In his performances as DJ/rupture, Jace Clayton has been part of that experimental breed of DJ/producers who draw on the sounds of the classical avant-garde. But while names like Edgard Varese, Iannis Xenakis and Karlheinz Stockhausen have become hip in DJ culture, Clayton has turned to one of music’s true outliers, the gay African-American composer Julius Eastman. (Both his sexual orientation and race figure prominently in his titles.) The Julius Eastman Memorial Depot is neither a mash-up nor a straight remix. It is a recasting and reimagining of two of Eastman’s most important and defining works, “Evil Nigger” and “Gay Guerrilla,” both originally for four pianos but arranged here for two pianos and live electronics. And it is a remarkable, heartfelt tribute to a man who was a fixture on the New York “downtown” scene in the ’70s and ’80s, performing with Meredith Monk and singing the lead role in Peter Maxwell Davies’s Eight Songs For a Mad King before succumbing to alcohol and drug addiction, homelessness and death at the age of 49.
“Evil Nigger, Part 1″ is almost pretty, with the layered chiming of its minimalist pianos; Part 2 abruptly switches to a more obviously electronic sound; Part 3 takes on a darker, dramatic hue as the music descends to the bass end of the keyboards, heaving and rolling in waves of increasingly dense sound that almost sounds like a kind of broadband drone. The final part announces itself with the sounds of glitch electronica, while the piano textures thin out, creating a sense both of space and of expectation that something will soon come rushing in to fill it. Shards of gamelan-like piano, impossibly rapid trills and tolling chords hover around the edges of the mix, until a brief explosion of massive piano sounds takes over. It ends as ambiguously as one of Bela Bartok’s nachtmusik (“night music”) pieces, with the half-remembered echoes of those earlier trills in a haunted electroacoustic haze.
“Gay Guerrilla,” in five parts, begins with the steady pulse of the pianos; Clayton’s electronics are subtle but telling, often hard to distinguish from the pianos themselves. In Part 2, a web of shifting electronic drones grows out of the patter of almost bell-like tones in the upper registers of the keyboards. When the pianos return, in a gently galloping rhythm, the result is perhaps the most conventionally beautiful music here. “Conventionally” being a relative term, of course. Part 3 begins to build up rhythmic counterpoint that sounds reminiscent of Steve Reich’s work, but no sooner does that happen then the sound of a turntable dying brings the music to a grinding halt — at which point we hear Martin Luther’s hymn “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.” (This appropriation appears in Eastman’s original version of the piece.) Echoes of that tune flit through the thick piano textures of Part 4; and Part 5, with its endlessly ascending pianos, has a more reflective, even valedictory cast.
The album concludes with a Jace Clayton original, a short song that takes the wry humor of Eastman’s own work and turns it on the usual “equal-opportunity employment” speech, turning it into a pensive contemplation of a man who was driven to despair in part by a lack of employment opportunities.