In Conversation with Joshua Banbury and Aaron Diehl

Ahead of vocalist Joshua Banbury’s and pianist Aaron Diehl’s performance at the Phillips on January 15 exploring the music of Julius Eastman and Billy Strayhorn, the Phillips Music team asked the artists about their collaboration and the fascinating commonalities between Eastman and Strayhorn.

The program features three works by Julius Eastman (1940-1990), an underrecognized queer, Black composer and performer whose work is now experiencing a revival. Many of Eastman’s pieces featured politically and culturally provocative titles, some of which will be performed by Joshua Banbury and Aaron Diehl in the upcoming concert. We recognize the visceral distress and upsetting nature of racially charged language no matter the context and felt it was important to give readers due notice. This Q&A includes multiple citations of offensive language.


Q: What has been the trajectory of this collaboration for you both? What drew you to this particular program and pairing between the music of Billy Strayhorn and Julius Eastman?

JB: There are a few things that inspired me to put this program together. The first is that in choosing to pay tribute to these great artists, I am in essence asking for their blessings. Although we are not related, I feel an ancestral connection. Without their legacy I would not have the opportunity to build my own.

Strayhorn has always mystified me as a figure simply because even 56 years after his death in 1967, he remains one of the only queer figures in the history of American Jazz. The same goes for Eastman in the world of new music.

Being that I am also gay and Black, in thinking about who I should pay tribute to at this early stage of my career, it felt very natural and necessary to do an extended meditation on his work. Of course, I have also been deeply captivated by his music. When I first started entertaining the idea of working in jazz, some of the first standards I fell in love with were written by Strayhorn. His music infuses both jazz and classical idioms so beautifully.

Having spent my early musical education studying chanson, arias and lieder, Strayhorn’s music has always felt intuitive to me. In addition to his music, Strayhorn had a unique way with words, I think his linguistic abilities are best shown in “Lush Life” which is perhaps my favorite composition of his, it hits very close to home.

Eastman, on the other hand, served as a great inspiration for my work as an opera librettist. I gained a lot of respect for his radically unapologetic and uncompromising approach towards reform and Black/queer visibility in American classical music. Eastman’s legacy challenged me to have a sense of urgency and integrity to my own work as both singer and librettist.


Q: You’ve talked about the parallels in identity between your own artistic journey and that of Billy Strayhorn and Julius Eastman. For both artists it seems as if there is a complex relationship between their social identities (race, gender, sexuality) and their sonic identities inscribed in music. How would you trace that line between the two? How might a queer sensibility manifest musically?

JB: The queer sensibility manifests in a few ways, because of course the queer experience is a complex one. It can pendulate from rage and malaise found in “Evil N” to an extended meditation on beauty in Strayhorn’s “A Flower is A Lovesome Thing.”

Strayhorn’s queer sensibility lies right beneath the surface of his work and is immediately apparent if you know where to look. He hints at it with his use of the pink flamingos, blue gardenias, and the distingué girls with jazz and cocktails. But there is also deeper meaning to these images and what they represent, of course.

“Lush Life” or “Sophisticated Lady,” to me, is the epitome of the queer sensibility: the affinity for things that are foreign, beautiful, mysterious, and mystic. The desire to be far away from all that oppresses you in exotic places like Paris…or New York’s punk downtown scene in the 70s. Furthermore, there is often a queer sensibility to romanticize suffering in the queer community. Is it because we fear life will always be unkind to us, so we romanticize turmoil as a sophisticated coping mechanism? In this romanization, does it sometimes cross over into addiction? I believe this may have been the case for both Strayhorn and Eastman, and even for myself.

In my own experience, meditating on beauty and dreaming of grandeur is absolutely necessary in order to maintain a semblance of sanity in the queer experience. Strayhorn’s “Something to Live For” tells a narrative of someone who is searching for someone to make their life “an adventurous dream.” As if to say, love is the only thing worth living for.

The queer sensibility also manifests as a need for reinvention. Both men took to New York City to reinvent themselves. Strayhorn famously took the A train to Ellington’s Harlem apartment to begin their legendary partnership, and Eastman took to the downtown scene to experiment in punk rock movement happening at the time.

