John Eaton: Involving Audiences in the Sweep of the Music



John Eaton
Interview Excerpt #4


JOHN EATON: Well, you know, I have the greatest respect for Partch as a human being. We sometimes think that the only virtue that matters for the artist is courage. And certainly had no one had more courage than Harry Partch. On the other hand, I have to say that there is a kind of rhythmic, and textural and orchestral simplicity about Partch’s music that sometimes seems utterly banal to me. I seemed to me to be kind of like ‘a thinking man’s Orff.’

FRANK J. OTERI: Yeah. Well, you know, that’s a very interesting analogy, and I think what both Orff and Partch were doing, and to an extent, what the minimalists have done in the last 30 years, there’s this one notion of looking at the future of music and saying, okay, this is an evolutionary process, we’re going to go to the next step with this. And then there’s the other notion of being an iconoclast or wanting to return to core roots, believing that things have gotten too out of control, too complex, too alienating, we need to go back to the source. And these two notions are very different approaches to being avant-garde. Partch, with his 43-tone scale and all the instruments he built, was not trying to extend European notions of harmony and melody, but to overthrow them. [laughs]

JOHN EATON: That’s the bright side, and I can see that. But do I dare to introduce the dark side especially as far as Orff’s music is concerned. And that is, the thing that was so unsettling, I mean, I was in my teens during the Second World War, but the thing that was so unsettling about the Nazis was the fact that they were so involved with the banal, simplistic vision of life. And Orff, of course, was a favorite of the Nazis, Orff and Werner Egk.

FRANK J. OTERI: His music I really don’t know at all…

JOHN EATON: I once heard an interesting argument between Sessions and Dallapiccola about who was the worst composer of the 20th Century. And I probably got this wrong, but I think that Dallapiccola said Orff and Sessions said Egk. Maybe it was the other way around, but anyway, they brought up examples of the 2 people’s work and, in the course of the conversation, they changed sides! [laughs]

FRANK J. OTERI: [laughs] That’s interesting. You know, there are tons of great composers and great artists who have nefarious political associations throughout history. I mean, certainly, you know, Wagner, who’s at the other end of the scale, is quite far from being saintly in his views. Or Mussorgsky

JOHN EATON: But I think that the kind of banality and primitivism that is being espoused is something that, as I said, has a great deal in common with fascism. And also has a great deal in common with the worst parts of the corporate society that we live in here in the West, which I tend to say I’m not a great fan of. [laughs]

FRANK J. OTERI: You know, one thing I will say, though, and I see a common thread between Partch and Orff, and your own work, and I want to get into this notion, because I want to talk about opera, this notion of music as a ritualistic celebration, and certainly, you know, I think Orff’s strongest works… you know people only do Carmina Burana over and over again… but his strongest works were the operas he was writing late in his life: he did an opera based on Antigone, and another opera based on Oedipus, and they’re extremely effectual pieces of ritual theater. Partch was also very interested in Greek mythology and reinterpreting the important primal myths for our time as ritual theatre. You yourself, with Clytaemnestra and Antigone and the Androcles story, these are all ritual topics based on Greek myths… The ancient Classical tradition is a very strong interest of yours as well.