The Quietus - A new rock music and pop culture website


Loraine James
Building Something Beautiful For Me Claire Sawers , October 7th, 2022 09:25

The Enfield-born producer pays tribute to the great Julius Eastman

The current rush of love and appreciation for the very nearly criminally overlooked work of the composer, pianist and singer Julius Eastman makes a lot of sense, given the times we’re living in. Eastman was a Black gay man from New York State who moved in the predominantly very white circles of the avant garde music scene. His minimal scores soared on insistent, repetitive loops, reaching euphoric highs, often carrying strong political messages about queerness and Black civil rights. Yet he died homeless and penniless, in poor mental health, alone in a hospital in Buffalo in May 1990, aged 49. It took until the following January for his obituary to even run, then more than another decade for a resurgence in interest after a friend shared his lost scores online. Most of his compositions and recordings were destroyed by police when he was evicted. The momentum has kept growing ever since.

Eastman is rightfully being remembered now by festival programmers, orchestras and labels around the world. The wave of Eastmania is first and foremost due to the hypnotic power of his music but also because, as an artist, he epitomises so many modern day wrongs. Although he was musically most prolific during the 70s and early 80s, the issues he faced in his lifetime remain sickeningly relevant for 2022 – the systemic oppression that sparked the Black Lives Matter movement, threats to LGBTQ rights, huge housing inequality, chronic lack of support for mental illness, a massive cost of living crisis . . . Eastman lived it all.

Queer London electronic artist Loraine James pays homage to Eastman in Building Something Beautiful For Me, an at times stunning electronic album that continues his radical, minimal legacy, while Anglifying some of his messages. Like Eastman, James often stitches social activism into her music. Her album For You and I (tQ’s 2019 Album of the Year) was a grimy, glitching pressure release of skittish beats and underdog anger. Tracks like ‘Hand Drops’ and ‘So Scared’ were about her fear of PDAs as a queer person in London while ‘London Ting / Dark as Fuck’ featured Lee Carter, aka MC Le3 bLACK, seething with Black pride and anti-pig rage.

Building Something Beautiful For Me is a gentler listen by comparison, with some anger still there – just distilled into something more gleaming and triumphant. Standout tracks are the accelerated cosmic whirrs of ‘Black Excellence (Stay on It)’ and ‘Enfield, Always’ (namechecking the beloved part of North London where James grew up in a tower block). Her hypnotising chimes recall the holographic, mesmerising dream loops of Oneohtrix Point Never, while her flattened, low key vocals and loops for days conjure up solo tracks from another working class provocateur, Hackney’s Dean Blunt.

‘The Perception of Me (Crazy Nigger)’ is James’ glowing, ambient update on Eastman’s controversially titled 1980 piano piece ‘Crazy Nigger’ – he was on a fuck-you roll after sharing his politically charged, feather ruffling works, ‘Nigger Faggot’, ‘Dirty Nigger’ and ‘Evil Nigger’ in the two years before. In fact the Black student association at Illinois’ Northwestern University protested after Eastman performed there in 1980 because they found the titles racist.

On new track ‘Building Something Beautiful For Me (The Holy Presence of Joan d'Arc)’ there are none of the tense, driving rhythms of the ten sawing cellos in Eastman’s original ‘The Holy Presence of Joan d'Arc’; instead James builds computerised bleeps into a swirling blur of cyclical ecstasies. She closes the album on a more foreboding note with ‘What Now? (Prelude to The Holy Presence of Joan d'Arc)’, her subdued and faintly doomy, warped finish to an often dazzling homage to Eastman’s thankfully not forgotten Black excellence.