius Eastman impersonator.

Clayton will also participate in a panel discussion, the theme of which is Transculturalism. “Rather than celebrate multiculturalism, where everyone is celebrated for their own narrow range of identity markers, better to have transculturalism, where everybody learns to incorporate and transform culture into something more participatory,” says David Dacks, the Music Gallery’s artistic director.

Clayton agrees: “It’s still very difficult to be plural — people want you to be one thing and understand you quite easily. So when you confuse and antagonize and complicate those categories, wonderful surprising things can happen.”

Eastman does just that.