The rhythmic pulsations of the avant-garde composer Julius Eastman cascaded through National Sawdust in Williamsburg, Brooklyn on the closing night of ChamberQUEER’s The Future Is… Festival (available to watch on Vimeo). Honoring queer ancestors during Pride Month, the dynamic chamber group and organization presented composer Jessie Montgomery’s new setting of Eastman’s Gay Guerrilla for string septet, featuring Montgomery on violin. Isaac Jean-Francois, a Yale PhD student and Eastman scholar, led with a stirring presentation on Eastman’s legacy and the imperative to remember him and his music in all his complexity. The concert, swelling with poetic and experimental energy, also showcased soprano Melissa Wimbish in Benjamin Britten’s Les Illuminations, along with Andrew Yee’s performance of a solo cello piece by Pulitzer winner Tania León.
“To be what I am to the fullest”
Eastman strikes a singular figure in the classical music scene as a radical Black gay composer who died young in 1990 and has undergone a resurgence of interest in the past decade. Jean-Francois framed the need to remember Eastman’s story and music within the legacies of other Black artists of the ’80s, such as the poet Essex Hemphill. As Jean-Francois argued, Gay Guerrilla, through its repetitive motifs over nearly 30 minutes, insists upon the reiteration of Eastman’s presence as a whole individual, or as he once said: “Black to the fullest, a musician to the fullest, and a homosexual to the fullest.”
Arranged for strings, rather than the original four pianos—though Eastman did write the piece for any number of similar instruments—Gay Guerrilla felt more lush and less pointed but no less driven. Jessie Montgomery led the ensemble as a dynamic first violin, starting from the beginning tremors of octaves and open fifths to the clashing eighth note pulse that dominates the soundscape. As the piece grew heavily dissonant, each instrument handed off short motifs to the next, a style that seemed more visually present in the string septet version than in the one with pianos.
The audience’s attention could wander productively, too: a video created by Kham Owens and Ashanti Soldier interwove moving depictions of Black life and art-making from circa 1940—the date of Eastman’s birth—to the present. Snippets of Eastman laughing appeared, poignantly, and as the musical energy built, the reel switched to depictions of Baltimore, 2020, during the protests after the murder of George Floyd.
More than 20 minutes in, the strings entered with polyphonic quotations of the Lutheran hymn “Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott” (“A Mighty Fortress Is Our God”). Montgomery’s setting felt more intensely polyphonic than the piano edition, a beautiful testament to the flexibility of Eastman’s score, with quicker entries of the theme. Yet the four pianos still imprinted themselves on our consciousness, with footage from Eastman’s original 1980 performance appearing on screen while the strings wound down in staggered arpeggios, slowly reaching a unison.
Eastman, Britten, León
If Gay Guerrilla was the star of the show, its revolutionary energy was complicated by the presence of León’s “Lento doloroso, sempre cantabile (For My Father) from Four Pieces for Solo Cello,” and especially Britten’s Les Illuminations. Both pieces were new to me, and the León cello solo, performed with passion by Andrew Yee, felt in some ways like a memorial for Eastman. In the lento, Yee pulled an aching tenderness out of their cello—no easy task, especially as the score traverses the upper harmonics of the strings. They immersed themself in the music with an uncommon sense of intimacy, stretching the songlike qualities of the instrument through León’s swerving melodies and chords.
As Jean-Francois noted in his talk, the performance of the Britten seems especially fraught, given the racism and exoticism inherent in Rimbaud’s lyrics. In this context, soprano Melissa Wimbish’s haughty declamation “J’ai seul la clef de cette parade sauvage” felt like a reclamation of the European awe for “the savage” (“I alone have the key to this savage parade”). Her French diction sliced through the interweaving string melodies as she chronicled the parade, soaring to vocal heights many sopranos can only dream of.
As the suite, which sets Rimbaud’s prose poems, alternated between descriptions of exotic cities, royalty, chariots, and gods, Wimbish played the part of the voyeur perfectly, acting out each dip and turn in her melody. She dove forward into a list of the parade’s “hoarse-throated frolickers” in the ninth section, and she sang through the furious climax with gravitas and poise. I can’t help but recall Eastman’s own virtuosic baritone performing a more experimental suite, Peter Maxwell Davies’ Eight Songs for a Mad King.
What a program, bringing Eastman together with León—with whom he worked in the ’70s—and this striking Britten suite. What a fitting commemoration and sendoff into Pride Month.