Credit: Ron Hammond/New Amsterdam Records
Music by Tanner Stechnij

Best Albums of 2021: Wild Up | Julius Eastman, Vol. 1: Femenine

January 8, 2022

#9. Repeated phrases, static harmony, and buoyant notes passed along an ensemble have been broadly heard throughout 2021, a year marked musically with minimalist composition. The influence has been seen across many genres: on third stream masterpiece “Promises” by Pharoah Sanders, Floating Point, and the London Symphony Orchestra, the orchestra mysteriously repeats a motif as Sanders longingly sails on top of it. Elsewhere, “Track X” by Black Country, New Road, “Man Is Like a Spring Flower” by Lingua Ignota, and much of Kaatayra’s album Inpariquipê‘ explore minimalist instrumentation and composition while applying it to their usual sounds, chamber art-rock, classically-influenced avant-folk, and avant-garde folk metal, respectively. The minimalist movement, started in the 1960s and most associated presently with Steve Reich and Philip Glass, has an, until recently, overlooked forefather in queer, Black pianist and composer Julius Eastman. Los Angeles-based chamber ensemble Wild Up has set out to record Eastman’s work, a task that’s not as easy as it might otherwise be since his notation style was unusual and much of his work was impounded by NYC sheriffs. On their first volume (of a proposed seven), Wild Up has recorded Eastman’s most famous piece: the ruminative, playful masterpiece “Femenine.” Until now, the most vital recording of the chamber piece came from the SEM Ensemble, in which Eastman played piano. Compared to that, Wild Up’s Julius Eastman, Vol. 1: Femenine is more jubilant and jazzy, breaking free from the piece’s unshakeable motif more often and more wildly.

But what precisely is the motif here? A jubilant note repeated, usually marked with 12 sixteenth notes, followed by a lengthening and a deliberate major 2nd, oft repeated thrice. Split into ten movements and starting with ambient sleigh bells, the first movement on Wild Up’s album-length recreation is plaintive, with an nostalgic piano solo and leading into a more exuberant second movement, one incorporating a growing ensemble on the motif, more winds and more percussion added to enrich the chord. A slight screech is perceptible in the background, indicating change which comes in the form of baritone saxophone, beefily overtaking the melody before bending its pitch and timbre in a mysterious, thoughtful solo. In movement three, the motif’s rule temporarily subsides and the ensemble chirps together, traveling away and arriving at the familiar percussive rhythm in an impressionistic fashion. In “Hold and Return,” more low saxophone returns, overpowering the duhladuhladuhladuhladuhladuhladuhladuhla completely, exercising extended techniques by overblowing, jumping octaves, and approaching multiphonics. Next comes the stately, aptly-titled “All Changing,” where the horns and piano elegantly trade notes and the motif dramatically changes, almost disappearing. This leads into diverse solos: babbling vocalization, a charming flute, and a luxurious trumpet; later, alto sax and deep reed grow alongside dueting vocals. Briefly, when the group comes together to resume the motif, it nearly sounds like a glitch. But then the seventh movement, “Eb,” which sounds like a party, with several of the voices conversing privately and festively, the piano and marimba moving beautifully through the chatter, resulting in an inspiring soundscape sometimes shaken up with bright yet uncomfortable quarter notes played in unison. Movement 8, “Be Thou My Vision / Mao Melodies,” features a very evenly played piano solo, traveling march-like until a pastoral flute interrupts, quieting the whole ensemble until they come back again to the motif, but the interval is increased this time, although not for long. “Can Melt” is largely a winding-down ramble, but with the threat of those bright unisons penetrating, until, finally, “Pianist Will Interrupt Must Return.” And return we do; to quiet and sleigh bells, which we hear for minutes after the final motif resolves. In ten wondrous movements, Wild Up has produced a work both revolutionary and respectful of Eastman’s seminal piece, and it has arrived right as minimalism finds itself folding into other genres, exactly as Eastman preferred.