- Photo by Max Lakner
- Jace Clayton
"They are resonant objects vibrating at similar frequencies," Jace Clayton says of the seemingly disparate events in his SOUND~SITE~ECHO series, unfolding next week in Durham and Chapel Hill. The New York City-based musician and writer is currently the UNC-CH/Duke Nannerl Keohane Distinguished Visiting Professor, a position usually reserved for a research scientist. Clayton is as close to being one as a deejay can get. As DJ/rupture, he was a pioneer of the early-internet era of musical deracination, deploying his ideas on the sea-changing digital mixtape Gold Teeth Thief in 2001. By the time 2008's Uproot, a visionary collage of global bass music, came out, it sounded like a distant but inevitable future. Now that we're used to music thinking like some giant collective brain, it just sounds like now. More than merely a musical trailblazer, Clayton has bent his practice toward reimagining the local in a global culture and lifting up the voices it leaves out. Among other topics, we spoke with him about how this thread connects his work with cumbia, Indian classical, and the neglected minimalist composer Julius Eastman.
INDY: How do these diverse events come out of your core interests?
JACE CLAYTON: My biggest statement is my book, Uproot: Travels in 21st-Century Music and Digital Culture. We are living in a really dramatic shift from primarily analog ways of making music and communicating and remembering things to a primarily digital one, and it happened really fast. I was working as a deejay throughout this sea change. So I'm interested in critical intimacy—writing as an artist and a critic—but also in this new set of tools, how music is evolving and moving around.
I'm also thinking about expanded ideas of American identity. Discovering the Indian community in Cary was like, wow, this transforms my understanding of what the Triangle is. It was the same thing with cumbia when I was living in a Mexican neighborhood in Brooklyn and discovered this massive cultural movement, completely off the radar of mainstream media. There's a culture of shadows around cumbia, about recognizing those who can't be in the place, those back in Mexico. This is using music as a transnational media system to redefine our idea of the local and how technology shapes it.
How voices who don't have the traditional means of amplification can communicate in culture is the through line, even with Julius Eastman. In 2001, I discovered this black, gay New Yorker who died in 1990 at age forty-nine. He knew John Cage and Morton Feldman, he worked with Arthur Russell, he sang with Meredith Monk. Yet he was almost completely written out of the historical record. His music is stunning, and I thought it was a travesty that I had never heard of him. I knew I needed to do a project engaging with this radical figure who, once people know about it, was going to change our understanding of what minimalism was, what the classical world in New York City looked like in the seventies and eighties.
And we've seen critics take up that argument. With 2001's Gold Teeth Thief, you were also at the forefront of the digitalization and globalization of music, which happened so fast. Can you remember what you thought was going to happen and compare it to how those tools and that culture actually evolved?
I made it, burned it on a CD, sent it to a friend in America [Clayton was living abroad], and was like, can you put this on a website as MP3s so people can download it? I had no idea people would listen to it. I felt like what I was doing was groundbreaking and amazing, but this was deeply unconfirmed. [Laughs] It really blew people's minds, and they went out and found every record on the track list. Listening habits being so magpie and singles-based and picky-choosy and post-genre now—that's a really new development. It took a lot of active going against that grain in the late nineties: yes, I listen to rap and country, et cetera.
In today's terms, you'd say it went viral. Wire wrote about it, Rolling Stone ended up reviewing it. That eagerness for new sounds, new ways of combining sounds and creating narratives, blew me away. This was all part and parcel of the early blogosphere, way before YouTube and social media. It was a peer-to-peer situation where corporate giants and weird advertising hadn't fully kicked in yet, an incredible moment for music sharing and discovery across the web. Now, in the middle of this whole Facebook-Cambridge Analytica scandal, so much of the promise of grassroots empowerment—we see how quickly that environment can be twisted to corporate and political ends.
You have a lot of ways of using sound. Did you ever consider going all in as a scholar or a Pitchfork darling or an art-world figure? Or do you need this multiplicity of forms to express your ideas? It seems that an album release and promotion cycle wouldn't allow enough thinking for you.
I do believe in the multiplicity of forms. Some of my work as an artist is making space for these projects to exist, making connections and creating the context. Working in a more straightforward institutional framework has a stability I'm probably envious of [laughs], but there's a very specific expectation you have in many of those roles. As a deejay it's free and amazing and any interest in your work is a godsend. But then it's publicists and touring mechanisms and your work getting instrumentalized in various ways. In one way, it's wonderful to engage with that, but ultimately, I find a lot of it to be too far from why I got interested in music in the first place.
Julius Eastman: A Primer
Illustration by Steve Oliva
Julius Eastman was a proud, openly gay black composer and performer, active from the late sixties through the mid-eighties. His massive voice could be heard on his Grammy-winning performance of Peter Maxwell Davies' Eight Songs for a Mad King, as a member of the Meredith Monk Ensemble and the S.E.M. Ensemble, as well as booming across the dance floor with Arthur Russell. His performance of John Cage's Song Books in 1975 was so sexually provocative it led the composer to declare his regret at composing the piece.
By the mid-eighties, however, Eastman's career was in shambles from drug and alcohol abuse. Eastman was evicted from his apartment with all of his possessions and compositions left behind, and Eastman walked away from his life, enduring several years of on-and-off homelessness before dying anonymously in 1990. This once key member of New York's downtown scene had become so disconnected that it took eight months for news of his death to reach the world. It is only through the work of scholars and performers like Mary Jane Leach and ACME that Eastman's music is being resurrected from a forgotten past.
Eastman's compositions are deeply beautiful and fiercely moving. His music is endlessly restless, expanding from tiny seeds into strong forests of sound, stretching into moments of pure ecstatic awakening. Eastman never shied away from who he was, embedding himself deeply into his own work. The role of provocateur is one he clearly relished, and one reflected in his choice of titles like Evil Nigger and Gay Guerrilla, both of which are being performed by Jace Clayton, Emily Manzano, and David Friend as part of The Julius Eastman Memorial Dinner. Since 2013, Memorial Dinner, for live electronics and two pianos, has been performed around the world and continues to evolve. In Durham, that evolution continues with an April 4 performance at The Fruit. The two Eastman works are interspersed with original material, recasting Eastman's work for an alternate future. —David Menestres