Composer Julius Eastman. Credit: Donald Burkhardt

Eastman’s “Gay Guerrilla” uses a militant, stabbing rhythm to simulate the sounds of a battlefield. His life was also a battlefield, he upset many, and continually fought against forces that were intent on smothering his identity within the American classical music scene. And yet, as his brother Gerry Eastman told me this weekend (January 7-8, 2023) at his jazz club, Williamsburg Music Center, “Julius was the darling of the new music world.” And yet his legacy was nearly forgotten after his death, his music lost after he was evicted, confiscated by the police. Gerry said “he should still be here with us.” It struck me so deeply that he really should. His brother is in his seventies, still rocking out, inspiring the new generation. I was so immensely grateful to play with him that night. I left feeling so enriched, but still wished that Julius was around to have a drink with me and share his thoughts on music and life.

This is why a retrospective on his work is so paramount. It is the only way that we can begin to seek justice from an unjust system that failed Eastman and Strayhorn.


Q: How has the juxtaposition between Strayhorn and Eastman’s music with your own text helped you navigate potential similarities between the two? 

JB: It’s been an interesting journey to study these two men and their life stories. In doing so, I have found that there is very little that has changed in terms of how society views Black queer men of color. Speaking for myself, I still feel that Eastman’s radical approach to reform is still necessary in order to gain the attention from those who make the decisions about what gets programmed in American classical music, even today. There are many more like Strayhorn who have worked in near obscurity.

There is a lot that resonates within their personal lives and my own. I’ll share more on that in the recital. As for the similarities, in spite of the very challenging yet fulfilling lives they lead, they created masterpieces. I resonate so much with this and aspire to do the same.

Billy Strayhorn with Duke Ellington. Photo Credit: David Redfern / Getty Images

Q: There are also interesting contrasts. With both Eastman and Strayhorn, recognition for their contribution to American music came late but for different reasons. Strayhorn was often overshadowed by his close association with Duke Ellington, seen as the ‘silent composing partner’ in the background of Ellington’s sweeping popularization of Jazz. The contrast with Eastman is interesting; whereas Strayhorn’s music received widespread appreciation even though his role in producing it was not widely known in his lifetime, Eastman lived a more theatrical public life of performance and provocation and yet his music was almost forgotten. How do these contrasts in public/private persona inform your thoughts about each composer or your ideas about their music?

JB: Eastman’s music is very bold, much like his personality. People say that he was a bold person. While Strayhorn’s music is laden with themes of suppressed desire for romance, a longing for yesteryear. Granted, he was from an earlier time period where the punishment was much greater for practicing homosexuality, and opportunities for colored men in general were few and far between. I wonder how bold he would have been if he were working in a more progressive time period like Eastman. I do want to note that both artists were working and living in very important cultural shifts in this country.

I think both personas represent two very important aspects of what it means to be a queer person of color working in show business. You are either like Strayhorn, toiling in the background, reinventing the wheel, curating American culture as we know it. Or you could be unapologetically queer and black in the forefront and be made a martyr for it, like Eastman.

There is within both of their works, a great range of emotion that goes beyond what I’m presenting within this recital, of course. Eastman’s “Stay On It” comes to mind, it’s very hopeful and electric. With Strayhorn, I will say that it was a challenge to find vocal music that wasn’t a little melancholy. A lot of his vocal music is about love lost, but that could have just been the popular style at the time, and remains to be a common song writing theme. In a way his music remains incredibly relevant—there will always be heartbreak. After sitting with his music for some time, I really got the sense that he was a man who was always yearning for something more. I resonate with this. Strayhorn has a wide range as well to be very clear, he wrote musicals, operas, and of course swinging tunes like “Satin Doll” and “Take The A Train.”

This is what inspired the idea for me to share short stories inspired by my love life. I thought it would be an interesting way to advance the form. In my experience, I have not observed the marriage of jazz and queer short stories in this way.


Q: Aaron, both Strayhorn and Eastman’s music seem to offer different potential for improvisation. The Eastman scores seem especially challenging; much of his music is laid out as sketches of melodic material, with a lot of space for the performer to interpret the direction, duration, and overall shape of the music. How have you navigated that as a solo pianist interpreting pieces that were intended for multiple instruments?

AD: Essentially, I try to absorb the sound world of the compositions as they were originally intended, and from there try to capture the themes, textures, and overall feeling of the piece in a solo piano reduction.


