John Eaton: Involving Audiences in the Sweep of the Music

John Eaton: Involving Audiences in the Sweep of the Music

John Eaton
Interview Excerpt #1

FRANK J. OTERI: A lot of the concerns that you have as a composer and as a musical thinker are very near and dear to my own musical interests: the whole notion of microtonality as a direction for music, working with electronics, vocal music, new approaches to opera… Let’s start by talking a bit about microtonality. Most of the music that you’ve written incorporates, to some degree, to a very strong degree, the use of quartertones, yielding a 24-note equal-tempered scale. What led you to writing music in this scale with this system?

JOHN EATON: Well, let me, first of all, say, that as a microtonal composer, I’ve never been much of a theorist. My mind doesn’t work that way. I use whatever gets the job done. I haven’t been very much involved with any kind of puristic approach, nor have I been particularly concerned with finding a system that I could teach, or a system that would be consistent. I’ve just simply used what I’ve used because of the great, great expressive potential of it. And although I’ve composed a lot of chamber music and a lot of orchestral music, I am fundamentally interested in opera and I believe that more than anything else, microtonality extends expressive possibilities, particularly for the voice. Believe it or not, I think it was George Avakian who said to me once that he thought the microtonal approach was the one that held the greatest potential for the future, because it makes the greatest challenge to performers, composers and listeners.

FRANK J. OTERI: In your essay for the Kenyon Review, you talk about why you use quartertones in the operas… Our standard practice 12-tone equal tempered scale has major and minor thirds. And many of us think of the major third as being happy, and a minor third as being sad. In the essay you said that there are 3 other possible thirds that you can have in the quartertone system, and these could convey additional emotions. Anybody’s who’s familiar with blues has some understanding of what a neutral third sounds like, which is somewhere in between a major and a minor. It isn’t happy or sad, it’s sort of expresses a resigned state … it’s almost like the pitch equivalent of the perpetual present tense of ebonics: "I be here. I be doing that." You know, which is a sense of tense that exists in non-Western languages, in western African languages, or in Chinese, in a variety of languages that don’t really conceive of time the way the Western world has up till recently. It’s a curious parallel considering that other cultures have been using smaller intervals for millennia.

JOHN EATON: Yeah. Absolutely. And the way that I got involved with microtonal music was, frankly, through jazz. I supported myself all during my 20’s as a jazz musician, or rather, as a performer, of both contemporary music and jazz. And they’re just so expressive there. I mean, the 7th, the flat 7th which approaches the 7th harmonic, very often comes off sounding like the cry of a frightened child. It has a kind of purity, a kind of, also, anguish involved, you cannot get in any other way. You ask why quartertones? Well, actually, I think quartertones are intervals that almost every performer I’ve met hears, and hears as distinct intervals. And I use microtones very often as a point of departure, that is, sometimes I will want something being a quartertone flat just simply to bring people down to the pure 7th harmonic, so that I create a sheet of sound, a solid sheet of sound, which the pure 7th chord is. Again, purely for expressive reasons, this is a very, very powerful sonority to have in your armament, to be able to use, it expresses things that nothing else that I can think of does.

FRANK J. OTERI: Well, in terms of your experience as a jazz musician, what instrument were you playing?

JOHN EATON: I play piano, and then I did some jazz things with early synthesizers. I played the SynKet. But mostly in jazz my instrument was the piano.

FRANK J. OTERI: Which is an instrument that doesn’t really use microtonal intervals. It’s fixed in terms of the intervals it can play, although anybody who’s listened to a Thelonious Monk record knows that most of the pianos he played on were not perfectly “in tune.” That’s one of the things I enjoy the most about his records, that slight irregularity of the intervals which is a harmonic parallel to his irregular rhythmic phrasing.


FRANK J. OTERI: There was a recording a couple years back of the piano rolls of Jelly Roll Morton that had been mastered and done up, and they did it on this perfectly in-tune piano. It sounded wrong to me. I doubt he would have ever had access to such a perfectly tuned piano, so it wound up sounding like something was missing. There’s a flavor, a nuance, and certainly, you know, people who are in the period instrument movement will tell you there’s a real difference when you perform Baroque music in mean tone, or you when you perform Bach in Werckmeister III tuning. There’s a whole degree of nuance that’s completely gone when you’re stuck in 12-tone equal temperament.

JOHN EATON: When you modulate from C to E major: it’s like the heavens opening up, it’s so totally different.

