John Eaton: Involving Audiences in the Sweep of the Music



John Eaton
Interview Excerpt #10


JOHN EATON: I think one of the greatest enemies in the use of technology, however, is the idea that if you use the technology you have to throw other things out of the window. I remember, for instance, with electronic music, that in the first days, when I was first experimenting or working around with it, the idea was, you put things on tape [and] you could finally get perfection. And this created so much absolutely dull, lifeless, electronic music. Because the fact is that music can only be made, it seems to me, by the total engagement of a musical sensibility, a very highly trained musical sensibility with musical materials in a way that there’s resistance. And, of course, this involves, to a certain extent, I think, by necessity, performance. It involves a trained sensibility capturing completely the materials that one is using and absorbing them, and then being able to use them as a performer and as a composer. The same thing was true of television. People felt if you did something for television, you could never show a human face, you know, unless it were somehow being constantly modified or so on. Not that one shouldn’t use all of those technical advantages, but the essence of what’s being communicated shouldn’t be technology.

FRANK J. OTERI: Right.

JOHN EATON: It should never be technology. It should be something that involves the human spirit in a varied and profound way, I think.

FRANK J. OTERI: One of the great tragedies of electronic music is this very notion: the technology keeps changing and therefore, there is a perception that anything that isn’t the latest thing is obsolete. And, you know, I love analog synthesizers a lot more than I love digital synthesizers. And I like the sounds on them and I like playing around with them. But, you know, if you write pieces for an electronic instrument… I’ve talked to a number of composers about this, and a lot of composers are reluctant to write for electronic instruments if they are getting works performed that their own ensembles are not doing, pieces that are going out into the world, because chances are that 5 years from now, someone’s not going to have that instrument, and then what do you do?

JOHN EATON: Well, that certainly happened to me with the Syn-Ket. There’s a whole body of my work that is fundamentally, at the moment, unperformable. Although, if this new instrument that I worked on with Robert Moog has all the sensitivity of the Syn-Ket, and more, and that can certainly do it. But the approach with those early analog synthesizers, whether you work directly with the sound, and even though it was sometimes very awkward, you did things like turning dials, which is the most unmusical gesture I can imagine, you know, It’s like trying to thresh wheat with a surgeon’s scalpel. Even though that was the case, nevertheless, one could deal with any element of the sound that you wanted to much more than you can with most commercial digital synthesizers… You know, you have so much sensitivity, so much control over the sound, and you can only put that control to certain very rudimentary places. You can’t get into the very core of the sound itself. Now I think that’s going to change, and I think it’s going to change very, very quickly.

FRANK J. OTERI: Last year I went up to Cambridge to hang out with Tod Machover at the MIT Media Labs. And one of the big things they’re doing up there is trying to develop more expressive interfaces, whether it’s a jacket that you can rub and play music on, or a ball that you touch in different areas and you get different expressive things coming out of that. We’ve been so busy trying to make electronic interfaces that operate the same way as acoustic instruments, we’ve rarely questioned that there might be better interfaces for electronic instruments than the ones that work best for acoustic instruments. We’ve been stuck with the keyboard interface but maybe that’s not the best one for electronic instruments.

JOHN EATON: Well, let me see, I can think of 12 places where the human body comes out in something that can command human nuance. The mouth, the tips of the fingers, and, well… [laughs] There’s a reason why there have always been keyboard instruments. And that is these wonderful points where the human body comes out. You know, ten of them, and a whole technique is already there of being able to use them. Whereas most of the stuff, when you put on a jacket or put on a glove, you’re using muscles that you’ve never used for any purpose like that. And they’re not trained, and they can’t be trained, I don’t think. There’s a reason why acoustical instruments were built to engage with the embouchure or built to engage with the tips of the fingers. And that is because of the way the human body is made. It has nothing to do with the difference between acoustic instruments and electronic instruments. If music is to embody human nuance, and is to involve itself with any kind of depth of musical expression, I’m afraid, you know, we’re stuck with certain kinds of designs.

FRANK J. OTERI: Well, you know, it’s interesting, though, because, to me, still, the single most expressive electronic instrument is the theremin.

JOHN EATON: But that again is using the hands.

FRANK J. OTERI: But in a very different way than…

JOHN EATON: But, you see the way Clara Rockmore articulated phrases. She used her fingertips.

FRANK J. OTERI: Right, right.

JOHN EATON: I don’t think the theremin has ever gotten the kind of expressive potential that the violin or that the piano has, which the ondes martenot in a funny way, has, you know, simply because, on a theremin, you’re not meeting any resistance.