Q: Let’s talk about Eastman’s role as provocateur. Two pieces on the program have deliberately provocative and deeply offensive titles. These titles appear to (on the surface) have little to no relationship with the music itself which seems to maintain a conscious abstraction from the meaning and implication of words. The Eastman works on the program are also all instrumental, so they provide no explanation in musical terms. Are these titles Eastman’s way of creating what Roland Barthes called “the bait of meaning”? How do you interpret or rationalize the composer’s intentions here?

JB: I think this question is very important. Eastman definitely meant for this title to be inflammatory. David Borden quotes Eastman in “Gay Guerrilla” by Packer and Leach, as the n-word being “that which is fundamental.” It’s funny to think that this piece was written in 1979 and remains equally controversial today. I think that while the title is uncomfortable, it celebrates Eastman at his most brilliant state. In choosing to title his compositions with the n-word, he forces audiences to come face to face with our irrational hatred, thus make way for healing.

Even today, there are very few composers who would dare challenge the administrators in classical music, by writing pieces such as “Evil N.” Although his approach is often provocative and unflinching, I believe this is the sort of bravado needed in order to bring true reform to American classical music today. Even today his work alarms people, it makes them sit up straight, really pay attention, and spark a dialogue. His compositions require us to consider the woman, the negro, the “gay guerrilla” – a term he coined, meaning someone who is someone who is sacrificing themselves for a point of view.

“Gay Guerrilla” for example inspired me to take a radial, almost extremist approach to writing my own opera libretti. To me, his approach, while sometimes shocking, lude or crass, is highly effective. I personally like to compare him to the “Malcolm X” of composers.


Q: What do you hope audiences walk away with after this concert?

JB: I hope audiences walk away from this with a few things, including:

  1. A deep sense of reverence for the legacy these two artists.
  2. A sense of urgency.
  3. Curiosity in terms of finding new ways to extend the lineage of these two men.
  4. Insight into the black queer sensibility.
  5. I hope they walk away enlightened.

Eastman once said that he hated Louis Armstrong but he loved John Coltrane, he felt that Coltrane was the one to say “I’m not here to entertain you. I’m playing this for myself.” I hope they get a sense of this energy.

Joshua Banbury and Aaron Diehl perform at The Phillips Collection on January 15. To purchase livestream tickets, visit:

Questions: Jeremy Ney & Thomas Hunter

Interactions of Color and Tone: A Conversation with Composer Catherine Lamb

Berlin-based composer Catherine Lamb’s music inhabits different worlds. Inspired by visual art, geometry, phenomenology, and the relationships between tone and color, sound and physical space, Lamb’s conceptual approach mirrors that of sound artist Maryanne Amacher’s notion of “immersive sonic architecture.” On Sunday, January 30, musicians Conrad Tao and Jay Campbell present the DC premiere of Lamb’s new work, The Additive Arrow, co-commissioned by The Phillips Collection. The Additive Arrow draws from concepts within the work of visual artist Paul Klee, a central figure in the Phillips’s permanent collection, and the most influential artist of the 20th century in terms of the relationship between music and painting. Director of Music Jeremy Ney explores different strands of Catherine Lamb’s work in this Q&A. To reserve virtual tickets click here.

JN: Perhaps more so than any other early 20th-century artist in the Western tradition, Paul Klee articulated the musical impulse in visual art. The legacy of his work and thought is as keenly felt in musical circles as it is in visual. I read that German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen told French conductor and composer Pierre Boulez that Klee was the best composition teacher you could wish for, which even now feels like a provocative idea. The point was, as I understand it, that Klee’s writings and teaching sought to illustrate universal principles that were applicable beyond visual arts, and at least in music there appears to be something fruitful in engaging with Klee’s ideas and principles. What does that mean for you; do you look to visual inspiration in direct or indirect ways?

Catherine Lamb. Credit: Rui Camilo

CL: I am often utilizing terminologies that are used amongst visual artists. Terms like saturation, intensity, vibrancy, opacity, transparency, additive, subtractive are in my list of common words when describing how to approach musical concepts. I took Alber’s term the interaction of color, for instance, and replaced color with tone. That has become an ongoing research project for me for the past ten years. I love reading the writings of visual artists like Bridget Riley, to imagine how she thinks about color combinations and their phenomenological intensities. I’ve been obsessed with artists’ interpretations of the spiral since it is such an elemental shape that also holds validity in our own biological structure, being the very shape of our inner ears. So I’ve been looking to artists like Louise Bourgeois, Ruth Vollmer, and Alma Thomas. Or I’ve thought a lot about Charles Gaines’s trees with numbers. Chiyoko Szlavnics, who often composes directly from her own drawings, mentioned to me once she imagined the differences between different pencil strokes (their granular qualities and thicknesses) in relation to orchestration.

