The Slaves of Freedom

It’s not too long ago that we noted the Ensemble 0 version of Julius Eastman’s Femenine released by Sub Rosa in 2020, and now here’s a new LP record of Eastman music released on Poland on the New World Order label, called Evil (NWO_02).

On it, we find two recent versions of the composition ‘Evil N****r’ originally written in 1979, one of them played by the Arditti String Quartet and the other one played by two Polish accordionists. Like many experimental records of Polish origin we receive, this one has four additional logos on the back indicating support from Dux Recording Producers (the distributor) and the Sacred Profanum Archives, and the Centre for Intercultural Creative Initiatives, called “Crossroads”. It’s all part of the upsurge of interest in Eastman’s work, I’d like to think; the Dux publicity speaks warmly of how Eastman’s music is now being performed internationally, including at the Sacred Profanum music festival in Krakow. The trigger for this as they see it was an article in the New York Times in 2016, which reminded us that Classical American Minimalism was becoming perceived as an all-white all-male heterosexual affair, and that Eastman (gay and Afro-American) was in danger of being left out of the complete picture. To that we must add that Eastman was also an eccentric and an outsider whose life became quite marginal, not so easy to align with middle-class insider culture.

This leaves us with today’s record; ‘Evil N****r’ was originally scored for four pianos, I gather, so these new and unusual arrangements can be reckoned as quite bold statements, and I suppose they cast a Polish / Eastern European slant or interpretation on this most American of musical forms, and most exceptional of its representatives. Granted, the Arditti String Quartet (well-established, prize-winning, and very accomplished they be) aren’t exclusively Polish, led by English-born Irvine Arditti and with an international membership, but the string version they perform was arranged by the Polish composer Tomasz Opalka, a veritable champion of contemporary music in his home country. With this exceptional performance on Side A, what I’m feeling on today’s spin is the rather “porous” nature of Eastman’s composition, such that even where there are repeated figures and patterns, the exact order and manner in which they’re played seems to be fairly fluid, open to interpretation. This tallies with what little I know of Eastman’s process, and I recall the structure of Femenine allowed a good deal of leeway for the musicians – and indeed even depended on their energy and ideas to propel it.

The other vibe we get from this Arditti version is the anger, pain and frustration which this piece embodies, with its very provocative title which doesn’t leave the audience a lot of room to manoeuvre. With its mixed chords, insistent repetitions, and general air of discordancy, the piece succeeds in making the listener feel quite uncomfortable for the entire duration, and indeed the situation (whatever it may be) gets even worse in the mid-section, as forms start to break down and a certain amount of volatile chaos holds sway. This isn’t the cool, detached, minimalism of “ideas” or intellectual games; it’s more the music of a life, and not a very comfortable life either. Full marks to the players for achieving what I assume is a challenging feat, and conveying such a profound sense of unease with compassion and insight.

The discomfort continues on the B side, with the same piece (the themes and the key are instantly recognisable) played by the accordion players Maciej Frackiewicz and Rafal Luc, in an arrangement by Piotr Peszat, another composer who comes to us from the Music Academy in Cracow. I thought the Arditti side was fairly frenetic, but our two squeezeboxers really up the ante on that dynamic, performing ‘Evil N****r’ at a breakneck pace, and with their frequent interjections of “One-Two-Three-Four” it makes you wonder if they’d rather be playing it as heavy metal or math-rock. The pain and frustration are now joined by an abiding sense of paranoia, as if our very lives depend on getting to the end of the piece with our minds and bodies still intact. The accordionists deliver the main theme staccato style, picking out its worrisome minor harmonies with a horrifying urgency (and though it’s just a coincidence, reminding me of Nico’s ‘Janitor of Lunacy’.) This harrowing rendition ends with a declamation spoken in Polish, behind which we can hear what might be the sounds of an insurrection; in all a very sympathetic and nuanced interpretation of the work of Eastman, perhaps layering in the troubled politics of Poland’s own past turmoil as a mirror of the Afro-American plight. The choice of the Statue of Liberty image on the front cover merely adds to the poignancy. An excellent release, from 31st January 2022.

Available through Dux Recordings Producers

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