FRANK J. OTERI: Right.

JOHN EATON: I’ve often thought if they build a theremin so that you felt shocks if you moved into an electronic field, you could gauge where you were better, you know.

FRANK J. OTERI: Hopefully not painful shocks…[laughs]

JOHN EATON: It requires a lot of effort, and as a result, you can’t get the kind of complexity that you can with an ordinary musical instrument. I mean, there’s, there’s… I don’t think I’ve ever heard double or triple stops on a theremin.

FRANK J. OTERI: Well, no. It’s monophonic, you can’t.

JOHN EATON: And it can only be monophonic, because there’s no resistance, there’s nothing you can fit. These very sensitive points where the human body, you know, reaches out to the world, let’s say. There’s no place you could, you can put those, you know, nothing that you can feel their engagement.

FRANK J. OTERI: So given this notion of the imperfection, the limitations of nuance in electronic instruments, what made you get involved with electronic instruments? It’s certainly a very important part of your significance in our musical history. You were one of the first composers to work with synthesizers, and you were a sounding board for Robert Moog.

JOHN EATON: I can’t take that kind of credit. I think I was first to do live performances on a modern electronic sound synthesizer. I’ve looked and sort of found that that was the case. But Moog had worked with other composers before we met.

FRANK J. OTERI: I think Alwin Nikolais was the first to buy one of his synthesizers.

JOHN EATON: I know that Donald Erb wrote an early piece for a microtonal electronic keyboard.

FRANK J. OTERI: Oh, wow. A Motorola scalatron?

JOHN EATON: It was a scalatron kind of keyboard. But, as I remember, it didn’t have the potential for responding to human touch that even the Syn-Ket had.

FRANK J. OTERI: So, getting back to this notion of human touch, you know, what made you get involved with this?

JOHN EATON: Well, I wanted to become involved with the humanization of electronic music, because I was always interested in the question of performance and of how one could use electronic music to express what human beings wanted to express, rather than being about the medium itself. To say that I was the first to do this is ridiculous because I’m sure other people were trying, Oskar Sala for instance…

FRANK J. OTERI: Right.

JOHN EATON: But I’ve never heard a note that he’s played. I’ve always wanted to do that, you know.

FRANK J. OTERI: A new CD of Sala’s mixtur trautonium music just came out this year.


John Eaton & Robert Moog
John Eaton (r.) with Robert Moog
Photo courtesy of The University of Chicago Chronicle

JOHN EATON: A lot of that was just unavailable. But it seemed to me that what was very important was to make instruments that could receive human nuance from a performer, and therefore get composers involved with that side of things. So the ultimate vision was this keyboard that I collaborated with Moog [photo at right] on for something like 30 years, which reads out the precise extent the key is depressed. That is, it could be used for velocity like a piano keyboard. It could also be like a tractor organ, whereas if I applied the volume you could make crescendos, diminuendos, and so on. And of course it doesn’t have to be applied to the volume at all. It reads out your front-to-back position of the surface of the key. So it gets involved with violin kind of technique. There’s also a large area on the side of the keyboard in which you have more room to exercise that control, more range to exercise that control. It reads out your front, your side-to-side position on the surface of the key. It reads out the amount of area your finger will cover. And finally, it reads out the pressure you would put on a completely depressed key, after touch. So these five parameters are completely different for each key, or can be completely different for each key. You don’t have to use all five at the same time, which is a real tour de force of performing. I can’t think of any kind of performing that quite has that kind of complexity. Each figure of each hand could be playing a different volume level, I mean, it’s extraordinary what you could do, and how you could change things also by moving around, like a clavichord, which is where Ketoff got the idea of doing the sideways motion for the Syn-Ket. But there’s also the front and back motion which gets you involved in string technique. So it’s very difficult to play, but I think this is a very, a big advantage of it. I think instruments should be difficult to play and difficult to master, because in mastering musical materials, by overcoming difficulties, you’re involving yourself with them, and you’re making them your own, in a way that almost can’t be done, well, in any other way that, for the moment, I can imagine. The Eaton-Moog Modal Touch Sensitive Keyboard is a project that still isn’t finished because there are 2 more to come. One’s been made. And then, of course, I’ve got to get it interfaced with something that allows me to really get inside of the sound, to really work with the sound in interesting ways. Everything you do is human nuance. I once put a MIDI scope on it, and saw that it took me 10 minutes to read out what I had done in something like 2 or 3 seconds, you know. And of course, the voice, in singing a Verdi opera, somebody once said, is communicating something like 6,000 bits of information per second.