On Horse Lords' cover of 'Stay on It,' a composition from noted '70s and '80s New York composer Julius Eastman who innately bridged disco and classical music, drummer Sam Haberman aggrandizes the rhythmic punctuation latent in Eastman while Andrew Bernstein's wailing sax feels like vicarious liberation—the cry of Eastman's love for drums and dance-floor fervor defying classical conservatism.
"If Eastman was playing concert music that referenced dance music, then we are playing dance music that references concert music that references dance music," Bernstein writes over email.
The 21-minute version of Eastman's track—clav-heavy, unfaltering, with a slightly raised tempo—appears on the band's recent release, "Mixtape IV," along with an original, 'Remember the Future.' The latter is a suite equally as long, made of slow-burning groove, spoken word, and musique concrete; it reiterates Eastman politically by alluding to the specific political context in which it was conceived: amid protests against the Trump regime.
For 'Stay on It,' Horse Lords worked with Abdu Ali to collaborate on the track. Ali says the track "happened quickly and swiftly." He opens it not with an original verse but by speaking aloud the program notes from its original premiere, since he was attracted to how the title and phrases of a similar sentiment prevailed in the stanzas.
"I feel like saying 'Stay on It,' over and over again, was something that Eastman wanted to drill into not only his own head but the listener's head as well. For me that's a positive mantra about being diligent and persistent with your life goals," Ali says over email. Regarding identity, Ali is black and queer, like Eastman. Stylistically, the repetition of positive mantras is vital to the work of both artists—where Ali seems to find the most direct connection.
When Ali reads a question posed in the liner notes—"Does that move you?"—he responds to himself with a rising melody of "yes" over and over. All of his flourishes were freestyled and unforced: "I lived in the moment and within the magic of the words. That's how I felt like it should've be done, on the spot, effortlessly."
Bernstein first heard about Julius Eastman back in 2012 at a lecture that Eastman archivist/historian Mary Jane Leach, whom Horse Lords thanks in "Mixtape IV's" liner notes, led at the Red Room at Normal's. It inspired Bernstein to pick up "Gay Guerrilla," the collection of essays about Eastman named after an Eastman composition and co-edited by Leach.
Minimalism, for Bernstein, is a technique rather than a movement. When a select few are perceived as the noted minimalists—such as Steve Reich or Philip Glass—rather than simply practitioners of minimalism, it further insulates the technique. Inculcated is the belief that only a certain kind of composer is appropriate for minimalism, and that's what misrepresents it as a movement.
"To my ears, Eastman injected a sensuality, looseness, and playfulness into minimalism where previously a lot of the focus had been on austere repetition and process," Bernstein says.
What Eastman experienced in historically marginalized spaces like The Loft and Paradise Garage was equally as necessary to his compositional process as what he experienced in concert halls—where he fucked with firmly established traditions. It's that "playfulness" Bernstein mentions that had the capacity to piss off a self-prided recalcitrant such as John Cage.
During a performance of Cage's "Song Books," Eastman interpreted Cage's direction "Give a lecture," by stripping a male student onstage. Cage's iconoclasm was one of Eastman's core inspirations, and infuriating Cage meant he was doing something right.
Elsewhere, Eastman challenged classical "respectability" with composition titles like 'Gay Guerilla' and 'Evil Nigger,' which were meant to reflect his marginalized struggle in the '70s and '80s. Eastman's oeuvre is evergreen, though particularly pertinent to his era. Similarly, audio from the Women's March included in Horse Lords' 'Remember The Future' tethers it to 2017's political context and a large freedom struggle.
Midway through 'Remember the Future' is an exchange between Haberman and artist Bonnie Jones, the content of which is aggregated voicemails left by fans at a hotline launched in September, (262-HRS-LRDS), later transcribed for the two to recite like a conversation on recording. There's traditional over-the-phone dialogue—"Talk to you soon!" and "Hi, it's me"—but the content goes all-out random with passing references to political laughingstock Anthony Weiner. "Is the Horse Lord for sport?" is another phrase that comes up a lot.
"The voicemails were rendered into automatically generated transcripts (with quite a wide range of accuracy, creating a nice extra layer of strangeness)," Haberman says over email. "I compiled these transcripts, broke them down to their constituent words and sentences, and then assigned each individual word and sentence a number. Using a random number generator, I selected which of two speakers would have a line, then whether to add a sentence or a word, and finally which word or sentence to add."
Early 20th century sound poet Hugo Ball mouthed incomprehensible words to signify Dadaism in "Karawane," while Haberman and Jones refer to actual words but organize them into incomprehensible sentence structures. The intention is that each word is relegated to mere intonations of throat, lip, and tongue, with the significations of communicative language belittled, the voice is fully an instrument—a percussive one.
"In structuring the piece, I wanted to use the musical technique of 'linearity' (a fancy way of saying that only one thing happens at a time), which is a concept I like to use in my drum beats," Haberman says. "So I made it a rule to leave as little time between voices as possible without overlapping in the hopes of creating a rhythmic back and forth."
Haberman and Jones' collaboration comments on how language has the potential to sound devoid of meaning—especially the sycophantic language delivered by politicians and other authorities.
This passage and the inclusion of Women's March audio call back to the political commentary in the preceding piece.
"I don't know what the political connotations of 'Stay on It' are, but the title might suggest a call for perseverance, and the music certainly reflects that in its insistence on one short musical phrase with only slight variation," Bernstein says, aligning with Ali's interpretation.
Horse Lords has reiterated all throughout its work the qualities of minimalism Eastman promoted. "From studying his music, it seems like it was often structured similarly to how we structure our music with Horse Lords: a figure is repeated until there is an aural cue that signals a synchronized change."