Live review: Julius Eastman Memorial Dinner at LSO St Luke's, London, 9.9.

6/10

The endless depth of the Internet, along with its infinite sharing capabilities, means that we are very much past the age of an artist living their life unknown, especially one with the talent of Julius Eastman.

A provocative African-American minimalist composer and a known companion of John Cage and Morton Feldman in 1960s New York, Eastman created numerous sprawling, incisive works, including ‘Gay Guerrilla’ and ‘Evil Nigger’, both among the pieces performed in the ‘Julius Eastman Memorial Dinner’ show. Despite famous friends, true talent and muscular messages, however, Eastman died in poverty, with most of his scores being lost.

Jace Clayton, a.k.a DJ/Rupture, sought to reintroduce Eastman to popular culture with this concert, which could have just as easily been presented as an installation in a gallery of sorts. The presence of a piano on either side of the stage, while potentially symbolic of division, was clearly necessitated by Clayton’s fiendishly difficult arrangement of Eastman’s work, while the man himself took centre stage behind his mixing desk.

While the arrangements were performed by two pianists, Clayton played God, processing the sound live and manipulating a finite number of sonic factors to feed back into the speakers. Reverb levels were altered, as well as volume, while sections of recorded piano music were looped, broken up and distorted through LSO St Luke’s surround sound speakers to glitch, vroom and soar.

A number of these improvisatory processes worked effectively, but by the very nature of improvisation, some fell flat. Some electronic processes complemented the piece well, while others felt like they were from a totally different piece – while this was doubtless the arranger’s intention, it must be said that often the trance created by Eastman’s immaculate piano scores was shattered by Clayton’s interference.  

Indeed, the limitations of what Clayton could really achieve were discovered within a few minutes. It always felt slightly at odds with Eastman’s carefully prepared piano music, and took the edge off what was a polished performance.

Clayton admittedly suffered from the loss of one of his key performers; neo-Sufi vocalist Arooj Aftab, due to add a wholly different element, was unable to obtain a visa in order to travel from America – depressingly ironic given the issues raised by Eastman in his music decades ago. In the end, Aftab was on hand to appear in a clunky skit via Skype midway through the concert, and to close the whole evening with a soothing melody to leave the audience with the thought of what might have been.

Clayton’s premise showed a little promise – there is something to be said for reactionary sound alteration, particularly with a genre as forgiving and repetitive as minimalism – but the show was just a little too threadbare to really make an impact. In a world where everyone is shouting over everyone else, I just wanted to hear some Julius Eastman.