FRANK J. OTERI: Which was part of the way those people were conceiving of music. Now, we’re talking about quartertones, it’s so interesting, because I think the notion of quartertones in the equal tempered scale grew out of this, this notion of extending chromaticism. In the early 20th century, quartertones were the path not taken. We’d reached this point where chromatic tonality reached a threshold, and Schoenberg had this idea that you would go into atonality and then serialism, well he hated the word atonality; he called it "pan-tonality." But there was also this other possible path. Alois Hába had this idea that the future of music lied in extending chromaticism beyond the 12 notes. And Ivan Wyschnegradsky in Russia, who was a disciple of Scriabin, said that if you take these chords that Scriabin used in the Poem of Fire and you do quartertone alterations to them, you’d get some really interesting extended harmonies. You’re opened up this whole other palette. And Julian Carrillo here in North America, in Mexico, you know, was doing stuff, calling it the "Thirteenth Sound" as early as 1895. And certainly Charles Ives was coming up with some of these same ideas during his backyard experiments with Hans Barth in Connecticut. But none of this ever took off as a movement in music the way that 12-tone music did.

JOHN EATON: Well, I think the reason that it never took off, if I can say so, is that as gifted as all these composers were, for them, they were dealing not so much with necessities as with possibilities. And I think now, for many composers, myself and yourself included, the use of microtonality has become a necessity. We need it to express what we hear. We need it to express what we feel. We need it to capture the energy of contemporary life. And I don’t think that that was true, I mean, in the case of Hába, yes, he was really just trying to extend chromatic possibility. I think that’s true of Wyschnegradsky, too. With the exception of, I mean, Carrillo, I feel that he was very interested in the part of the overtone series where it goes to a whole tone scale. And most of his early music is involved in with sort of tuning up whole tone scales, out of impressionism. Ives, to me, the most interesting microtonal piece I know is the 3rd of his quartertone piano pieces, actually, because in that, he really begins working with microtonal scenarios.

FRANK J. OTERI: And the harmonies of those chords are just glorious. In the first piece the quartertones seem mostly ornamental and the second piece is really just playing off the fact that there are 2 pianos tuned a quartertone apart. They really become one in the third piece. Yeah.

JOHN EATON: It really has a microtonal sonority. It’s interesting, when I began working, and for years I was working with quartertones, I didn’t know any of the music of any of these composers. I knew them as names, I’d read about them, but the access to their music was very limited. For instance, the three quartertone pieces of Charles Ives, I had just finished writing my Microtonal Fantasy, and I played it for the music librarian at Yale. And he said, "Oh, do you know the Charles Ives microtonal pieces?" And I said, "No, not at all." And he sent copies of them over to me, and I actually did the European premiere with another pianist, of the Charles Ives quartertone pieces on the same program that I did the Microtonal Fantasy.


JOHN EATON: So I got to know those pieces, so to speak, after the fact.

FRANK J. OTERI: So then, who was the model?

JOHN EATON: There was no model except jazz.

FRANK J. OTERI: But who was using quartertones in jazz except for Don Ellis?

JOHN EATON: Well, all performers were inflecting pitch.


JOHN EATON: Not actually using quartertones. Why I hit on tuning the 2 pianos a quartertone apart, I don’t know, except to say that I’ve always used quartertones as a point of departure. I want to open up all sorts of doors. Well, you know yourself in the symphony orchestra there’s as much of a difference between a G# and an Ab as hopefully in my music I want there to be between an A quarter sharp and a B flat quarter flat. The B flat quarter flat might imply, for instance, the 7th, the pure 7th harmonic.

FRANK J. OTERI: Right. So you’re not thinking in terms of a rigid 24 equal-tempered system.

JOHN EATON: No. I’m thinking in terms of a point of departure, a field of action for performers to express an expressive need of mine which hopefully the context of music would convey. I remember a performance of my Concert Piece for 2 clarinets tuned a quarter of a tone apart, 2 oboes tuned a quarter of a tone apart, and flute, which, you know, which at least in 1964 or so when I wrote it; the flute was the instrument that was most adaptable to the playing of quartertones because of the work of Gazzelloni and various other people… The first performance of that was done by my good friend William O. Smith at the University of Washington. And he called me up after the first rehearsals and said "We’re using these tuning devices and we just can’t seem to get passages right." I said, "No, look, don’t work on it that way. Play it. Play it over and over and people will hear what the pitches are supposed to be doing."

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