Meredith Monk's 80s vocal ensemble. But as well as a talented singer, Eastman was also a singular minimalist composer, whose music has only become widely available in the last fifteen years or so. Marginalised in life, as a gay black man, Eastman had some acceptance in the New York avant-garde scene, but in the 80s wound up homeless and passed away largely unnoticed, most of his scores lost. Thankfully, the steady trickle of recordings that have appeared recently are helping to address his importance, and share the absolute joy of his music on recordings like this hour-plus piece recorded on 6 November 1974 in Albany NY.
Femenine was recorded by the S.E.M. Ensemble, with Eastman on piano. The first sound you hear is the proto-rhythm-track of mechanised sleigh bells as the ensemble tune up, before the piece starts in earnest at the 3:25 mark. With the sleigh bells providing the rhythmic base, the backbone of the piece that is now introduced is a two-note vibraphone figure around which the piano, then the rest of the ensemble will gradually build up and reap stunning rewards.
It's a rough recording, sure, and there's occasional bum notes; but for me this just adds to the beauty of the work. I actually heard a BBC Proms recording of Femenine about a year or two ago, and didn't even keep the file I'd downloaded - it was just too perfect compared to the ragged glory of this original performance. As it comes into full flower in its second half, with Eastman's piano becoming more and more impassioned, and the ensemble parts reach their logical conclusion, the heart-tugging gorgeousness of Femenine just can't be denied. Highly recommended.