On November 6th, 1974, the late minimalist composer Julius Eastman debuted Femenine, a piece he had written earlier that year, in Albany, New York. Performed at a Composers Forum event to a group of his peers alongside his friends and collaborators, the S.E.M. Ensemble, Eastman was insistent that his audience be comfortable. The occasion was in informal one, with many in attendance freely talking and moving around. Soup was served at the event, which Eastman prepared himself at the home of the event’s organizer, Julie Kabat. Eastman described the piece as sounding like “the angels opening up heaven,” continuing on to pose the question: “Should we say euphoria?”
A few members of the audience, however, were not comfortable. Eastman, some recall, was wearing a dress, which bothered the more conservative in the crowd. The relaxed nature of the performance was troubling to some too, leading them to wonder how seriously he was taking it. Although occasionally provocative on purpose — as with the titling of some of his pieces or the famous incident with his performance of John Cage’s Song Books — Eastman sometimes upset people simply being himself. He was uncompromising in asserting his blackness and gayness in the white and (presumed) straight dominated spaces of avant-garde music, but it’s less clear if other ways he expressed himself that some saw as peculiar were truly intended to push people’s buttons. When he’d show up to a rehearsal in black leather and chains, or to an event for composers wearing a dress and serving soup, he certainly understood why people were bothered, but expressed his disagreement with style and discipline by being a magnetic presence in every space he entered, and laser-focusing on perfectly executing what he set out to do.
Femenine, while lacking the hallmarks of his most overtly experimental works, provides all the clues for how he would get there. The piece is more firmly based in pitch than the rhythm-oriented works he would compose later. It features a more traditional ensemble consisting of winds, pitched percussion, piano and bass, unlike 1979’s Evil N—r, which demands identical instruments to be quadrupled. The piece’s most notable quality, one it shares with its closest relative, Stay On It (1973), is a score with lengthy segments where improvisation is encouraged around the repeating syncopated marimba melody. Veteran performers of the piece recall their personalized scores were intentionally left sparse in modular blocks where Eastman wanted them to make their own additions. The listeners are invited to enter a state of hypnotic bliss, but one gets the sense that Eastman wants to take his performers along for the trip. On this performance of the piece by ensemble 0, it feels like they’ve hit the same stride that Eastman and the S.E.M. Ensemble did in 1974.
Apartment House had their own go at Femenine for a 2019 release on Another Timbre, and it’s a faithful iteration of the piece that is doubtless the result of intense study of Eastman’s original performance — though it’s a little difficult to register it as a different performance. Ensemble 0 brings a unit twice the size of S.E.M. or Apartment House, adding extra winds, strings, brass, synthesizer, electronics and voice. The new instruments superficially add timbres that give the performance its own unique footprint, but also a greater variety in the improvised sections — the voice in particular making good on Eastman’s promise to swing the pearly gates wide open.
Eastman’s increasing use of improvisation in his music was one of many expressions of his unwillingness to let himself stagnate. Never satisfied simply to get good at something and stick with it, he said of his own technical ability: “The only trouble is that you master something so well you get tired of it.” Few of Eastman’s own performances exist as recordings, but the growing enthusiasm to materialize his extant scores into the air show the beguiling power of his vision. Femenine is a glimmer of Eastman’s evolution — a flash of lightning that can’t be caught in a bottle, but that might inspire you to part the clouds and build your own stairway to the great beyond.