John Eaton: Involving Audiences in the Sweep of the Music

John Eaton: Involving Audiences in the Sweep of the Music

John Eaton
Interview Excerpt #3

FRANK J. OTERI: Now, we talked quartertones: I know that in Myshkin you also used sixth-tones.


FRANK J. OTERI: The 36-tone system was used to convey the moments of delirium. And, if my memory serves, those intervals were used mostly in the electronic parts. Were they used by the rest of the orchestra as well?

JOHN EATON: They were occasionally, and occasionally there’ll be a sixth-tone in a vocal part. Myshkin was an outgrowth of an idea I had of contrasting sixth-tones, which give you a pretty pure 7th harmonic, with quartertones. And, you know, it’s bound up with the whole poetic idea of the opera. You know, Myshkin himself, the main hero of The Idiot of Dostoyevsky, never actually appears on stage in the opera.

FRANK J. OTERI: Instead the audience… we are Myshkin.

JOHN EATON: Instead, all the action takes place within the mind of Prince Myshkin. And when he’s in the state of idiocy, it’s a very pure, very naïve state, which is, actually written in sixth-tones… Delirium is a misleading term, it’s more to capture this sort of simplicity of vision, this naiveté that Myshkin in this pure state has, and then as he gets involved in reality, I use the harsher dissonances of the quartertones.


JOHN EATON: And the two forms, that is, the sixth-tones and the quartertones, weave in and out of each other. The electronic music and the instrumental music, depending on Mishkin’s state of mind, depending on whether he’s an observer, or generally a kind of troubled observer of things that are occurring outside of him, hence I use legitimate staging and, or more ordinary staging, and quartertones, or whether, as I say, he’s in this very pure state, in which I use the sixth-tones and use kinetic lighting sequences, things bathed in light, and so on. And so the reason for using the sixth-tones in Myshkin was very, very much an expressive one. I had also used them in Danton with the harps: the harps were tuned a sixth of a tone apart. And that came from a piece of mine called From the Cave of the Sybil, which was for flute and 9 harps, tuned in sixth-tones, three on each, three normal, three a sixth-tone higher, three a sixth-tone lower, and flute, which again was playing quartertones… When I lived in Rome, there was a sound I heard when I crawled in by the back entrance to the cave of the Sybil. I was with the archaeologist Frank Brown, who is a wonderful human being and a great friend of mine. We suddenly came into a huge chamber, and one could almost see the Sybil there, in this case holding a flute. One heard this incredible sound in this cave, and of course, it was the lapping of the Meditteranean on the cliffs. And it was a sound that I tried to capture for years after that, and finally, I think that I got it in this particular combination of instruments with this particular tuning. Most of the way through the piece the harps are playing with eraser brushes…Nevertheless, you hear it in this movement of slowly changing intervals.

FRANK J. OTERI: When you’re writing a piece, do you compose with an instrument in mind, and are you hearing all these intervals?

JOHN EATON: I hear in my head what I write, but I always play things out very, very slowly on two pianos tuned a quarter of a tone apart. And sometimes I’ll test things electronically.

FRANK J. OTERI: With the sixth-tones?

JOHN EATON: With the sixth-tones I do test things electronically. The SynKet had three keyboards, so it fit very naturally in that. But you can work that out very easily on modern synthesizers.

FRANK J. OTERI: Do you feel audiences can hear it?

JOHN EATON: Oh, yeah. I want the audience to be so involved in the sweep of the music. Because after all, music, of all the arts, is that that most begins with the fundamental basis of the universe itself. It begins with energy. And it begins with the very tissue of human and even natural experience on every level. I find, for instance, in teaching, I find when my students get off, it’s normally because they’re forgetting that fact, you know, that music is and has to be totally involved.

FRANK J. OTERI: Now, do you do ear training with students?

JOHN EATON: No. I don’t have any students who are microtonalists. Well, there are a few who have used it occasionally, but if they don’t feel the same necessity to use microtones that I do, they shouldn’t be using it.

FRANK J. OTERI: Do they at least get to learn to hear those sonorities?

