John Eaton: Involving Audiences in the Sweep of the Music



John Eaton
Interview Excerpt #11


FRANK J. OTERI: I want to talk a bit about concerts, concert life and the static nature of going to a concert and watching people just play instruments, and how this sort of developed into your notion of the Eaton opera, and the productions you’ve been doing with the Pocket Opera Company in Chicago. What are those operas trying to do and how effective have they been with musicians and with audiences?

JOHN EATON: O.K. Well, it turns out there was another Pocket Opera Company in San Francisco which does completely different kind of things, which I was unaware of when I gave it this name. But nevertheless, it expresses so well what we do that I wanted to keep the name, and so I just made it "of Chicago." But at any rate, for years I went to concerts of new music, and I saw performers sweating to get each note, each nuance, right in scores, in which they had absolutely no comprehension, it seemed to me, very often, of the human dimensions trying to be expressed. And so I thought, one way of bringing this about would be to write… I wouldn’t so much call them operas, because operas are so involved with singing, which these pieces aren’t so much. Some of them are. Some of them bring that in almost as an added dimension. I’d rather call them something very unpretentious like Romps for instrumentalists, you know, because they give instrumentalists the chance to be involved with a human context or the difficult music that they’re playing. And that was the whole basis of what you’ve called the Eaton opera, what I was trying to do. I mean, there certainly were precedents for it. L’histoire du soldat, you know, would immediately come to mind.

FRANK J. OTERI: And when I was watching these works I actually thought of Partch, as I’ve already mentioned, because of the multiple role of singer, the players are also the singers, they’re also the dancers. It’s a holistic approach to performance that goes against the Aristotelian notion of, you know, one person, one function.

JOHN EATON: Right, right. Well, this, again, I have to say, I didn’t know, I’d never seen a performance of one of the Partch operas when I undertook this. So I think they’re less involved, or many of these pieces are less involved with narrative than what I wanted to try to do, because I really did want to get the performers involved with story elements, with acting, with being somebody. And so, in that sense, calling them dramatic works for instrumentalists comes close to it. Again, you know, I wanted to keep a non-narrative approach to theater involved as well. But, again, I sort of feel that there’s a tendency to throw the baby out with the bath too often, you know, people think that electronic music can’t have anything to do with the long traditions that have been established. Both vocal music and instrumental music, just as many people in Bach and Handel‘s time thought one had to write instrumental music and forget about all these vocal values, now that the strings had really matured as a section, and so on. But composers like Bach and Handel knew we were working in a total continuum, and were willing to do whatever got the job done which, like I was saying at the very beginning, is a more practical approach. This is what got the idea going, and I found that I needed some real subjects, because if people… or subjects which were on a kind of extended plane of reality, because then you could accept, as you used to in the singspiel, the fact that people went from song to speech…

FRANK J. OTERI: And an audience could also accept somebody whipping a horse and that horse is really a cello if the story is Don Quixote.

JOHN EATON: [laughs] Right.

FRANK J. OTERI: And, yeah, I mean, Don Quixote’s deluded, you know, he could very well see somebody playing the cello and think that. [laughs]

JOHN EATON: Yeah, yeah. So I have tried to choose subjects which are on a kind of surreal plane of reality. And Peer Gynt being the first of these… I mean, the choice of Peer Gynt was really deliberate, because it never fit into the canon of realistic drama. In fact, Ibsen intended it to be read, not really done as a stage play…

FRANK J. OTERI: And it’s in verse. It’s the only one of his verse plays, in fact, that still is performed widely nowadays.

JOHN EATON: Yeah, yeah.

FRANK J. OTERI: So, you know, the idea of having a play in verse, you know, is so rarely done now in modern theater, and that’s, you know, one step further away from the notion of theater as ritual. And in a way, these pieces, operas, or dramas, or romps… whatever you want to call them, bring the ritual element of theater back. Because it’s not so much about method acting as it is about a sort of incantorial acting; it’s symbolic acting.

JOHN EATON: Well, you know, I remember… something that’s always stuck with me, a statement by probably my most influential teacher outside of the realm of music, which was the poet/critic Richard Palmer Blackmur (To whom I dedicated in memoriam the “Songs for R.P.B., the first piece to my knowledge to use live performance on a modern electronic sound synthesizer.) He said once that Dante was the greatest poet in Christendom because he took more disorder and brought it to order. And I feel that the question of scope is a terribly important one in music, especially today. We need to open up the future. We also need to keep everything valuable from the past. We need to have as broad a range as possible, because life itself has that kind of range. We no longer live in simple villages in Germany, with a small plane of reference, like Bach did. And yet, the human values that Bach’s music embodies are still vitally important. So, to me, it’s a question of not being afraid to embrace the tradition but also not being afraid to dive into boiling oil on occasion. [laughs]