Misunderstood Composer Julius Eastman's 'Femenine' Gets A Fresh Take : Deceptive Cadence A visionary who died young and alone in 1990, Eastman is making a slow but richly deserved comeback thanks to a curious younger generation. A new interpretation of his 1974 work Femenine is out now.

Julius Eastman, A Misunderstood Composer, Returns To The Light

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

When composer Julius Eastman died in a Buffalo, N.Y., hospital in 1990, he was 49 years old, alone and his music was scattered to the winds.

(SOUNDBITE OF JULIUS EASTMAN AND WILD UP'S "FEMENINE: NO. 1, PRIME")

SHAPIRO: Only recently, friends and scholars have been slowly shedding light on Eastman's music and the details of his final erratic years. A new recording of the composer's hour-long work, "Femenine," has just been released. And our reviewer, NPR's Tom Huizenga, has been listening.

TOM HUIZENGA, BYLINE: There have been many misfits in classical music, but Julius Eastman stands tall among them. To be proudly gay as a composer in the 1970s was brave enough; to be proudly Black and gay was even more courageous. That confident self-awareness enabled Eastman to write music that was challenging, mischievously irreverent and sometimes ecstatic.

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HUIZENGA: Eastman crashed through the gatekeepers of the classical avant-garde, which was and still is a very white, Eurocentric club. Even today, he remains misunderstood, still ruffling feathers with titles that contain racial slurs. Fortunately, Eastman is getting a fresh look from younger musicians like Wild Up, the Los Angeles-based ensemble. The group has released a positively jubilant performance of "Femenine," a 67-minute mesmerizing groove that unfolds one beautiful moment after another.

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HUIZENGA: Born in Manhattan in 1940, Eastman was a precocious pianist, blessed with a commanding bass voice. He graduated from the Curtis Institute, collaborated with key musical figures like Pierre Boulez and Meredith Monk and taught at the University of Buffalo. But in the 1980s, after he moved back to New York City, he began spiraling downward - drugs, drinking and unpredictable behavior. "Femenine," from 1974, is Eastman in his prime. He stitches a colorful quilt out of just a two-note melody that begins in the vibraphone.

(SOUNDBITE OF JULIUS EASTMAN AND WILD UP'S "FEMENINE: NO. 1, PRIME")

HUIZENGA: That theme merrily chugs along throughout the entire piece, a perfect foundation which the Wild Up musicians build out a few solos along the way, taking liberties with Eastman's score like this one for flugelhorn.

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HUIZENGA: Eastman, I think, would love this performance. It's exuberant, a bit in your face, sometimes capricious and always surprising. Near the end, there's a curveball. Emerging from the roiling ensemble, Eastman weaves in the hymn to "Be Thou My Vision."

(SOUNDBITE OF JULIUS EASTMAN AND WILD UP'S "FEMENINE: NO. 8, BE THOU MY VISION (MAO MELODIES)")

HUIZENGA: Julius Eastman was ahead of his time and not just with his startling music. Long before we used terms like genderqueer, Eastman performed "Femenine" in a dress. There's also a companion piece, "Masculine," but it's lost, perhaps one of the many scores dumped on the streets of Greenwich Village when Eastman was evicted. Eastman said his life's mission was to be Black, gay and a musician, each to the fullest. In this vibrant rendition of "Femenine," you hear it loud and clear. And there's more to come. Wild Up plans a series of Eastman recordings. And I'll be eagerly awaiting each one.

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SHAPIRO: The album is "Julius Eastman, Vol. 1: Femenine" by Wild Up. Our reviewer is NPR's Tom Huizenga.

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