Seth Parker Woods is on a first-name basis with Julius Eastman.
When talking with the cellist about working with the music of Eastman, the minimalist composer who died in 1990 after years of addiction, he abandons academic courtesy and refers to the composer as "Julius." It makes sense given his years close to Eastman's work, as part of a larger effort by musicians to re-establish and continue a performance practice of his progressive, experimental music.
For this year's Frequency Festival ( which took place Feb. 20-25 ), Parker Woods curated the triumphant Chicago premiere of three pieces by Eastman: the haunting "Prelude to the Holy Presence of Joan of Arc," for a solo vocalist; the thundering "Holy Presence of Joan of Arc," for 10 cellos; and the awe-inspiring "Gay Guerilla," for four players on two pianos. A packed audience at the Chicago Cultural Center's Preston Bradley Hall received the portrait concert with a standing ovation.
Parker Woods is far from done working with Eastman. Now, he's transcribing the cello quintet "That Boy" from recording, which will eventually also premiere in Chicago. He recently talked with Windy City Times to reflect on the premiere, along with Julius' life and identity.
Windy City Times: How did you first discover Julius Eastman's music?
Seth Parker Woods: Five years ago, roughly, I was sent a recording of the piece "The Holy Presence of Joan of Arc," and that was my first big introduction. I had never heard of him. I listened to the work, and I was really taken aback by the work. I don't want to say it's an infatuation, but thus started the beginnings of my exploration of who he was and the music he wrote.
WCT: How did you choose the three pieces for the Chicago premiere?
SPW: I definitely wanted to do the cello piece ["The Holy Presence of Joan of Arc"] because I thought it was such a seminal work that people needed to hear. But also I wanted to continue giving life to the prelude, which was never a concert workit was an improvisation that he did for a live radio broadcast. Eventually we found the space: It would be there at Preston Bradley [Hall], and the almost holy acoustics that are that space. I was like, Oh, we have to do "Gay Guerilla."
That piece evolves in a majorly big way. It's almost like he takes you to church. You have the prelude to the cello piece in which he quotes the three saints who were said to have come to Joan in a time of need. Then also in the cello piece, you have the first three cello voices that open, these still represent those same three saints. And then on top of that, you get this big, beautiful Lutheran hymn that's connected into "Gay Guerilla." So it's this very spiritual being.
WCT: How do you decide how to present something like the prelude, which was never performed in concert?
SPW: We have the recording of Julius doing it, but we must be reminded that he was an amazing improviser as well. I take that recording of him as a guide essentially and coach each new performer. Even with the cello piece, he could've changed certain things each performance, but we only have an archive of one performance. So each performance, I try to change a few things in the way I'm trying to coach each group of cellists that I play with, where it still stays extremely visceral. That way it becomes a practice, but it's still unique and it's still alive.
WCT: At the show, you mentioned changing the narrative around Eastman. How should we be remembering him?
SPW: Let it really be more about the music than his demise. When we interpret Beethoven and we interpret Mozart, it's never about, "Can you hear the drunkard that he was in this music?" That doesn't become a part of the performance practice. So, why should there be a double standard for Julius Eastman? Let it really be about the genius that he was.
WCT: Why should we acknowledge Eastman's identity as a gay, Black man along with the music he created?
SPW: He was unapologetically himself, and the music he created reflected that. What he was feeling was what he was feeling, and this was how he was going to describe it. You can't ask someone to dumb down his art, because then it's like you ask them to silence themselves. I felt that's a lot of what was happening for him. So eventually he just said, "Fuck the system, fuck it all. I'm going to just be me, and I'm going to lay it on the table, and you're either going to take it or you're going to leave it." And those are the pieces: Some of it's very just direct, in your face.
WCT: What is your goal in working with Eastman's music?
SPW: I'm not saying that I'm aligning myself with Julius and who he was, but I see some parts of myself. In reading his scores and listening to interviews and listening to people's stories about him and reading about him, there's moments where I burst into tears. There's moments where I wish he was still around and I could say, "You are worthy and you are amazing and you should keep going." I always, now, even now, wonder: What would have become of him had he continued on and his life had gone a different way? In many ways, I feel like that music is still timeless. I believe he is one of those people that can change the times and whose music is changing the times, and it's my duty to keep that going. As more things keep becoming discovered, if I can do even a little partnot only by performing and helping coach new generations of performers, but also be a part of the archival team that ensures his scores and recordings are kept in the canonthen I'd do that.