John Eaton: Involving Audiences in the Sweep of the Music



John Eaton
Interview Excerpt #12


FRANK J. OTERI: So much of your music is concerned with that extra element. Because instrumental music is abstract and you can’t really put a direct meaning to it, so much of your music is operatic, or at least vocal in orientation, or has a narrative. I know that you’ve also written symphonies, you’ve also written completely abstract music… Do you feel that when you write completely abstract music that the standards are different? I mean, the audience has to latch on to it in a different way.

JOHN EATON: Well, I don’t know. Well, the very best operas are the ones written by the very best composers. Without question. Which doesn’t mean that a great composer can’t write a bad opera, if he has a bad enough libretto, you know, or if he sort of wanders in. I mean, that happens again and again. But nevertheless, it’s music ultimately that matters in opera, and opera is a piece of music reaching out as a vision in sound reaching out to the world. And that’s what these operas that I’ve written, these romps for instrumentalists, were. I want to give them fun, you know, but I wanted them also to get vitally involved with what they were doing on every level of their being, not just on the level of musical and technical competence.

FRANK J. OTERI: But a symphony certainly can’t have that outreach. It’s much more rarified… Being able to listen to a symphony requires a certain level of attention. I think it’s harder to experience than an opera because an opera is engaging your eyes as well as your ears. Opera is also engaging your sense of comprehension. You’ve written a Mass, in fact you’re one of the few experimental composers of our time to have written a Mass, which not only engages the eyes, the ears, and meaning, but it is also participatory, in fact it is part of a religious ceremony. So, ideally, the audience is doing more than listening. What has been the response to it?

JOHN EATON: Well, it’s been very interesting, especially the Credo. In the Credo, there are three different elements. There’s a soprano soloist who takes the part of the Credo. First of all, the problem with the Credo, for every composer is there’re all those words. You know. Bach splits it up into a large number of sections. Stravinsky just gets through the words as fast as he can, you know, by using a kind of rhythmic recitation in that part of his Mass, which I think has always been my favorite piece of Stravinsky. But, the point is, there were all those words to deal with. So the approach that I took was that the singer would take only the words which would be important, or would be significant, at least in my eyes, to a individual today. Not necessarily totally involved, but an individual who wasn’t necessarily totally involved with religion. Like, for instance, "I believe in one God." Or "Christ was crucified." You know. The parts of the Credo that are really key to us today…

FRANK J. OTERI: And the rest you left out?

JOHN EATON: Of her part. Then the clarinetist intones the entire Credo in Latin. I mean, this is a dogmatic part, into the clarinet. And it sounds with echo, so it sounds like it’s coming from a large medieval cathedral. This is the, again, the dogmatic part of the Mass. Then I have the audience actually, or the congregation, read the Credo. But as they do it, this was first written in 1970 or so, so the way I got a loop was have 2 tape recorders, one of which played back, and one of which recorded. So the audience’s voices come back at them in this endless loop, and they realize, as they’re reciting the Credo, how devoid of meaning it is for them anymore, and it mocks them, in a way. It says, do you really believe, it posits, do you really believe what you’re saying, you know? Or is this just something you go through, you know?

FRANK J. OTERI: Going through the motions.

JOHN EATON: And the reaction to that, when it was performed, it was performed in the National Cathedral in the electronic version in Washington. It was performed here in St. Peter’s Church in New York before they built Citicorp. And it was performed in Christ Church in Boston. And the reaction in New York was the most interesting. Somebody came back and actually tried to strangle me because of what I did to him in the Credo. I mean, it was, it produced a very, very violent reaction on the part of the audience, when they became part of this musical piece, a direct part of it. The performance in Boston was one of the finest performances I’ve ever had of anything in my life. People were totally involved in the piece in a positive way. And the performance, unfortunately, in the National Cathedral was riddled by the fact that our singer had developed an allergy to cats, and the doctor gave her cortisone, which stimulated the vocal cords.

FRANK J. OTERI: Yikes.

JOHN EATON: It was terrible.

FRANK J. OTERI: Considering you’ve gone back to the piece again recently, and you’re reworking it, or you’ve reworked it…

JOHN EATON: For vocal ensemble, soprano soloist and clarinet again.

FRANK J. OTERI: Is there a performance coming up sometime in the near future?

JOHN EATON: Well, there’s a CD which is coming out this spring by the Contemporary Vocal Ensemble of Indiana University, who have done it several times in Chicago. They’ve also done it in Bloomington, and in Israel, where it was very, very well received.