Julius Eastman (1940-1990) is as fascinating to read about as he is to listen to. This performance of his breathtaking, hour-long work, Femenine takes us to one of the most eloquent members of the 20th-century avant-garde. The performance of this austere work by the ensemble Apartment House is replete with all the virtues that Eastman embodied: unfailing clarity, innate elegance, an unerring sense of proportion, a finely honed mastery of style, melodic finesse and unobtrusive grasp of harmonic rhythm, not to mention a matchless sense of aural geometry.
The work is layered with subtle colours. Each layer – with each hypnotic and intensifying repeat – is daubed with minutely thickening textured music that seems to ebb and flow like a gentle tide that swells steadily from silence before gently building into a soft whoosh of the keyboard, vibraphone, violin, cello and two flutes. Throughout, the uniquely Eastman-like tension between harmonically loaded melody and the essentially neutral, often near-static nature of the metre, has its sense of symmetry quietly disturbed by minute figures played by each instrument as the players recreate the composer’s prevailing tonal palette through appropriately lean, but always beautifully focused, orchestration.
The result proves well worth seeking out. Eastman’s was a diverse style with firm roots in John Cage-like stasis; but there is more heart-on-sleeve Romantic post-avant-gardism than one would expect. Either way the music has an emotional power that Apartment House articulates ever so eloquently.