Boomkat Product Review:
Maverick Swiss pianists the Kukuruz Quartet turn in a definitive work here, interpreting four of Julius Eastman's best-known pieces (including 'Evil N*****' and 'Gay Guerrilla') with delicacy, emotionality and studied poise. Phenomenal stuff - whether you're familiar with Eastman's output or a newcomer, it's essential listening.
Recorded back in 2017 in Zurich in the national radio station's large concert hall on four Steinway D grand pianos, "Piano Interpretations" captures the Kukuruz Quartet's obsession and fascination with Eastman's output perfectly. The Swiss group have been working with Eastman's compositions since 2014, and have slowly built up a reputation for their bold adaptations of the cult composer's anxious "creolized" contemporary classical works. Eastman died tragically in 1990 at only 49, and at the time was hardly recognized for his outsized artistic contributions and developments within classical music, but since then his catalog has been re-appraised. His music was confrontational and political to its core - Eastman knew his existence as a gay Black American was controversial even before deconstructing his activity as a composer, and his music screamed it from the rooftops, languishing in the pain, complexity and beauty of his identity and allocated role.
Known for their unique performances and outsized skill, the Kukuruz Quartet are well suited to Eastman's nuanced compositions. The composer wrote music that stretched itself across 20th century classical minimalism and jazz, music that opened itself up well to a kind of improvisation that Kukuruz are well-positioned to attempt. On their recording of Eastman's 1983 piece 'Fugue No. 7' they balance chiming, rhythmic intensity with doomy low register hits, punctuating dissonant minimalism with a hand into the distant past. There's little room for sentimentality here; Eastman uses "fugue" to represent both its musical meaning and its emotional one, ruminating on identity and loss with a clear hand. The recording of 1979's 'Evil N*****' is even more powerful, flowing like water from tense sunlight into stifling darkness, moving from clustered, dense notes into plodding baroque phrases.
The album concludes with the 30-minute 'Gay Guerrilla' from 1979, a powerfully shifting composition that Kukuruz are able to infuse with the level of mournfulness, transcendence and anger it needs to truly represent Eastman's genius. Mindboggling music from beginning to end.