JOHN EATON: Oh, sure, if they’re interested, you know, I let them into my studio all the time and they mess around on the pianos. At least they have great fun doing that. [laughs]

FRANK J. OTERI: Now, I remember an incendiary comment I read years ago by Donal Henahan, who’s long since retired as the chief music critic of The New York Times, who was ranting against doing unusual operatic repertoire. I think it was a column in response to some performance of a piece that hadn’t been done too frequently, and he wrote something like: "What’s next? Are they going to dig out the operas of Hába? Goodness knows, we hear out-of-tune singing in Verdi and Puccini all the time over there." And at the time I thought, this is exactly the wrong perception of what this music is trying to be. But to some people who hear it, who don’t know what it is, they say, oh, this is out of tune. Of course, it’s even more in tune, it’s more aware.

JOHN EATON: Let me pick up on that in a moment. First of all, I want to get back to the audience. I want the audience to be so swept up in the human experience of my music, or spiritual experience that I feel my music is involved with, that they don’t notice microtonality per se. In other words, I think that if an audience listens to something as an experience of how in tune it is or something of that kind, that the whole point is somehow being missed, and the music has failed. Of course, in opera, you involve the audience so much with action and with what’s happening on stage, that the music is the center of that action. Nevertheless, one doesn’t have time to think, oh, well, this is a quarter tone sharp, or flat.

FRANK J. OTERI: Right. Well, in terms of hearing structures, the Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara, whom I met when I was in Helsinki a few years back, said something that I’ve really taken to heart ever since. He said, I use 12-tone rows here and there, but I don’t want you to hear them. That’s the skeleton of the piece. You look at people: everybody has a skeleton. There are too many pieces that are walking around that are skeletons parading as people. These things are very under the surface, and if somebody wants to go probe and find them, that’s all well and good, but if music doesn’t strike you as an emotional experience, then it’s not working.

JOHN EATON: Yeah. I really write for people, as I said at the very beginning. I’ve never been very interested in the systematic development of microtonality for the simple reason that it’s not important to me. It’s not important to me to found a school; it’s not important to me to have disciples. What’s important for me is to communicate the vision that I have in sound with the audience that’s hearing it. And it really seems to. My music really seems to do that, if left alone. Not if somebody is lecturing people on what they should be hearing! Of the things I’ve found that performers can seize upon, hear and reproduce immediately, one is quartertones. Almost every performer I’ve worked with hears them as distinct intervals after a little bit of exposure. The second is just intonation, because when they go directly to just, it’s just a question of sort of removing beats and having pure intervals. And any performer can do that.

FRANK J. OTERI: Do you work with just intonation?

JOHN EATON: Oh, in Danton and Robespierre, Robespierre’s music is constantly in the just intonation system. And Danton’s music, on the other hand, is in a quartertone system where each note has the most possible relationships. In other words, each note has a multiplicity of function, to use, I guess, Brahms‘ term that comes from this very rich palette. Whereas the music of Robespierre is meant to be just the opposite. It’s meant to express a very pure vision, which, the more it becomes involved with reality, the more dissonant it becomes. Just as, when you modulate away from C, in a just intonational system, the triads become more and more out of tune. It howls.

FRANK J. OTERI: Right. And you have to keep adding additional pitches if you want to have the chords stay consonant…did you restrict yourself to just 12 pitches?

JOHN EATON: Well, in Danton and Robespierre I imposed a 12 limit. I used a scale which was tuned so that the further it would move away from C the more dissonant it would become.

FRANK J. OTERI: Howling wolves.

JOHN EATON: Yeah. Just like Robespierre’s vision before he becomes involved with reality, the more, the more of a monster he becomes.

FRANK J. OTERI: That’s such an interesting application of just intonation, a real contrast with someone like Harry Partch, who I think is a very interesting person to contrast with what you do, because so much of what he was concerned with was the stage. And I want to get back to Partch when we talk about the notion of the Eaton opera with the musicians and singers all being one on the stage. This is a notion that is very new but has an antecedent to some extent, I think, in some of the things that Partch was doing in the ’50’s and ’60s, where the actors, the singers, the dancers are all one.

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