For me, it’s the conceptualizing on the human condition in relation to form, shape, and structure that brings me to visual artists when describing certain relationships with sound. I don’t do a direct translation but I think there is something deeper that connects all of us, even when we describe something as a certain color, before we name it, it’s something else. Before it’s named it’s in an atmospheric state. That something else is the link to music for me. Perhaps it’s simply being a human in the world and sensing things. So in that way, I find all kinds of artists inspirational to composition, as the fundamental sense of what composition itself is. I think music is separate from anything else, but composition is linked to all other art forms.

JN: The name of your piece, The Additive Arrow, comes from a specific concept in Paul Klee’s pedagogical sketch book. What does this concept mean for you and how does it guide a sense of movement within the piece?

Paul Klee, The Witch with the Comb, 1922, Lithograph with graphite pencil inscription, 20 7/8 x 16 3/4 in., The Phillips Collection, Gift of B. J. and Carol Cutler, 2006

CL: When I first observed Paul Klee’s arrows I thought they were a little silly. But I was fascinated by them at the same time. Later I realized they were quite explanatory for what he was trying to do. I thought he was trying to paint motion itself. When reading his Pedagogical sketchbook, that definitely seemed apparent from his first description of a line, “an active line on a walk, moving freely, without goal,” then a little later, “an active line, limited in its movement by fixed points.” He’s first talking about the motion of energy before he gets to the body and bone and structure. This is a lot like how sound functions. The vibrating energy moves the body and matter. He goes through dimensionality, then structure. Then back to the air and the earth (like reverberating planes). Then the pendulum, the spiral, until finally he gets to the arrow. He asks, “How does the arrow overcome the hindering friction? Never quite to get where motion is interminate. Revelation: that nothing that has a start can have infinity.” So in a way I tried to compositionally draw a conceptual arrow going into one direction and see if that were true, if a sense of infinity was not possible? The generating motion being initiated from Jay’s lowest two strings on his cello, reverberating together on a plain, are always directing a kind of attention that is slowly rising. Sometimes it is imagined, and sometimes it is real, depending on how you’re feeling, or how explicitly the interactions are sounding. Conrad’s synth is the arrow, always guiding it. I also wonder, how much of that motion of energy becomes layered in our memory and adds together as it rises? How dense can it get in our consciousness?

JN: The musical paradigm was a current through most of Klee’s work, and certain borrowed musical language that crops up in painting, like ‘polyphony’ is largely attributed to Klee. At the same time, where Klee laid claim to the territory of music, he also believed that painting could exceed it. He writes thatpolyphonic painting is superior to music in so far as the temporal element has more of a spatial quality. The sense of simultaneity emerges in an enriched form.” For Klee the superiority” here is the notion that the totality of a painting, in all of its polyphonic layers, can be recognized at once, rather than after the completion of a sequence, as in music. How do these ideas of temporal and spatial forms operate in your music, and in particular within The Additive Arrow.

CL: I disagree with Klee but that’s because I think music is (maybe) the highest art form! (I don’t like hierarchical statements like the one I just made, I cringe at myself for writing it, but I do often believe this to be true!) For me, music has the ability to consistently encompass a total space (both inner and outer) like no other art form I’ve experienced. Sitting in a James Turrell sculpture outside at dusk or dawn, looking up at the open square in the sky, and sitting in those transitional states comes very close to it, but not quite. Recently I got lost in reading every Octavia Butler book I could find, and I was reminded by how infused as a reader one can step into another total dimension, which is very particular. Then ever so rarely, a film. Like every Apichatpong Weerasethakul film I’ve watched. What is that?

Maybe it comes back to the thing discussed earlier, that there is something so elemental to the human condition that pulls us/directs us towards another experience that is both inner and outer at the same time. Both inside us and outside us, expanding who we are. So basic as that.

Back to Klee, maybe we shouldn’t make such statements as to whether a painting is better at accessing space and dimensionality than music or vice versa. Clearly he was interested in the motion of energy in space, and I believe he played the violin? Maybe he could access it better in painting than he could on the violin. This could be true for him and him alone, as all subjective things tend to be.

