John Eaton: Involving Audiences in the Sweep of the Music

John Eaton: Involving Audiences in the Sweep of the Music

John Eaton
Interview Excerpt #2

FRANK J. OTERI: You know, it’s interesting, when Hába wrote his quartertone opera, his one quartertone opera…

JOHN EATON: The Mother.

FRANK J. OTERI: Yes, The Mother… He had special quartertone clarinets built. There were special instruments that were built which had extra keys and did certain things. But since the ’60s, with Bruno Bartolozzi‘s book New Resources for Wind Instruments, there are fingering systems for quartertones for the flute, for the clarinet, for the oboe, for the bassoon, every woodwind instrument, for saxophone… Every woodwind instrument in the orchestra can play quartertones if the musicians would learn the fingerings.

JOHN EATON: However, I have to correct that a little bit by saying that some of the quartertones, unfortunately, some of those fingerings change the color substantially of woodwind instruments. Also, there aren’t nearly all of them — a few quartertones which are just not, which are just really difficult to get. Usually they can get them by lipping or something of that kind. But, so, for instance, the work that Robert Dick did in getting the quartertone flute is very, very valuable. The idea of adding an additional valve trigger to the trumpet is something that’s really needed.

FRANK J. OTERI: Yeah, a trumpet can’t do it otherwise. In fact, I noticed in your scores that you’ll have quartertones written for the woodwind parts, but there is a score written for French horns, and you have 2 French horns that were tuned so that one of them is playing the quartertone difference — the other 12 notes — one was a 12 equal and the other was a quartertone apart.

JOHN EATON: Well, even in The Cry of Clytaemnestra, I really went out on a limb but it was on the advice of one of the greatest horn players in the world, Phil Farkus, who was teaching at that time, we were both teaching at Indiana University. And I tuned the F division of the horn a quarter step lower than the Bb. And boy, did this ever set up a whole bunch of possibilities. And I found a few horn players who were willing to take on that challenge. And who did actually tailor the fingerings that they used to which horn they wanted the note to be played upon.


JOHN EATON: And of course it produces all kinds of runs that wouldn’t otherwise be possible, trills, tremolos, it really was great fun. [laughs] Of course, I must say, that’s one of the things about getting involved with microtonality and other experimental techniques is the fact that you’re working with performers, and on the whole, performers are really great people. They love to accept challenges, and extend challenges. They’ll say, "you know, you did this, but you can also do this."


JOHN EATON: Just the same, you know, as I’ve said, Phil, meeting in the hall one day and saying, you know, I love the way you use the horns in but you know, you could also just do the same thing with one horn. Of course, that’s an idea that wouldn’t have occurred to me in a thousand years.

FRANK J. OTERI: That’s the positive end, but then there’s also the negative end. You write a piece, you send it out into the world. And then all of a sudden you hear it back, maybe you didn’t get to work with these musicians, and not everybody has experience playing with these intervals, and not everybody understands the notations, there’s no accepted norm for how to approach this music. What do you do?

JOHN EATON: Well, I think of the late quartets of Beethoven, people were sort of playing them at half-speed, not really understanding what Beethoven was after, probably for years, you know. In fact, I sometimes wonder if we still do. [laughs] But, that’s part of the fun. You also will occasionally get a performance back that’s so stellar and that’s better than you had imagined yourself, people have really applied themselves. Because, let’s face it, any clarinetist who has worked very, very hard on his instrument, or any bassoonist, knows much more about their instrument in an intimate and expressive way that I ever would, you know.

FRANK J. OTERI: You said that there were certain quartertones that don’t work on woodwinds. Have you ever written things and then have the player come back to you and say, well, that’s just impossible?

JOHN EATON: Well, it happens all the time and usually it isn’t. [laughs] Usually, it’s just a question of they haven’t worked on it hard enough or in the right way.

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