So back to my own subjectivity: I have a different understanding of polyphony as it relates to music, and it exists everywhere.

JN: In your compositional process, do you ever engage with specific artworks? I’m wondering about the participatory nature of your music, how the lines between audiences, performer, exterior, and interior are constantly interacting. Does the very particular visual syntax of a single image provide a conceptual frame for you, or is that a potential limit on the different levels of interactions that you seek?

Catherine Lamb. Credit: Rui Camilo

CL: I will speak briefly about my recent work with spirals. I came to them because of their totally banal, recurring, omnipresent nature. I started to take a picture every time I came across one during the day but it quickly became too overwhelming of a task! Now my son is constantly pointing them out to me. Many artists of all kinds seem to have a connection to the spiral. Louise Bourgeois said it well:

“The spiral is an attempt at controlling the chaos. It has two directions. Where do you place yourself, at the periphery or at the vortex? Beginning at the outside is the fear of losing control; the winding in is a tightening, a retreating, a compacting to the point of disappearance. Beginning at the center is affirmation, the move outward is a representation of giving, and giving up control; of trust, positive energy, of life itself.”

I started to ask myself, is this a shape that is completely inherent to being a human being? Because it is the shape of our DNA pattern? Our inner ear? Our fingerprint?

Mani Kaul describes the compositional state a dhrupadi musician inhabits when interpreting a raga. He calls it the inner path of a spiral.

My friend Laura Steenberge once gave a lecture on Carl Jung. At one point she projected on a large screen behind her hundreds of found images of real things that looked fantastical. Strange sea creatures, unusual cloud formations, ice crystals, all quickly flashing in front of us in succession. At the end she asked us if we would collectively dream later on?

I’ve more recently tried a variation of this technique in a lecture with spiral images of all kinds. When you observe a similar shape over and over and over again, what does that do to the observer? Is this shape universal?

But let’s take it away from the visual for a moment and go microscopic. I’m wondering if in various dimensions, we are a spiral, so that the image of one isn’t even necessary. There’s no translation there from image to sound, they are coming from the same structure.

Arthur Dove, Red Sun, 1935, Oil on canvas, 20 1/4 x 28 in., The Phillips Collection, Acquired 1935

A New Perspective on the Rebuild of Our Steinway

In December 2015 we posted a video by H. Paul Moon about the painstaking rebuild by PianoCraft of our Steinway piano that lives in the Music Room. This major and sorely needed renovation of this precious instrument used lumber from the Sitka spruce, wood that is highly prized by musical instrument makers. This work was transformative, and our rebuilt piano has been played by many renowned and emerging pianists through our fantastic music program.

A recent front page Washington Post story caught my eye. It featured a large two column above-and-below-the-fold color photo of a Sitka spruce in Alaska’s Tongass National Forest on Prince of Wales Island off the pan handle of the state of Alaska. The reporter was Juliet Eilperin. Her story was not about Steinway pianos but rather about the tug of war between the market value of a 180-foot sitka spruce as timber (around 6,000 board feet of timber worth around $17,500) and its value as climate change mitigator capturing carbon dioxide (holding around 12 metric tons of carbon and another 1.4 tons in the roots). The article states that the Tongass National Forest “holds the equivalent of 9.9 billion tons of CO2–nearly twice what the United States emits from burning fossil fuels each year.” Since the US purchase of Alaska from Russia in 1867, the value of the forest has been exploited to produce lumber, paper, rayon and other products. Preservationists have fought the building of roads and the pollution of paper mills. The indigenous Haida and Tlingit nations, drawing on an old and deep understanding of the resources of the forest, rivers, and ocean, argue that the old growth forests are essential for the landscape’s survival and also for their way of life. What are the solutions? To protect the forests by selling carbon credits to oil and gas companies, to foster a more balanced economy that depends not on industrial scale timber industry but on an intricate balance of Alaska native and small operator lumber companies, tourism, fishing, craft, and many other small industries.

This thoughtful, in-depth article brought me a new and unexpected appreciation of our beautiful Steinway piano. From now on I will marvel not only at its physical beauty, its auditory excellence, and of course the compelling art installed in the Music Room, but also at the magnificence and importance of a 500-year-old Sitka spruce to the ecological health of the planet and to the holistic well-being of the native peoples of Alaska. I will also pay tribute to the Piscataway and Anacostan native peoples of our DC region, on whose unceded land we live and work.